It’s funny how some events seem to stand out more brightly in the vast warehouse of memories we carry around. It was forty – yes 40! – years ago today that the classic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight championship fight took place at Madison Square Garden. They haven’t made heavyweight matchups like this since … well, since then.
I was not a big boxing fan as a kid, which makes that fact that the Ali-Frazier fight stands out in the memory all the more interesting. I believe it has more to do with the political/social climate back in 1971, my awakening – if you will – to the important events going on around me, and with the development of a 15-year-old’s social conscience as I sorted through and examined my own set of values, beliefs, and judgements.
I can remember a fellow Immaculate Conception (Germantown, Philadelphia) classmate, Timothy Cantwell (another weirdly clear memory) trying to get me interested in the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight in 1964. At the time I had zero interest in boxing, as the predominant sport in my life was becoming Phillies baseball. But Cantwell absolutely LOVED Clay. And you would understand why if you look back over Cassius Clay’s amateur and early professional career. (I wish I could say I remember watching Clay boxing in the 1960 Summer Olympics, but I was only four at the time!) And Tim kept claiming Clay was going to destroy Sonny Liston, a popular champion in his own right.
(At this point, I should explain – in case anyone unfamiliar with the story misses the connection – that Cassius Clay was Muhammad Ali’s name back in the early 1960s.)
My above-mentioned awakening was of a pre-Vietnam War sort. The American portion of that war was just beginning to grow after the French were summarily booted out of the country by the Viet Cong. As the war grew, as young Americans came home wrecked or in body bags, as the over-18 crowd woke up to the realities of an unpopular war, Cassius Clay stepped onto the national stage; took a controversial stand over a contentious war; and then climbed into the ring at MSG to engage in a monumental battle with Joltin’ Joe Frazier.
Not that I was on his side there in NYC.
No, when the renamed Muhammad Ali was arrested, tried and convicted for his failure to abide by military draft requirements in 1967, I was a staunch supporter of our efforts to purge the world of the Communists. I thought the Vietnam War had an admirable goal … Freedom for the Vietnamese people. Fighting to stave off the dreaded Domino Theory. Keeping the world free from oppression. I hadn’t considered the extent of corruption in South Vietnam’s leadership, their own people lacking the desire to fight, or whether the USA had a place fighting in what was essentially a civil war.
I also wasn’t a supporter of anti-war sentiment or groups. I was too young to appreciate the changes going on around me; too rigid in my beliefs that authority knew best; and certainly too young, too timid to appreciate the growing hippie movement. Heck, I was attending Father Judge High School, where “long hair” would not be “legalized” until 1974! Certainly, I hadn’t yet reached the point in my life when I would develop my short-lived liberal tendencies.
Anyways … For those of us who viewed the-way-things-were as the right way – the only way, Muhammad Ali was almost an anti-Christ. And Joe Frazier was the champion of the people … our people!
And it has always rankled whenever I heard Ali describe Joe Frazier as a “house black”, a reference to house slaves in the pre-Civil War South who tended to curry favor with the slave owners. That was patently unfair. And as a result, the Frazier-Ali relationship was for decades a jagged and hurtful affair, after two rematches that – while contentious and nasty – never lived up to the original bout.
I never looked at the Ali-Frazier standoff as anything racial. Ali was simply considered a loud-mouthed troublemaker. He was stirring things up. He was making people confront the issues we wished to ignore. He could talk trash with the best of them. He could rhyme in ways I imagine would embarrass many a modern rapper. Heck, He could even best Howard Cosell!!
No, we just wanted Joe Frazier to shut him the H-E-double-hockey-sticks up!!
Joltin’ Joe did his part that night at Madison Square Garden. A good number of us rejoiced when Frazier sent Ali to the canvass. We smugly enjoyed Frazier’s victory and the chipmunk-cheek look Ali carried with him the next day. And we wallowed in our righteous belief that Ali got what he had coming.
The problem was, Ali was right. Eventually the country realized that war was wrong for all the right reasons. The South Vietnamese weren’t willing to fight as hard to determine their own destiny. Their government was corrupt and inept. And in a day when the war was paid for with the blood of young Americans, who – at the time – were old enough to die far away from home but were still too young to vote (26th Amendment adopted July 1, 1971), it became impossible for many – me included – to support a losing cause.
In time I came to appreciate both Joltin’ Joe, a long-time Philadelphia icon, and Muhammad Ali for the incredible athletes they were. It pains to see what has happened to Ali over the years due to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. Both men are venerable, weakened gladiators who – after years of personal animosity – seem to have come to an amenable understanding.
But that night in 1971 at Madison Square Garden still shines strongly and as brightly as ever!