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Forty years ago today, I was sitting in my fourth grade classroom at Summit Park Elementary, anxious, excited, and greatly distracted. My mind was not on social studies, math, grammar or my trumpet lesson that afternoon. All I could think about was The Fight — and no ordinary fight it was. Not then, and not now with the tail of history behind it.
That evening, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier began their epic trilogy by entering the storied ring at Madison Square Garden, just two blocks from where I now sit, to battle for the heavyweight title. It was billed The Fight of the Century, and more than lived up to its lofty, aspirational title, both in and out of the ring. The battle itself, a dramatic, hard-fought 15-rounder won by the champion Frazier and his lethal left hook, was a classic battle of polar opposites, in personality and ring styles. But it was almost anti-climactic to the fight’s monumental build up, which was filled with racial, social, religious and political undertones. And the atmosphere at the Garden that night was as electric and colorful as any the iconic arena has witnessed. Frank Sinatra at ringside taking photos for LIFE magazine. Burt Lancaster providing color commentary for the closed circuit telecast. Woody Allen serenaded by the crowd (“Woody! Woody! Woody!”). Literary intelligentsia like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton mingling with the pugilistic ink-stained wretches. A fashion cornucopia of fur coats, tuxedos, platform shoes, and fedoras.
At the vortex, of course, was Ali, a sublime athlete and singular persona, a visionary and social activist unlike any athlete before or since. My 10-year-old, suburban-New York mind was not yet developed or worldly enough to digest and analyze all of the complexities that accompanied Ali and his contentious relationship with Frazier, but I knew that something very special and memorable was happening. It was diverting people’s minds, albeit briefly, from Vietnam, urban decay, and the Cold War. Despite the relative dearth of media and communications channels by today’s standards, the Fight was everywhere, the hype building to a crescendo for months on end.
But this was far more than a sporting event. It was a game changer, a cultural touchstone. Since that night four decades ago, many a boxing match and other high profile event has been dubbed “(Blank) of the Century” and “(Blank) of the Decade,” but few live up to the advanced billing. Yes, the Super Bowl has evolved as the biggest of big events, but you pretty much know what to expect each year. It’s hard to package any one Super Bowl in a time capsule and let it stand on its own as a unique moment in history. It’s a national holiday more than a transformational event.
Looking back at March 8, 1971 through the lens of a 40-year perspective, a few things resonate most tellingly:
The activist athlete: a lost breed. Many contemporary athletes are lightning rods, but rarely if ever for their political or religious activism. More often than not, it’s bravado, outrageous behavior, or criminal activity that attracts attention off the field. Ali, like other larger-than-life athletes of his day (Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe), was not bound by corporate allegiances or fear of political backlash. He was not concerned about how his POV would be interpreted or misappropriated on Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, etc. He had a strong moral conscience and spoke his mind filter-free. He cared not who he crossed – sometimes to a fault, as was the case with his incessant race-baiting of Frazier. As a kid, I was an avid fan of Ali, although I was practically alone in that regard among my fellow Klick-Clacking, PF Flyer-wearing fourth graders. Most kids could not stomach the guy with his loud mouth and over-the-top rants. I was not fully cognizant of Ali’s religious and political beliefs, nor did I care at the time. I just knew he was someone unique, marching to his own beat. Wherever he went, the circus would follow. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. There are many gifted talents in sports today, and many more will follow. But will we ever again see one who has such an impact on and off the field, who is so free to express what’s on his or her mind, who almost single-handedly could conjure up March 8, 1971? Not likely.
The faded aura of big money. About a week before the fight, one of my classmates blurted out that Ali and Frazier would earn $2.5 million each for stepping in the ring, an unheard of sum in those days. My teacher, Mrs. Malden (who apparently was not paying close attention to the news), scolded my classmate for such a fabrication. Impossible, she said. Nobody would and should be paid that much just for a boxing match. How dare you say such a thing! Check your facts next time! I knew my classmate (whose name I can’t recall) was right but could muster the courage to correct Mrs. Malden for fear of being pummeled with a yardstick. Ali-Frazier forever changed the way we view money and sports and gave us a glimpse of the possibilities that lay ahead. The shock value of mega-paydays would slowly subside, continuing throughout the 70’s and 80’s as free agency in team sports and closed circuit / pay-per-view in boxing opened the coffers to riches that would dwarf the haul carried off by Ali and Frazier. If Mrs. Malden is still around, I want her to know that Alex Rodriguez really does make $25 million a year. No joke.
Fight of the Century 2.0 What if Ali-Frazier was held today, with a multitude of informational channels and touch-points that did not exist or were even imagined in 1971? The night of the fight, very few people, including me, saw the event live or were even aware of what was transpiring inside the Garden until late that night or the next morning. There was a level of suspense — which today, qualifies as anything you don’t know for more than 20 minutes. My only lifeline to the bout was occasional updates on 1010 WINS via my transistor radio. Until the fight was rebroadcast on Wide World of Sports, you simply had to use your imagination. What a quaint notion. Today, the reach and frenzy of information about the event would be ratcheted up several degrees, blow-by-blow, in real time and around the globe at a dizzying pace. Then again, what isn’t? Events from the historic (revolutions in the Middle East) to the mundane (Justin Bieber haircuts) qualify as big, if not transformational. Ali-Frazier in 2011 would be a global, all-encompassing, real-time explosion of hype. Nonetheless, more people would still care about American Idol, Charlie Sheen and Glenn Beck. The fight’s place in history would not be frozen in time as it is now. Its effect would be diluted, over-hyped and commercialized. Ali’s social conscience and Frazier’s raw authenticity would be compromised and distorted. But hey, it’s really a moot point because the storyline created by these two iconic figures, set against the backdrop of enormous cultural and social change in our country, cannot be replicated in another era.
The demise of boxing and the heavyweight brand. For much of the 20th Century, boxing was one of the most popular sports in America and the Heavyweight Champion was among the most recognized public figures in the world. By the early 70’s the sport was well into gradual fade as a sporting and cultural institution. But when the stars aligned as they did on March 8, 1971, the sport and its gladiators, especially the heavyweights, still had the ability to transcend the ring in a very meaningful and lasting way. If my mother and fourth grade teacher were talking about it, you knew it packed a punch. True, there have been many so-called super fights since then – Ali-Foreman, Holmes-Cooney, Leonard-Duran, Hagler-Hearns, Tyson-Holyfield. But none could match the relevance and staying power of Ali-Frazier I; none could be regarded as a seminal moment in modern American history. Today, Manny Pacquiao earns far more money than Ali or Frazier could ever imagine. He’s a global icon, a man with a passion for political and social causes. But when he fights, fourth graders are preoccupied by their text messages and iPod’s, not by how he’ll fair against Shane Mosley. And their teachers won’t blink or whack you with a dry eraser if you mention that Pacquiao earns tens of millions of dollars for his efforts. As for the heavyweight champion of the world? Go ahead, name him – any of them. If he walked through Grand Central Station in his boxing trunks, not a head would turn. Guys like Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Mike Tyson could jolt an entire planet with a clenched fist or a spoken word. No more. Heavyweight Champion is now an irrelevant brand, especially in the USA. Who would have imagined such a thing 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago? The reasons are far too many to address here, but it’s a sign of just how much the sporting and cultural landscape has evolved.