“The Fight of the Century”—or even, simply, “The Fight.” On March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali stood opposite each other in the ring in Madison Square Garden in New York, both were undefeated. Both were also claiming the title of World Heavyweight Champion.
Ali had won the title back in 1964, but it was stripped from him when he refused to join the U. S. Armed Forces in 1967. Frazier stepped up into his place, and was recognized officially as the World Champion. So the stage was set.
Before a blow was exchanged, each fighter knew he would be walking away with $2.5 million. More than 20,000 people packed out the Gardens, with 300 million more watching a live broadcast in 50 countries, the largest TV audience to date. And the battle had taken on more significance than a boxing match. Ali was seen as a an anti-government icon, and Frazier adopted by the conservative establishment.
The fight ran all 15 rounds. Ali dominated early on, but after the first third he was visibly tired. Come round 15, Frazier put Ali on his back. Despite staggering to his feet for the rest of the round, Ali lost. The judges unanimously gave the win to Frazier—a judgment generally seen as correct.
But not by Ali. He refused to accept defeat. “The white man’s decision” was how he described the verdict.