20 years ago, glitter bout graced Garden

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a sparkling, glittering crowd befitting the occasion that assembled the night of March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.

Many of the men came dressed in tuxedos and full-length mink coats. Many of the women wore slinky evening gowns, adorned with bangles and beads.

Frank Sinatra was an accredited photographer for Life magazine, sharing a ringside view with Apollo astronaut Alan Shepard, David Frost, Joe DiMaggio and the Kennedy clan.

"It was probably the most glittering night ever held in Madison Square Garden," said Harry Markson, former director of boxing at the Garden. "Unlike most Super Bowls, this lived up to everything expected and well beyond it."

It was the "Fight of the Century," exactly 20 years ago before a crowd of 20,455 and millions who watched on closed-circuit television, the first of three classic battles waged by Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

The interest in the rare match between two unbeaten heavyweights -- Frazier, the reigning champion, and Ali, a heavyweight king returning from political exile because of his stand against the Vietnam War -- far exceeded the usual blood lust of hard-core fight fans.

In a sense, the fight was a morality play.

Ali, who had adopted the Muslim faith, cast himself as an anti-establishment hero, a glib showman with a giant ego whose unusual speed and artistry had made him the Nureyev of the ring. Frazier was portrayed as an honest, blue-collar worker who let his sledgehammer fists do all the talking.

"People want to see me whipped because I'm arrogant, because of the draft, because of my religion and other reasons I don't even know about," Ali said. "If I win, a lot of people all over the world will be angry. And if I lose, a lot of people will be crying, too."

Jerry Perenchio, who once caddied for Howard Hughes and became a successful theatrical agent for Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Jane Fonda, realized the tremendous financial potential of this long-awaited heavyweight showdown and persuaded Jack Kent Cooke, then owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team and Los Angeles Kings hockey team, to invest $4.5 million in promoting the match.

"This fight is pure entertainment," Perenchio said during the initial news conference at Toots Shor's restaurant in New York. "It's like 'Gone With The Wind.' You could show it in a supermarket and people would come to watch it."

Ali was more graphic. "This is the biggest event in the history of the planet Earth," he said.

It was the kind of event everyone wanted to promote. Through the winter of 1971, Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, sifted through offers from all the over world -- $400,000 from London, $600,000 from Tokyo, $1 million from the Houston Astrodome, $2 million from NBC.

Here, Markson, who, at the age of 82 is still a boxing adviser to the Garden, picks up the story.

"We thought we had the inside track," he said, "because back in the '70s, before the gambling casinos got involved with big-time fights, the Garden was still the mecca of boxing.

"We figured we had Ali, and all we needed was Frazier's signature. I took a train with [matchmaker] Teddy Brenner to Philadelphia to meet with Joe and his manager, Yank Durham. Yank tried to impress us by meeting us in a chauffeur-driven limousine. He spent the whole time talking on a car phone, which was rare in those days.

"When we got to Joe's gym, he and Yank pulled out yellow legal pads. I told them, 'I'm prepared to offer you $1.25 million, the same as Ali.' And they started scribbling furiously.

"I pretended to look at the fight pictures on the wall, but I really wanted to sneak a peek at what they were writing down.

"What I finally saw was both amazing and touching. They simply didn't know how to write down a figure that high. They kept getting the commas in the wrong place. To this day, whenever I see Joe, he laughs about it."

Markson felt he had a deal until he returned to New York and got a call from Frazier's lawyer, Bruce Wright, who told him Perenchio had just doubled the Garden offer.

The good news for Markson was that both fighters agreed they wanted the Garden as the site, if the Garden would pay a $500,000 site fee. The fighters ended up earning $2.5 million each for the fight.

The fighters prepared in dramatically different settings. Ali trained at the woodsy camp he had built himself in Deer Lake, Pa., where giant boulders bore names of his previous victims.

Frazier, who once worked in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse, trained in his Broad Street gym below the railroad tracks.

Frazier stuck to his knitting while Ali became the fight's principal salesman, selling the match as pitting a black militant against an illiterate "Uncle Tom."

Gene Kilroy, former coordinator of Ali's camp and now marketing director for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, said: "Years after they both hung up their gloves, Joe was still ticked off at Muhammad because of the way he made fun of him. I said,'You two should be good friends. Look at all that money he helped you make. And Joe would say, 'Yeah, but you don't know how much abuse my kids took in school, fighting over all those names Muhammad called me. That hurt real bad.' "

Frazier got his revenge the best way he knew how, beating Ali by judiciously using a plan formulated by Eddie Futch, a trainer hired by Durham to fine-tune Frazier, who fought in the hellbent style of Rocky Marciano.

"I watched him fight Oscar Bonavena," said Futch, now widely regarded as the world's premier fight trainer. "Frazier was standing up straight and got knocked down three times by right hands. He was lucky to win. I convinced him to fight out of a crouch, bobbing and weaving.

"I knew that if Joe used that same style, Ali would have to try to catch him with an uppercut. He'd have to stand up, and then his whole right side would be exposed. I told Joe, 'Don't slip and counter. Just come underneath and throw the left hook.' And that is exactly what happened. He dropped Ali in the 15th round with a hook square on his jaw, and that sealed it.

"A lot of people felt Joe didn't have a chance to beat a boxing master like Ali. I was determined to prove them wrong. That still ranks as my most satisfying victory in over 50 years as a trainer."

Dundee remembered the fight most for its bizarre atmosphere. Because of his fanatical supporters, Ali had to abandon his room hTC at the nearby New Yorker Hotel and spend the day of the fight sleeping and eating in the Garden press room.

"It was like he was the 'Prisoner of Seventh Avenue,' " Dundee said. "He slept on a cot and had to call out for food to be delivered. He never left the joint the whole day, and I think it wore him down mentally."

Ali, true to his code, had predicted a sixth-round knockout before the fight.

Ali guessed wrong. No longer a dancing master, he was forced to engage Frazier in a savage battle tinged with touches of comedy when, tiring, he tried to buy time with 'rope-a-dope' maneuvers or playfully jiggled his fist in Frazier's sweaty face.

Frazier refused to be frustrated by the gamesmanship. He purposefully stuck to his plan and gave the brash Ali an "old-fashioned butt-kicking."

Ali skipped the post-fight news conference, his jaw badly swollen but not broken. But when he finally talked the next morning, he offered no alibi and chastised well-wishers who still called him "Champ."

"I never thought of losing and never thought I could," he said. "But when it happens, you have to give the the man his due. But there are more important things to mourn than Ali losing. I'm not crying, and my friends shouldn't cry."

For Frazier, there was only jubilation.

"That was a giant steppingstone in my life," Frazier said this week. "It was like being reborn. I was the center of a great happening.

"I let Ali do all the talking. I just got the job done. Ali said his God had appointed him to take over. But the Lord had a different plan for me. He said, 'I'm going to send down some smoke for you.' And I used it to consume Ali that night."

There was talk of staging a gala 20th anniversary celebration for Ali-Frazier I at the Garden, but the idea was scrapped because of financial demands.

"Sure, I could do a repeat with Ali," Frazier said. "We could just jump around the ring and swap some punches for old times' sake. Yeah, let's rumble again."

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