On March 8, 1971, two undefeated legendary boxers faced off for the first time in what became known as the “The Fight of the Century.”
Muhammad Ali was a former world champion coming into this fight who was in the process of finding his footing again in the world of boxing after a three-year ban stripped him of his belt after he skipped the draft for the Vietnam war. During Ali’s absence, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier became the heavyweight champion after winning elimination tournaments.
Even though both boxers were undefeated and champions, they had two very different strategies in the ring. Ali was known for using his length to his advantage by making the fighters step into him and using force to deliver his punches. Unlike Ali, who used footwork and technique, Frazier focused on charging in and using his crossguard and head movements, where he excelled at the bob and weave.
During the first three rounds, Ali had complete control of the fight, using his jab to his advantage, while Frazier was much slower. Unlike his previous fights, Ali did not dance around the ring. Instead, he made sure to keep Frazier in the center of the ring and beat him with grounded punches.
Deep into the fourth round, Frazier was able to land his first hook that shook Ali and he drove him back into the ropes while Ali tried to clinch. Frazier broke through and was able to throw multiple body shots and while Ali fought back, Frazier was able to land another hook as the round ended to deal more damage.
Round five was the best round of the fight as both fighters had strong moments throughout it. Ali came out throwing, but Frazier was able to avoid the punches. Ali then hit Frazier with a hard right, but Frazier kept coming with his hard left hooks and the fight seemed even after round five.
Round six was dominated by Frazier, with him having total momentum landing body shots especially at the hips. Ali was not able to respond to many of the shots and Frazier easily dominated round six. Ali started strong in the seventh round, but Frazier got more punches to weaken Ali. By the eighth round, Ali was utterly exhausted and Frazier took full advantage. He was relentless in his efforts and continued to tire Ali.
In the ninth, Ali won the round. For the first time all night he was able to back Frazier up, and for a moment it seemed like Ali was going to turn the fight around. The tenth round was even and it appeared Ali was making his comeback. Still, in the eleventh, Frazier hit Ali in what Ali would describe as the hardest punch he ever took and Ali fell to the ground. Still, it was ruled he slipped and later Frazier landed hard shots on Ali’s jaw and stomach, followed by a hook to the head that almost dropped him, but Ali still stood and fought on.
While he struggled in the twelfth round, Ali got his rhythm back in the thirteenth and was able to dance around as he was known to do, tiring Frazier and slowing him down. But in the fifteenth and final round, Frazier dropped Ali thanks to a strong left hook on his jaw, effectively ending the fight. By these last two rounds, both fighters dropped their defense and went all out offensively, and by the end of the last round, Frazier’s eyes were closing from the abuse and Ali’s jaw was swollen, showing how brutal the fight was.
By a unanimous decision, Frazier retained his title as the heavyweight champion, with the judges scoring him 9–6–0, 11–4–0 and 8-6-1, improving his record to 27-0 and giving Ali his first-ever loss.
Frazier didn’t stay undefeated for long though, as 22 months later he was knocked down six times in two rounds against the up-and-coming George Foreman. Ali faced Foreman on Oct. 31, 1974, and shocked everyone when he tko’d Foreman in the eighth round. Frazier and Ali faced off two more times, both times resulting in Ali winning by a unanimous decision.
This fight went down in history as not just the biggest boxing match in history, but one of the most publicized fights ever and one of the most significant sporting events.