Before the advent of mixed martial arts, boxing dominated American sports like almost no other pastime, and a heavyweight championship bout was its most revered and anticipated event.
Some championship fights rise above all others. Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney in 1927 and Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling come to mind, but several others have carried the typically hyperbolic moniker of “fight of the century.” No other fight, however, carried the hype, national interest and elan of the the first meeting between “Smokin'” Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in 1971.
Ali, of course, is probably the most famous heavyweight of them all, owing at least in part to his gift of self-promotion. His boxing skills, of course, were legendary as well. After becoming champ as Cassius Clay and converting to Islam, he was subsequently stripped of his title for refusing to report for military duty during the Vietnam War. As of 1971, he remained undefeated.
While Ali was exiled from the sport, the now-vacant title was taken by the mauling, powerful Joe Frazier, who was as quiet and menacing as Ali was gregarious. Ali’s return to title contention was met with unprecedented interest. The fight was held on May 8, 1971 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Countless A-list celebrities attended the bout, and it actually lived up to its billing as “The Fight.”
Ali lost on a 15-round unanimous decision, but subsequently beat Frazier twice, the last time in what has become known as “The Thrilla in Manila.” You can celebrate their first, and most anticipated fight, with this composite of several posters from that era.