It goes without argument that the true world of serious heavyweight boxing is long gone. And that takes us back four decades when some of the best bouts thrilled the world over.
On one side was the legendary Muhammad Ali, simply called “The Greatest”, even when he was not holding any title. He had crafted a unique style that wowed fans.
Ali never ducked an opponent. So confident he was that he insulted many of them before the fights. On the other side was Joe Frazier, a former champion who had a dynamite right hook.
There was also Ken Norton, a tough ex-marine who won a 12-round NABF heavyweight title bout against Ali and even broke his jaw on March 31, 1973.
When Ali was in the hospital nursing his jaw, Norton paid him a visit and was photographed looking down on Ali.
The photograph was circulated all over the world and Ali’s team was angry with Norton and his handlers as they viewed this as a mockery.
Ali demanded a rematch and on September 10, 1973, the two men met again at Forum, Inglewood, California. Ali battled hard and won on points after gruelling 12 rounds.
After the fight, Ali looked at the crowd and shouted: “If you don’t believe I am the greatest, ask my corner man”. With those words, Bundin Brown jumped up crying like a child and holding Ali tight. The two were very close and Bundin could do anything to defend Ali.
After Ali regained the undisputed heavyweight title from George Foreman in October 1974, Norton was given a chance to fight for the title and the two met for the third and last time in September 1976 at the Yankee Stadium, New York. Ali won a 15 round decision to retain the title.
Frazier, on the other hand, had three fights with Ali, winning the first on points after 15 fierce rounds on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. The so-called “Fight of the Century” had two undefeated heavyweights and the entire world eagerly wanted to know who the best was.
Ali had launched a comeback in 1970 after a three-year suspension because of refusal to be inducted in the military. Since Ali (30-0) had not lost his title in the ring, some considered him the true champion. After this fight, both Frazier and Ali went to hospital.
Frazier’s second fight against Ali took place on January 28, 1974 in New York City. In contrast to their previous meeting, the bout was a non-title fight with Ali winning a 12-round unanimous decision.
The fight was disappointing with a lot of action being blunted by continuous clinching. Having lost his title to George Foreman a year earlier, Frazier was determined to prove he was still a force. Five months after his loss to Ali, he battled Jerry Quarry in Madison Square Garden, knocking him out the fifth round.
Things had changed within the year as Ali was lined up to challenge Foreman for the world title in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, in October 1974. Against the odds, Ali surprised the world by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round to regain the world title.
Frazier on the other hand was busy building his ring reputation. In March 1975, he fought Jimmy Elis, the man from whom he had originally taken the WBA title, in Melbourne, Australia, knocking him out again in nine rounds. The win again established him as the number one challenger for the title that was now held by Ali.
Ali and Frazier met for the third and final time in Quezon City (within the metropolitan area of Manila), the Philippines, on October 1, 1975: the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali had taken every opportunity to mock Frazier, again and again calling him “The Gorilla” and generally trying to irritate him.
The fight was far more action-filled that the previous encounter, and was a punishing display on both sides under very hot conditions. During the course of the fight, Ali said to Frazier: “They said you were through, Joe.”
Frazier quickly replied: “They lied pretty boy”. After 14 grueling rounds, Frazier’s Trainer, Eddie Futch stopped the fight after Frazier was determined to fight on despite both eyes being swollen shut. Ali won the battle, but said afterwards that was “Closest thing to dying that I know of”.
When Ali visited Kenya in February 1980, I asked him which he thought was his toughest fight. Instead of giving a direct answer, he playfully looked around for anybody who resembled Frazier.
He spotted one and made it look like he was going to have a real fight with a local “Frazier”. Ali admired Frazier and respected him as a fighter. But Frazier somehow didn’t know how to handle Ali’s “insults”.
During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ali was given a special honour to light the Olympic Torch which he bravely did despite his trembling hands due to Parkinson’s Syndrome.
Frazier was bitter to see Ali holding the Olympic Torch. He was quoted in one of the US papers in Atlanta as wishing Ali had fallen with the torch. Several years later, Frazier publicly said that he had forgiven Ali and was no longer bitter.
Broke Ali’s jaw
To understand the intrigues of boxing proper and how organisers of big fights especially the heavyweight division viewed the sport, one needs to go back to 1974. This is the period that brings to focus the characters of Ali, Frazier, Norton and Foreman.
In March 1974, Frazier and top-ranked contender Norton had one thing in common: they both had been brutally knocked out within the past 14 months.
Joe had been slugged to the canvas half a dozen times in his championship - surrendering against Foreman while Norton, in his March 1974 title challenge against Foreman, survived the first round but was massacred in the second.
Most people had assumed that Norton, with his powerfully–built body, and famous for breaking Ali’s jaw, would pack enough power to neutralise Foreman.
It turned to be wishful thinking. Foreman’s powerful hold on the heavyweight title seemed beyond dispute as Ali and his predictable bombast loomed as his next challenge.
The contest, scheduled for September 24 in Kinshasa, Zaire, was widely forecast as another Foreman’s “demolition job”.
The public demanded them both and the expectation of another early round knockout by the monstrous Californian had led to an outpouring of sympathy and impended doom for the “The Greatest”. The fight had to be rescheduled for end of October to give Foreman time to heal a cut sustained during training.
Aura of invisibility
Elsewhere, Smokin’ Joe’s stature within the heavyweight division was clearly on the decline. He had been easily out-pointed by Ali in their 12-round return bout at Madison Square Garden in January, and his 12-round decision triumph over European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner the previous September was not without difficulty.
He did however take one step back by punching old foe Jerry Quarry into submission in five one – sided rounds. Yet Foreman’s savage stoppage of the sagging Frazier had not only shorn Joe of his championship, it had shorn away his aura of invisibility.
Joe was no more than a fair contender for his old title ad a possible stepping stone for a younger title aspirant.
Norton, on the other hand had been given a chance by numerous scribes prior to his championship go with Foreman in Caracas. He had beaten Ali and possessed the physical attribute: punching power and awkward defense to provide George with a difficult proposition.
But it had not yet been revealed that Norton could not stand up to a big puncher. He entered the ring in mortal terror of the champion and how he managed to avoid destruction in the first canto was his only real achievement that night.
The first time Foreman hit Norton, he staggered into the ropes and took a standing eight count. Within a minute, the challenger had been dropped twice more, and Foreman was still the champion.
Although Norton had worked with Frazier as a sparring partner during Joe’s reign, his rise to prominence in the heavyweight division came largely after Frazier’s title stoppage by Foreman.
Another obstacle to Ken’s meeting Smokin’ Joe was the issue of their close friendship and Joe’s stated contention that he wouldn’t fight Norton under any conditions.
It was opined by many in boxing circles during mid 1974 that if Frazier or Norton ever hoped to meet Foreman in a return, a collision between the pair would have to take place.
Of course, they never met and Ali’s October KO over Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa restructured the heavyweight division, making title shots for both Frazier and Norton realities for the following two years.
However, what if the two contenders put aside their friendship, realising that at least one of them would be in line for a championship return with the monstrous Foreman.
What if former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and No. 3 ranked heavyweight contender Ken Norton met at Madison Square Garden in a 12-round championship elimination bout on August 29. 1974.
Joe entered the ring a slim 6-5 favourite over Norton as referee Tony Perez brought the pair together for final instructions before a Garden crowd of 20,103 that included champion Foreman and the ever- loquacious Ali.
That was the far imaginations could bring the two close friends – Smokin’ Joe and Ken. Boxing magazines used to have series of “imagined fights” where Ali would be paired with former heavyweights, most of who fought long before he was born.
The outcome always showed Ali beating them all either on points or KO. Ali could handle any style a boxer brought to the ring.
Figure this: Ali lost to Frazier in 1971. He lost to Ken Norton in 1973. In their rematch, Ali beat both of them twice.
Smoking Joe passed on end of last year due to liver cancer. Ali said during the private funeral that Frazier was truly a great boxer. Norton, who Ali used to call “Ken Nothing” before their fights, is ailing.
Foreman is a pastor and once in a while surprises the world with comebacks – one of which won him a world title aged 45.
Ali has been ailing for over 30 years but can manage to attend major functions, including official opening of Olympic Games as he did recently in London.
They may no longer be in the ring to entertain the world, but their contributions go beyond the sport they so well controlled for decades.