Last week was the 50th anniversary of what was called “The Fight of the Century”.
It was the very first fight between the former champion Muhammad Ali, and the current champion Joe Frazier.
Ali was unbeaten at the time, but his title had been taken away due because he refused to enter the draft.
His controversial anti-war stance based on his religious beliefs raised a furor in America.
Frazier, the pride of Philadelphia, had won the heavyweight championship in Ali’s absence and was undefeated as well.
He wanted to show those who were reluctant to respect him with Ali out of action, that he was indeed the best in his class.
Ali wanted to prove that he could regain the crown that was taken away from him.
Many people still remember the classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Hundreds of thousands have read about it.
Many sports confrontations fail to live up to their promise of greatness. This one went beyond the hype.
The story of the fight comes later, because it was far more than a sporting event.
It was about the core beliefs of the country.
As it turned out, because of a series of circumstances surrounding the controversy, I got to know Ali, visited his Los Angeles home, and interviewed him exclusively several times.
My association, at first with members of his legal team, led to my relationship with the fighter himself, which ultimately led to my witnessing the battle on March 8, 1971.
Here’s how it all came about.
On April 25, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, claiming, that as a Muslim he would not step forward.
He first won the title in 1964, fighting as Cassius Clay, but changed his name after converting to Islam.
In 1960, he won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and made his professional debut later that year.
He then shocked the sports world by beating the heavy-favorite, Sonny Liston, in six rounds in February 1964, to become the champion, and his legendary career took off.
His famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong”, still resonates when the subject of Ali’s refusal to be inducted comes up.
Ali was then convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed.
Personally, I am proud to have served in the U.S. Army and vehemently have had nothing but disdain for those who have attempted to avoid their military obligation.
My feeling has always been that the freedom this country enjoys is the result, direct or otherwise, of the courageous men and women who have fought to uphold what America represents.
There is no vacillation here.
In addition, I was more than disappointed in Muhammad Ali’s decision to avoid the draft.
At the same time, the fact that Ali did not receive due process under the Constitution, was wrong.
He deserved to go through the process, which was denied him.
On my sports broadcasts on the local news at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, I defended Ali’s right to due process, and felt his championship had been taken away unfairly.
On the much larger national stage, ABC’s Howard Cosell was the most impactful in taking Ali’s side.
Cosell was the leading, and only nationwide commentator on the subject. I was just a voice in one city.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 in Ali’s favor. Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case due to his prior role in the case as a U.S. Department of Justice official.
But in that city, I had gotten to know the principals in the law firm of Litman and Litman, a husband and wife firm, that took on the case of basketball star Connie Hawkins who had been banned from playing in the NBA because the league said he had been implicated in a gambling scheme.
The Litmans won the case against the NBA which was represented by future NBA commissioner David Stewrn.
The Litmans became part of the Ali’s legal team, and each time Ali would meet with his attorneys in Pittsburgh, they would arrange for me to interview the banished fighter live on my sports segment.
That happened several times, and to say having Muhammad Ali for a live interview was a coup, is an understatement.
That practice continued in Boston at WBZ-TV. Whenever Ali would come to that city, I would conduct a live interview.
So, in a sort of convoluted way, I had a friendship with the legendary Muhammad Ali, who had a keen sense of humor, often at my expense. One phrase, he uttered, on more than one occasion was, “Dick, you’re not as dumb as you look”.
He was a delightful, friendly, and warm guy. What you saw, was the way he was.
As for the fight itself, Ali started strong. Jabs and combinations found their mark on Frazier.
Then, in the third round, Frazier’s renowned and devastating left hook snapped Ali’s head back, and the complexion of the fight changed dramatically.
Ali was on the defensive from then on, nearly getting knocked down from another explosive left hook in the 11th round.
Ali was clearly tiring, and another left hook from Frazier in the15th and final round, dropped the challenger to the canvas.
He got up, and finished the battle, but Frazier had won a unanimous decision.
Ali goes down 1971
The two fought two more times. Ali won them both, including the famed “Thrilla in Manila”, when Frazier, exhausted, failed to answer the bell for the 15th and final round.
Ali later admitted that he was going to throw in the towel, but Frazier did it first.
Muhammad Ali remains one of the iconic figures in sports history. He transcended boxing.
I don’t see how I could have ever gotten to know him, if it weren’t for the twists and turns that in life go unexplained.
I’m simply grateful that our paths crossed.