20 years ago, glitter bout graced Garden

March 08, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

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."

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