Ali-Frazier I: It happened 20 years ago, but it's still an event

April 15, 1991|By Robert Seltzer | Robert Seltzer,Knight-Ridder

PHILADEPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Twenty years ago, they tried to kill each other.

Twenty years ago, they came a few thunderous punches short of their goal.

Twenty years ago, they put each other in the hospital.

My, what a difference two decades make.

Last night, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier attended a black-tie gala at the Hotel Atop the Bellevue, commemorating the 20th anniversary of a night filled with murderous intentions.

They treated each other with warmth, grace and civility -- the very qualities that were lacking when they met for the first time in the ring on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, where Frazier won a unanimous decision.

Ali and Frazier, two men linked in legend, have become warriors without a war -- two men whose confrontations have made them friends, each respectful and admiring of the other.

The two were opposites outside the ring -- Ali, who resisted the draft, and Frazier, who stood for traditional values -- but the bitterness they felt toward each other has eroded over the years.

"It was a significant event in boxing history," said Howard Cosell, who broadcast the 1971 fight. "You had Joe Frazier, one of the most honest, dedicated and exceptional gladiators in the history of boxing, on the one hand. And you had Muhammad Ali, a figure of significant constitutional history, on the other hand. I was there when he said, 'No, no, I won't go. I have nothing against them Viet Cong.' "

If the fight was a happening, so was the gala that commemorated it, albeit on a somehwat less monumental scale. Celebrities in attendance included Sherman Helmsley, star of the TV sitcom "Amen;" Jim Brown, former great for the Cleveland Browns; and ex-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Even Asad Amin Ali, the 1-month-old son of Muhammad and Yolanda Ali, was there.

"It wasn't the highlight of my career," said Frazier, recalling his epic battle with Ali of 20 years ago. "But I think it was the highlight for a lot of people who were there. Everywhere I go, people remember that fight. That's all they want to talk about."

The interest went beyond the gritty boundaries of the boxing world. At the Garden that night, the celebrities may have outnumbered the regular fans, and the minks may have outnumbered the polyester jackets.

"You know when I realized it was a happening?" asked Angelo Dundee, who trained Ali. "It was right before the fight was about to start. I was climbing up the ring, and I heard someone call my name. It was Frank Sinatra -- with a camera. A camera. He was taking pictures for Life magazine."

Dundee could not make it to the gala Sunday night, but others involved with the fight could -- including Arthur Mercante, who refereed the bout.

"At the time, I didn't think the fight would become this huge," Mercante said. "But this particular event has gained so much that I think it has become the most significant sporting event in history."

Ali, asked what he remembered the most 20 years later, resurrected an old and cherished line.

"It was in the third round," he said. "Joe hit me so hard, my kinfolks back in Africa felt it."

Ali, who graciously accepted the defeat, even though he felt he had taken enough rounds to win, no longer feels he won the fight.

"No," he said. "My jaw told me I lost the fight."

Ali, whose chronic nervous condition does not allow him to talk above a whisper, proved last night that he needed no mouthpiece.

At a brief news conference before the dinner, he grabbed the microphone away from Marvis Frazier, the son of the former champion, who was trying to speak on behalf of Ali. In doing so, Ali flashed the hand speed that was such a marvel in the ring.

"I can speak for myself," Ali said, smiling.

Ali and Frazier received $2.5 million each for their violent encounter 20 years ago.

If they had fought today, when pugs with half the talent make twice the money, they might have staged their match at Fort Knox.

How much did they think they would be able to make today.

"Let me check with my lawyer," Frazier said.

Somebody asked Ali if he and Frazier were lucky or unlucky that they happened to come along at the same time -- lucky because they provided fans with so many thrills, unlucky because they took brutal beatings from each other in the process.

"Lucky," Ali answered.

Why?

"Because we were made for each other," he replied.

They certainly were.

And, 20 years later, the world still remembers.

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