The Fight (1974 USA)

The FightAt its best (which was long ago) boxing is the great white shark of sport. For ominous build up and sense of theatre, there is nothing quite like it. For heavyweights, them with the heaviest punch, the danger is magnified. And of the heavyweights, the greatest man of them all left us today and this is my tribute.

Despite losing the decision on March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali’s amazing will to throw everything at Frazier early and later, to survive the big knockdown to finish the fight on his feet, was a testament to his deep character. His grace in defeat afterward won over many new fans as well. Despite not regaining the title again until 1974, he became the People’s Champion here, which was even more important to folk everywhere. This grainy, rare, underrated documentary shows off Ali at his best.

There were a number of “superfights” throughout the 20th century, but only one fight deserves the distinction of being called The Fight of the Century- and this was it. Fifteen rounds of toe-to-toe action by two of the best heavyweights to ever lace on a pair of gloves. Both men were at the height of their game. The ever loquacious Ali, banned from boxing for three & a half years, had finally returned to the ring in smashing fashion in 1970 by dispatching perennial contender Jerry Quarry in just three rounds. That was followed by a gruelling fifteenth round knockout over the Argentinian Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena.

Unfortunately, “Smokin” Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion in Ali’s absence, was made of far sterner stuff than either of the two contenders Ali had beaten en route to their showdown. The build up to it was incredible, tickets were so hard to obtain that even Frank Sinatra was reduced to working as a photographer for Life magazine in return for his seat. Ali’s natural charisma and big mouth worked over time. This documentary captures the atmosphere perfectly. From rubbing shoulders with big time celebrities like Burt Lancaster visiting behind the scenes to teasing Joe Frazier’s niece, Muhammad Ali showed why he was the most loved show man in the world.

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The public were salivating at the thought of this clash of the undefeated heavyweights (unique in boxing history). Two members of the audience died of heart attacks during the bout, such was the stress of the event. Hardly anyone was on the fence. The vast majority of black people were on Ali’s side. Most conservative whites were supporting Frazier. Hysteria was in the air. The fight speaks for itself: Ali moving when he could and lashing out with snake-like speed and precision, catching Frazier – always a slow starter- early on with beautiful combinations. But Frazier never stopped pressing the fight, never let up, and the vicious left hooks for which he had become famous were finding their mark time and again, even in the early going.

Ali easily won the first round, widened the margin a tad in the second with his blistering speed – but in the third round Frazier was landing solid left hooks to the head and body. Ali found himself forced back against the ropes, losing his early momentum and timing. There he found himself, again and again, as Frazier pressed the action. The hooks thudded home solidly (punctuated by the occasional right hand, that dug in deep), and Ali’s entire body was jarred from head to toe by the sheer force of the blows. Meanwhile, Joe’s facial features were being re-arranged by Ali’s combinations but Muhammad was the one running out of vital stamina as each round ticked by. This energy would be much needed later.

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Years after, when asked who had hit him the hardest in his career, Ali said that Frazier had actually hit him harder than anyone else- including George Foreman and Earnie Shavers. Frazier, in this first of three fights, took rounds four through eight- but Ali, spurred on by cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown between rounds, came out and won the ninth big with some inventive uppercuts. Though he did win the fourteenth round with nimble footwork, Ali did not clearly win another round although rounds 12 & 13 were very close. The Greatest was badly rocked by a Frazier left hook in the eleventh and escaped by playing possum. The knockdown Ali suffered in the fifteenth round clinched it for Frazier.

The referee who scored the fight 8 – 6 – 1 was the one whose scorecard most closely reflected the fight itself. Despite absorbing by far the most body punches, Ali landed a fearsome amount of blows to Frazier’s head in the first five rounds before running out of steam. Numbers-wise, Ali probably landed more punches overall but the judges liked Frazier’s momentum in the mid-to-late rounds after his bad start. A key reason to see this documentary version of a classic bout is because it lacks the idiotic babbling of ignorant commentators spouting the obvious, which spoils so many fights. For such an old fight the clear sound of the punches landing really heightens the reality of what is happening.

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