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On This Date in Sports March 8, 1971

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It was billed as “The Fight of the Century” and lived up to and beyond the hype as Joe Frazier, the unbeaten heavyweight champion faced Muhammad Ali the unbeaten former champion at Madison Square Garden in New York. Ali scored well early in the fight, but Frazier took over in the middle of the fight and dominated the rest of the way, knocking Ali down in the 15th on the way to a unanimous decision.

If ever there was a fight that needed no hype it was Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden. Ali was the unbeaten heavyweight champion when he had his boxing license suspended and had his title stripped for refusing service in the Army as a conscientious objector after being drafted. While Ali was fighting his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, Joe Frazier rose to the top of boxing, winning the heavyweight title from Jimmy Ellis on February 16, 1970.

After a three-year hiatus, Muhammad Ali returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, defeating Jerry Quarry with a third-round knockout it Atlanta. With his boxing license restored, Ali made an immediate challenge to Joe Frazier, claiming he was the one true champion.

The fight was one of the most anticipated sporting events of all time, a ticket to Madison Square Garden was a hot commodity as some of the biggest stars of the day were at ringside, including Frank Sinatra who was a ringside photographer for Life Magazine. Those not lucky enough to be at Madison Square Garden could watch the fight at closed circuit television, where a record 300 million watching in over 50 countries watched the fight live.

When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier finally entered the ring, they did not disappoint as both fighters were in top shape and at the top of their game. Ali came out strong early and dominated the first three round. However, in the closing seconds of Round 3, Frazier caught Ali flush on the jaw hurting the former champion. From there Joe Frazier began to control the action often forcing Muhammad Ali against the ropes and landing a series of blows that began to take their toll. By the sixth round, Ali appeared to be running out of gas. In the 11th round, Ali fell to his knees, after a shot by Joe Frazier but Referee Arthur Mercante Sr. ruled it a slip and not an official knockdown. Going into the 15th and final round, Joe Frazier was ahead on all three judges’ scorecards as Muhammad Ali’s face was severely swollen. Early in the final round, Frazier put Ali on his back with a mean left hook it was one of just four official knockdowns that he suffered in his legendary career. Ali made it to his feet but was helpless to get back in the fight as the round and fight ended, with Frazier the clear winner. Though the fight was close it was a unanimous decision in favor of the champion.

After the fight fans wanted more. Muhammad Ali refused to admit defeat and wanted a rematch, the two would fight again on January 28, 1974, this time Ali won a thrilling 15-round decision. After Ali regained the title against George Foreman he would fight Joe Frazier for a third time in the Thrilla in Manilla on October 1, 1975. The fight saw both boxers nearly kill each other with Muhammad Ali winning after Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the final round, closing boxing’s greatest rivalry 2-1 in favor of Ali.