Appellate Judge Dave Ryan bloats like a butterfly, but stinks like a bee. Wait...did we get that right?
"I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was tried and convicted for refusing, on religious grounds, to be inducted into the U.S. Army. His decision would eventually be vindicated, and his conviction overturned, by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, but that didn't help Ali in the late '60s. His meteoric boxing career came to a screeching halt, as various state boxing commissions stripped him of his license to fight. Meanwhile, the public that had adored him since his stunning first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in '64 suddenly viewed him as the embodiment of the increasing national polarization over the Vietnam war. Almost overnight, Ali had gone from being the heavyweight champion of the world to being a divisive political symbol.
The next three years were not easy for Ali. His legal battles were costly, and although Ali had been resoundingly successful in the ring, he was not an exceptionally wealthy man. Unable to fight and earn his keep, and too politically toxic for most advertisers to hire, Ali was nonetheless supported when necessary by his friends and admirers, many of whom loaned him money to see him through this rough patch. One such friend, who supported Ali's battle against the Army both publicly and financially, was a boxer out of Philadelphia by the name of Joe Frazier.
Smokin' Joe Frazier was the epitome of what boxing analysts call a "Philadelphia fighter." Fighters coming out of the dingy gyms of North and West Philly tend to share the same characteristics—they punch hard, they punch often, and they come at you like rabid dogs. They don't "box"; they brawl. Unfortunately, this brawler's mentality often gets them in trouble. They walk into a lot of punches, and frequently wind up out-pointed when matched up with skilled finesse boxers. Frazier, though, was the complete package. He was exceptionally strong, and extremely well-conditioned by any weight class standard, let alone for a heavyweight. Frazier's engine was always running; he could duck, bob, and weave for 15 rounds without showing any signs of fatigue. He had a chin that defied rationality—sometimes it seemed as if Frazier could realistically take several square hits in the face from a baseball bat without flinching. But most important, Frazier had something that, believe it or not, is relatively rare in the world of boxing: Frazier was violent. Although skilled, his technique was artless. Joe didn't come at you like a rabid dog; he came at you like the Wehrmacht came at Poland. As one (unidentified) commentator says in this documentary, "When Ali punches you, there's no real malice behind it. But when Frazier throws a punch, it's like he wants to kill you."
When Ali was stripped of his boxing licenses, he formally "retired" from boxing as a favor to the ranking organizations, and to the boxing public. By retiring, Ali vacated his heavyweight titles, allowing other fighters to fight for them, and thereby (hopefully) keep the heavyweight championship unified. If he had not retired, the official titles would have been in limbo until he was reinstated or stripped of the title, resulting in either (a) a mandatory challenger becoming the new champion by default without actually fighting, or (b) the messy creation of an "interim" champion until Ali returned to the ring. In February of 1970, Frazier reunified the titles when he beat Jimmy Ellis, who had won a "tournament" to capture the WBA belt. Smokin' Joe was now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. But there was one small issue still lingering: Joe hadn't beaten the previous undisputed champion—Muhammad Ali. The chain, as it were, was still broken: Joe hadn't beaten "the man who beat the man who beat the man," and so forth.
And the man who beat the man who beat the man was now back in business. Ali's license had been reinstated by some of the boxing commissions, and he was once again back in the heavyweight picture. Only 29 years old, he was still in the prime of his career, and still as quick and skillful as he ever was. He officially returned to the ring in a fight against hard-luck "Irish" Jerry Quarry, who lost by TKO in the third round due to a cut. In a stiffer follow-up test, Ali stopped Argentinean Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round due to the three-knockdown rule (he was substantially ahead on all the judges' cards at the time). But those fights were really just warm-ups for the fight everyone knew was coming, and that everyone wanted to see: Ali vs. Frazier for the undisputed heavyweight championship. After promoters came up with an unprecedented purse of $5 million (split evenly between the two fighters), the match was set for March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.
Ali the Fighter is a contemporaneous documentary of that fight, which is considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight championship fight ever. Unavailable in any format until now, it's grainy, worn-looking, and sounds terrible—but all that is ultimately unimportant. Here, in a pseudo-cinema verité style, codirectors William Greaves and Rick Baxter present the build-up to the fight as seen from the perspectives of the fighters, the fans, and the money men, and then the fight itself, in its entirety. As a historical record of this legendary moment in sports, the disc is invaluable. However, it's also incomplete. Because, as Paul Harvey might say, Ali the Fighter glosses over The Rest of The Story.
If all you knew about Ali-Frazier I (they would eventually fight three times) came from this documentary, you'd know that this was a big fight that had fans split down the middle as far as their predictions for it. Ali was The Greatest; Frazier was terrifying. Frazier hit like a truck; Ali was quicker than lightning. Every point for one fighter was countered by a point for the other. The fight was a true toss-up in the eyes of most boxing fans. You'd also get hints that there may have been some controversy surrounding the price of tickets to the fight, a price that was prohibitively expensive for most fight fans in New York. (In fact, you get the feeling that this film may have been made to "bring" the fight to those people, especially inner-city African-American audiences, via a theatrical release. They couldn't afford to attend it live, or to pay to see it on closed-circuit broadcasts, but most could afford the price of a cinema ticket.) And, of course, you'd know what happened during the 15 rounds of the fight, since it's all right there on your screen. But that's about it. In truth, there was much more going on with this fight than meets the eye; things that aren't even mentioned, or even shown.
This fight took place at a point in time when the country's rancor over the Vietnam war had reached a crescendo. Ali, thanks to his battle with the Army over the draft, had obviously become a darling of the anti-war movement, a role he embraced. Frazier, on the other hand, somehow came to be viewed as the pawn of the (rich, white) pro-war "Establishment"—despite the fact that Frazier had always supported Ali in his fight against the Army. Ali, ever the showman, used this perceived dichotomy as part of his pre-fight hype. But he was exceptionally vicious towards Frazier, repeatedly calling him "dumb," doing unflattering impressions of him to demonstrate how he was "too ugly to be champion," and—most vicious of all—labeling him an "Uncle Tom." Frazier, for all his violence in the ring, was unsophisticated and surprisingly sensitive outside it. Ali's full-scale hype attack deeply hurt him—Frazier had always admired Ali, and considered him a friend up until that point. Frazier felt extremely betrayed; Ali was, in essence, attempting to turn the entire black community against him just to promote the fight. Long after the fact, Ali claimed that he never meant to hurt Frazier; his pre-fight chatter was just the usual act he put on for the press. Whether that is true or not, it's clear the damage had been done, and it was irreparable. By the time the fight rolled around, Frazier hated Ali, called him a "draft dodger," and kept referring to him as "Cassius Clay." A feud began that lasted thirty years. Both fighters, to this day, generally avoid talking about this situation. In 1996, as Ali—stricken to near-paralysis by Parkinson's disease—was given the honor of lighting the Olympic torch for the Atlanta Games, Frazier said, "They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the good Lord chooses to take him." He also said that he should be the one to light the torch, because, unlike Ali, he wouldn't be in danger of falling in. Ouch. (Ali finally apologized to Frazier in a newspaper interview sometime in 2000; Frazier apparently accepted the apology.)
So this fight wasn't just a fight. In many ways, it was a microcosm of the turmoil in which America found itself in 1971. But none of that comes across in this documentary. If you're looking for social context, you'll have to somehow find a copy of HBO's fine documentary Ali-Frazier I: One Nation…Divisible, or hope it's rebroadcast. (HBO's failure to issue any of its fantastic boxing documentaries on DVD is incomprehensible to me.)
On the other hand, this is the only place you'll find the fight itself, in all its glory, without any announcer commentary to remind you that you're watching a recording of it. Yes, the footage is subpar by today's standards, especially the overhead shots (where the white of the canvas bleeds like a stuck pig). But it's all there—the crowd noise, the ring announcer, the bell—just as if you had been sitting in the arena back in March of 1971.
The fight plays out like a silent drama. After both fighters felt each other out for a couple of rounds, Ali fell into what would eventually become known as his "rope-a-dope" strategy, backing up against the ropes and letting Frazier pound away at him. The strategy was generally sound—let your opponent tire himself out hitting you, and then he's yours for the picking. But Frazier didn't get tired. Wherever Ali went, Frazier followed, usually announcing his presence with a stiff right hook. After every round, Ali played up to the crowd, making dismissive gestures and yelling "no contest." By the 10th round, though, it looked as if Ali was trying to convince himself of that. He was clearly losing the fight. Frazier was more active, and scoring more power punches than the quicker Ali. Ali's piston-like jab was connecting with regularity, but it didn't seem to affect Frazier in the least.
At that point, Ali realized that he had a very serious problem on his hands, and that he'd have to start fighting harder in order to win. The last third of the fight was marked by furious exchanges between the fighters; there was more action in some rounds than you see in entire fights today. And then, in the 15th round, it happened. Frazier unleashed a vicious left hook that connected flush and actually lifted Ali off the floor. Joe Frazier, the "ugly," "inarticulate" "Uncle Tom" whom Ali had planned to "retire" that night, had knocked down the self-proclaimed Greatest Fighter Who Ever Lived.
Miraculously, Ali got up. (As his trainer, the legendary Angelo Dundee, said later, "No matter what Frazier hit him with, he was getting up. If he had killed him, he still would have gotten up.") But he was clearly hurt, and, at that point, had unquestionably lost a fight for the first time in his career. He stayed on his feet until the end, but when the unanimous decision in favor of Frazier was announced, it came as no surprise. There were no doubts about Joe Frazier anymore—he had beaten the man who had beaten the man who had beaten the man. He was the undisputed champion.
But not for long. Because lurking in the background was a 22-year-old former Olympic champion out of Houston, Texas who was undefeated as a professional—a hulking, sullen, bull-strong man by the name of George Foreman. Foreman quickly became the top contender for the title. After two relatively easy title defenses, Frazier met the formidable Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 22, 1973. Frazier, the vanquisher of Muhammad Ali, the Greatest of All Time, was absolutely destroyed by Foreman. With no three-knockdown rule in effect, Frazier was floored three times in the first round and three times in the second before the referee stopped the fight thirty-four seconds short of the end of that second round. Frazier was one of the finest heavyweights in history, and arguably the greatest fighter ever to come out of Philadelphia…but Foreman was otherworldly.
Frazier and Ali would go on to fight twice more, once in 1974 at Madison Square Garden for the NABF title, and once in 1975—the "Thrilla in Manila," one of the most brutal fights in history. Both men left a large part of themselves—their health, their psyches, their futures—in the ring that night. But that's another story for another time. Ali would also defeat the seemingly invincible Foreman in 1974, on a steamy jungle night in Kinshasa, Zaire—the "Rumble in the Jungle"—but that story has been told in Leon Gast's award-winning documentary When We Were Kings far better than I could tell it.
All great stories have a beginning. Ali the Fighter chronicles one such beginning, the tale of two fighters who would eventually become inextricably intertwined in boxing history. For that reason alone, it is a must-own for boxing fans. If only it could be paired with a documentary that covered the societal context of the sporting event, it would be the definitive record of this legendary fight. Unfortunately, it's not—but even though it's not definitive, it's still fascinating in its own right.
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