On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali battled Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden (the current one) in one of the most highly anticipated showdowns in sports history. Billed as “The Fight of the Century,” it promised to be a clash of styles, a clash of cultures, a clash of two legendary champions who had been kept apart due to the crazy politics of 1960s America.
The world has seen few athletes as charismatic and dominant as early Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. Ali won the heavyweight title in dramatic fashion as a 22 year-old and successfully defended it nine times before being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967. Ali declared that he was a conscientious objector, proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”
Ali was found guilty of violating the Selective Service Act. Upon his conviction he was stripped of his title and suspended from boxing by the New York State Athletic Commission. Ali challenged the suspension on equal protection grounds – dozens of felons and ex-felons were then (as now) licensed to box. Though Ali eventually won his case, becoming a prominent anti-war spokesperson in the process, he lost more than three years of his prime before he was allowed to box again.
In the meantime, Joe Frazier had pummeled the competition en route to becoming the new heavyweight champion. When he agreed to fight Ali, neither man had ever lost in the ring. What better venue for such an epic fight than Madison Square Garden?The pre-match hype went beyond boxing. To much of the country, Ali was an anti-American radical, which he embraced by calling Frazier “a dumb tool of the white establishment,” “an Uncle Tom…too ugly to be champ.” Re-watching the video, it appears that the majority of the MSG crowd backed Frazier.
The fight took place in the current Madison Square Garden, the fourth “Madison Square Garden” whose construction caused the destruction of the original Penn Station. The first two had been on Madison Square Park, hence the name.