Over the next five years, from their first fight in New York City, on March 8, 1971, until their third and last in Manila on Oct. 1, 1975, Ali humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America. But the most lasting characterization of all was the one Ali coined on their way to the Philippines in '75, the one that came near the end of the singsong rhyme he would deliver with that mischievous smirk on his moon-bright face: "It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila!"
Of all the names joined forever in the annals of boxing—from Dempsey-Tunney to Louis-Schmeling, from Zale-Graziano to Leonard-Hearns—none are more fiercely bound by a hyphen than Ali-Frazier. Not Palmer-Nicklaus in golf nor Borg-McEnroe in tennis, as ardently competitive as these rivalries were, conjure up anything remotely close to the epic theater of Ali-Frazier. Their first fight, snagged in the most turbulent political currents of our time, is widely viewed as the greatest single sporting event of this half century. And the third fight—for its savagery, its shifting momentum and its climactic moment, in which the two men sat battered on their stools—is regarded, by consensus, as the most surpassing prizefight in history.
So here it is, 25 years after Ali-Frazier I, and Frazier is burning like the flame that Ali set off with his Olympic torch. Feeling that history has treated him unfairly, Frazier is haunted and overshadowed by his old tormentor, the very figure he did most to help create. Frazier was one of the greatest of all gladiators, but today he finds himself cast as just another player in the far larger drama of Ali's life. He is trapped and wriggling in the Ali mystique, embedded in the amber of Ali's life and times.
For Ali is as near to a cultural saint as any man of our era. His appearance on the Atlanta stage was a window, thrown suddenly open, on the long journey he has taken through the lights and shadows of our unresolved past—America's past. As his left arm shook, he lit the flame and choked the breath of a nation. His life has become an extended public appearance: He swims among crowds wherever he goes, leading with the most recognizable chin on the planet. He tells old knock-knock jokes, receives visitors like a Middle East potentate and signs off on the next book about his life. And now and again, just for old times' sake, he leans over to whisper in Joe Frazier's ear.
As he did when his eyes widened in that suite at the Essex House. And then he gave the impish grin. "Joe Fraysha?" Ali said. "You seen the gorilla? From Manila?"
The geometry of the lives of Ali and Frazier is forever fixed in history. The line between them, once as curved and sweeping as a left hook and as long as a flicking jab, is today as irreducibly short as the one that joins their names. The two men left each other scarred in different ways. Ali's wounds are visible on the surface; you can see them on his face. Frazier's wounds lie deeper within; you can hear them in the pain in his voice.
There had never been a night like this one in New York City. By 10:30 p.m. on the evening of March 8, 1971, when the two fighters climbed into the ring at Madison Square Garden, Ali in red trunks and Frazier in green-and-gold brocade, there was a feral scent and crackle to the place. The Garden was a giant bell jar into which more than 20,000 people had drifted, having passed through police barricades that rimmed the surrounding streets. They came in orange and mint-green and purple velvet hot pants, in black leather knickers and mink and leopard capes, in cartridge belts and feathered chapeaux and pearl-gray fedoras. Some sported hats with nine-inch brims and leaned jauntily on diamond-studded walking sticks. Manhattan listed toward Babylon.
"I looked down from the ring, and it was a sea of glitter," recalls Eddie Futch, who was then Frazier's assistant trainer. "I have never seen any boxing event that had so many celebrities."
Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, was making his way through the tumult to the ring when he heard someone call his name: "Hey, Ange!" Dundee looked up. Frank Sinatra snapped his picture; the singer was working for LIFE magazine. Burt Lancaster was doing radio commentary. Ringside seats had sold for $150, but scalpers were getting $1,000. "Plumage, pimps and hustlers," says Bobby Goodman, the fight publicist. The fighters were each getting a record $2.5 million, an astronomical sum in those days, and the worldwide television audience was 300 million. The Garden ring was the wrist on which America was checking its pulse.
The boxer-dancer with the beautiful legs had arrived to do battle against the puncher-plodder with the thick thighs. Of course, the fans had come to see more than a classic clash of styles. The match was billed as the Fight of the Century, and the sporting world had been waiting for it for more than three years, ever since Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis in 11 rounds on March 4, 1968, to win the vacant New York heavyweight title and begin laying claim to being the toughest man on earth—the toughest, at least, with a passport. The previous year Ali had been stripped of his world championship and his freedom to travel abroad, and during his ensuing 43-month absence from the ring, Frazier buried his implacable hook into every heavyweight who stood in his way, finally winning the vacant world title on Feb. 16, 1970, by knocking out Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round.