And Frazier? He felt manipulated, humiliated and betrayed. "He had me stunned," Frazier says. "This guy was a buddy. I remember looking at him and thinkin', What's wrong with this guy? Has he gone crazy? He called me an Uncle Tom. For a guy who did as much for him as I did, that was cruel. I grew up like the black man—he didn't. I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto. Yes, I tommed; when he asked me to help him get a license, I tommed for him. For him! He betrayed my friendship. He called me stupid. He said I was so ugly that my mother ran and hid when she gave birth to me. I was shocked. I sat down and said to myself, I'm gonna kill him. O.K.? Simple as that. I'm gonna kill him!"
So by the time they climbed through the ropes that night in the Garden, the lure of the fight went far beyond the exquisitely contrasting ring styles of the two men. For many viewers Ali was still the mouth that poured, the renegade traitor and rabble-rouser whose uppity black ass needed dusting. For many others, of course, he symbolized all successful men of color who did not conform in a white man's world—and the hope that one, at least one, would overcome. Frazier had done nothing to earn the caricature of Uncle Tom, but Ali had lashed him to that stake as if to define their war in black and white. Frazier knew the scope of All's appeal. A Bible-raised man, he saw himself as David to Ali's Goliath.
"David had a slingshot," Frazier says. "I had a left hook."
For 14 rounds, almost a full hour in which the Garden never stopped rocking, Frazier pursued and pounded the former champion like a man simultaneously pushing a plow and chopping wood. Ali won the first two rounds, dancing and landing jabs and stinging rights, but by the third, under a remorseless body attack climaxed by a searing hook to the ribs, his feet had begun to flatten, and soon he was fighting toe-to-toe, his back pushed against the ropes.
It was a fight with two paces, fast and faster, and among its abiding images is that of Frazier, head down and body low, bobbing and weaving incessantly, taking lashing lefts and rights from Ali, then unloading that sweeping hook to the jaw, and Ali waving his head defiantly—No, no, that didn't hurt—and coming back, firing jabs and hooks and straight rights to Frazier's head. It was soon clear that this was not the Ali of old, the butterfly who had floated through his championship years, and that the long absence from the ring had stolen his legs and left him vulnerable. He had always been a technically unsound fighter: He threw punches going backward, fought with his arms too low and avoided sweeping punches by leaning back instead of ducking. He could get away with that when he had the speed and reflexes of his youth, but he no longer had them, and Frazier was punishing him.
Frazier quickened the tempo in the third and fourth, whaling Ali with lefts and rights. Ali moved as he fired jabs and landed rights and shouted at Frazier, "Do you know I'm God?"
"God, you're in the wrong place tonight," Frazier shot back. "I'm takin' names and kickin' ass!"
The Garden crowd was on its feet. Frazier mimicked Ali in the fifth, dropping his hands and laughing as Ali struck him with a left and a right. Frazier's ferocious head and body attacks began to slow Ali down, but the former champion scored repeatedly as Frazier moved in, and by the start of the eighth the crowd was chanting, "Ali! Ali! Ali!" Looking inspired, Frazier bore in, crashing a hook on Ali's head and following it up with two rights. After Ali mockingly tapped him on the head, Frazier drove a fiery hook into the ex-champ's jaw, and after the bell that ended the round members of the crowd were chanting, "Joe! Joe! Joe!"
Starting the 11th Frazier was winning on two of the three cards, and it was here that he took possession of the fight. As Ali stood in a neutral corner, Frazier stepped inside and let fly a thunderous hook to the jaw that snapped Ali's neck and buckled his legs. Ali looked gone. A hard right sent him sagging on the ropes. Another wobbled him again. At the bell he was still on his feet, but he moved shakily back to his corner.
If Ali-Frazier I was the most memorable athletic event of our time, surely it was the 15th round that made it so. About twenty seconds after the opening bell, Frazier threw the most famous left hook in boxing history and raised the evening to the realm of myth. The punch began south of his brocade trunks, somewhere down in Beaufort, and rose in a whistling arc that ended on the right side of Ali's jaw, just above the point of the chin. Ali sprawled on his back, the tassels on his shoes flying in the air. "I looked up," Ali says today, "and I was on the floor."