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Moving remorselessly forward, Joe Frazier, that gritty stump of a man, won a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden on Monday night to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Frazier not only beat Muhammad Ali to the punch, he licked him in the prophecy department. "Clay is good," he said beforehand, "but he isn't good enough to escape." He wasn't. Ali, in turn, billed the bout as The Return of the Dancing Master. It wasn't. Ali didn't get up on his toes and jab; he chose, disastrously, to hook with a hooker. By this, Ali gave away his 6�" advantage in reach.
Ali gave away much more by his bizarre charades—lying against the ropes, the pretty red tassels on his shoes drooping lifelessly; shouting sepulchrally to the press, "Nooo connntesssst"; beckoning Frazier to hit him; shaking his head defiantly when hit; tapping Frazier on the forehead as though testing for termites. But these acts, designed to steal time, failed in their purpose. Ali's time was past.
It was Frazier's hour, as became manifest in the 11th round, when a big hook left Ali rubber-legged. In the 12th Frazier folded Ali like a carpenter's rule with successive shots to the belly and head, and in the final round a sweeping left hook, which seemed to start at Frazier's shoe tops, put him down for a four-count, closing a reign of both majesty and mystery.
'EVERYONE WILL REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED'
He has always wanted the world as his audience, wanted the kind of attention that few men in history ever receive. So on Monday night it was his, all of it, the intense hate and love of his own nation, the singular concentration and concern of multitudes in every corner of the earth, all of it suddenly blowing across a squared patch of light like a relentless wind. It was his moment, one of the great stages of our time, and it is a matter of supreme irony that after all the years that went info constructing this truly special night Muhammad Ali was in fact carefully securing the details for his own funereal end—in front of the millions he moved deeply.
The people, he said, would be in the streets of Africa and Asia waiting for word of what happened, and what they have heard—by now—is what they never will really believe. The sudden evil of Joe Frazier's left hook, Ali's bold effort to steal time by theatrics, his wicked early pace that left him later without any guns and his insistence on hooking with a hooker (a bad bit of business)—all of this combined to provide the push for his long, long fall from invincibility. It left Frazier at last the only heavyweight champion of the world and the survivor of one of the most destructive fights among big men in decades.
The first dramatic damage to Ali came in the 11th round when Frazier hooked him to the head and followed with a cruel left to the body that sent Ali rolling back to a neutral corner, a man who seemed caught in an immense, violent wave. He hung on, but his eyes took on a terrible softness and they were never the same again. At the bell, water was thrown in his face before he could reach his corner. There, with his medicine man, Bundini, desperately trying to inflame him, and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, shaking a finger frantically in his face, he was pasted back to a semblance of one piece. As he came out for the 12th, one could see that something was wrong with the right side of his face; it was swelling rapidly and his jaw seemed broken.
He spent almost the entire 13th round in a neutral corner, but he was not active and appeared in a trance, oblivious to the hoarse scream of Bundini: "You got God in your corner, Champ!" Ali responded in the 14th, but not convincingly, even though he did win the round; by now both fighters, their bodies graphically spent, were continually draped over each other, looking like big fish who had wallowed onto a beach. Then, in the 15th, Frazier exploded the last shells from that big left gun. It was near the middle of the round, and the left boomed into Ali's face (see cover), sending him to the canvas with his head ricocheting frightfully off the floor, his feet waving in the air. He got up and finished the round, but he had lost.
The work of Frazier—his glinting animalism, his intensity of purpose—cannot be minimized or in any way discredited. This was not a negative victory; his smothering pressure contributed much to Ali's weird behavior, the options Ali took in strategy and the exhaustion that began to devour him about the sixth round.