Boxing great Joe Frazier died on Monday after being diagnosed with liver cancer in September. In his 67 years “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier earned the titles of Olympic and Undisputed World Heavyweight boxing champion. Frazier was at the top of his game beginning in the 1960s, and retired in 1976 (with a brief comeback in 1981). The fight he’s best remembered for, though, was in 1971.
On March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier met fellow boxing legend Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden for the fight that would catapult Frazier into superstardom. The fight was more than just a boxing match—it was promoted as the “Fight of the Century.” The hype surrounding the match resulted in a media circus, thousands of fans, and a large police presence.
More than just a sporting event, the match was symbolic of the feeling of the country at the time. The anti-war Muhammad Ali had refused to serve in Vietnam, while Frazier was seen as the conservative establishment’s favorite to win the match. Both men were promised a record $2.5 million for the fight, which was broadcast around the world.
Ali took the first three rounds with quick jabs at Frazier’s face. Frazier came back, with his famous left hook, and dominated the next few rounds. The match was close until round 11, when the tides turned for good. Frazier caught Ali with a strong left hook and knocked him into the ropes. Ali was never able to bounce back. The judges unanimously proclaimed Frazier the winner, dealing Ali the biggest defeat in his boxing career.
Frazier retained his title until 1973, with a 29-0 record. On January 22, he met rising star of boxing George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, in what was called the “Sunshine Showdown.” This time, Frazier was knocked out—six times in two rounds. Howard Cosell made his famous call of “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” Joe Frazier lost the match, and the title.
Frazier’s reputation as the first man to beat Mohammad Ali made him one of the biggest sports stars of his day. “I can’t go nowhere it’s not mentioned,” he told the Associated Press a few months before his death. “That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.” The Frazier-Ali rivalry epitomized the golden era of boxing, and Ali remained Frazier’s career nemesis for years. It’s clear though that Joe Frazier was, in his own right, one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport.