Fight Club

You don’t shoot yourself,” said a battered Muhammad Ali in his hotel room after losing the Fight of the Century to Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971. “Soon this will be old news. . . . Maybe a plane will go down with 90 persons in it. Or a great man will be assassinated. That will be more important than Ali losing.”

A lot of planes have gone down since then, and many a great man has been assassinated, but nothing that’s happened in those forty-three years has caused me more misery than sitting in that closed-circuit theater with my father, watching Muhammad Ali in defeat. Richard Hoffer, former senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a premier boxing scribe, knows how a boxing match can get under the skin of a fan—or of an entire nation, for that matter.

Hoffer has chosen a great subject: the six bouts between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman from 1971 to 1976. As he lays out this historic sequence of fights, he notes that each of the would-be titlists was

an Olympic gold medal winner, each undefeated, each in his time heavyweight champion of the world. Pick one and he might have dominated boxing, during a period when the game still mattered, galvanized this country for years with his oversized exploits. He might, in other words, have dominated the sports and celebrity culture that was then taking full bloom, all on his own.

But put them together? Three powerful and contrasting personalities (not to mention boxers), each a proxy for competing belief systems, each a highly visible (if not always willing) symbol for divided constituencies.

The resulting mania, Hoffer writes, brought us as much “commotion and excitement as this country, any one country, could bear.”

You might not think there was any juice left to be squeezed from the Ali legend. The three-time champ has inspired a shelf full of books, most notably works by Norman Mailer, Wilfrid Sheed, and George Plimpton. But Hoffer is well aware of something that so many chroniclers of Ali’s career often forgot: Ali probably wouldn’t be a household name today had he not stepped into the ring for the four thrilling fights with Frazier and Foreman in the 1970s.

Of course, Ali, alone among the three, was world famous before the bell rang at the outset of any of these bouts. It’s a pleasure to revisit the days when Cassius Marcellus Clay, fresh out of Louisville and the Rome Olympics, turned the sports world on its head with his poems predicting the downfall of opponents such as Henry Cooper and Archie Moore. “The poem,” Mailer once wrote, “as worthless as the prediction was often exact.”

In 1964, as Clay was on the verge of his astonishing defeat of the fearsome Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, his handlers talked him into posing with four mop-top Brit rock ’n’ rollers on their first American tour. The classic publicity shot showed the Fab Four on the canvas, all KO’d by young Cassius. Hoffer records that after the gym cleared, Clay asked his entourage, “Who were those little sissies?”

He might not have known the Beatles, but they certainly knew him. In 1967, when he defied the US draft board as Muhammad Ali, he was already the most famous athlete in the world. By the time he came out of retirement in 1971 to fight an equally unbeaten Joe Frazier for the undisputed heavyweight title, he was among the most famous men on the planet.

Joe Frazier was none of these things, though by 1971, when Ali had been out of the fight game for nearly four years, Frazier was probably the best heavyweight in the world. Squat, powerful, and unrelenting in the ring, Frazier fought “battles of attrition,” Hoffer writes, “although they were often hastened, perhaps mercifully, by a powerful left hook.”

Leroy Neiman/Don King Productions

As Hoffer notes, Ali and Frazier’s first bout was a worldwide sensation. “They sold out in French bistros, German beer halls, Italian hotels. The streets of Buenos Aires were empty. In Manila schoolchildren brought televisions to class. The world stood by.” Never before or since would so many literary celebrities cover a sporting event: Mailer for Life, William Saroyan for True, Budd Schulberg for Playboy, and even Abbie Hoffman, writing for the Evergreen Review. Howard Cosell, the most famous sports broadcaster of his time, was bumped for Burt Lancaster; Frank Sinatra, at ringside, snapped Life magazine’s cover shot.

Nor does Hoffer exaggerate the excitement of the fight itself. From the outset, he writes, “the two men [were] exchanging a tremendous volume of punches. There was no pause, no rest, just sustained swinging.” Still, Frazier’s victory by unanimous decision (sealed by his knocking Ali on the seat of his pants with a spectacular hook in the fifteenth round) was merely a prelude to greater excitement to come: It launched an incredible round-robin battle among Ali, Frazier, and Foreman for the title. Two years later, Foreman, a substantial underdog, scored a devastating upset knockout of Frazier. (As Cosell famously screamed to millions of TV viewers, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”)

Then, a year later, a seemingly over-the-hill Ali shocked the world again by KO’ing Foreman in Zaire, in the immortal Rumble in the Jungle. Another year on, Ali and Frazier met in the most horrendously brutal bout of the gloved era, the Thrilla in Manila.

It was Ali, of course, who lit the fire for these fights, by bringing the politics of Vietnam and the racial tensions of the 1960s and ’70s into boxing. But Hoffer makes an undeniable case that Ali went too far in baiting Frazier, humiliating the courageous and simple defending heavyweight titleholder by suggesting that he was the white man’s champ. “The rhetoric was so attractive that even the black press bought into the division,” Hoffer writes. (For instance, a young editor for Black Sports magazine named Bryant Gumbel wondered, “Is Joe Frazier a white champion in a black skin?”) Ali further mortified Frazier before their Manila fight by calling him a gorilla.

The overheated language, combined with the intensive media scrutiny, meant that the Frazier-Ali rivalry “turned into a kind of self-immolation,” Hoffer writes, “each man consumed in his own desperate effort to destroy the other.” By the time Ali dispatched Frazier in Manila, “there wasn’t anything left of them.” In later years, Ali tried to apologize to his bitterest opponent: “If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.” But Ali’s change of heart came too late. Frazier concluded his 1996 autobiography, “I’d like to rumble with that sucker again, beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus.”

The surprise hero of Bouts of Mania turns out to be George Foreman. He’d initially plunged into a sea of self-pity after losing the title to Ali, but he would eventually reinvent himself—losing his hair, finding religion, winning his title back, and becoming one of the most popular ex-champions ever. Would anybody have thought, Hoffer asks rhetorically, that the once scowling and humorless Foreman “would have had the stuff to become an interesting and complete character? That this one-time thug would end up beloved? That this gloomy hulk would have been the one to leave this all behind, become happy, satisfied, a grinning role model for us all?”

From a commercial standpoint, Ali, Frazier, and Foreman proved to be merely the forerunners of the colossal pay-per-view bonanzas to come. Within a few years, fighters such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, and even George Foreman himself in his late-career incarnation far surpassed the box-office receipts for the Ali-Frazier-Foreman classics. In this decade, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have garnered worldwide audiences and broken previous pay-per-view records.

They all thrilled us, but the world didn’t stand by when they fought. And when they lost, it didn’t feel as if someone had died.

Allen Barra is the author of Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age (Crown Archetype, 2013), released this spring in paperback by Three Rivers Press.