When it was mentioned at all, they called it The Ugly Middle Sister. Of Muhammad Ali’s three fights with Joe Frazier, the 1st and 3d are prominently cited. But on January 28, 1974, once again at Madison Square Garden, they met for the second time. As the encomiums on Ali’s life stream forth, that narrative of talent, courage and personal principle has no coherence without a discussion of the crucial moment that night in 1974 would foretell.
Frazier came into the bout having lost the title to George Foreman in humiliating fashion; and Ali, coming off two physically arduous and damaging fights with Ken Norton, was at the lowest psychological state of his career, worse than even the period when he was barred from boxing for refusing to cooperate with the military draft.
Ali had avenged a loss to Norton and defeated him in the second fight. But he was unhappy with his performance and for the first time had begun questioning his ring skills — to the point that he seriously considered calling off the Frazier match. He had fought 13 times since reemerging after 43 months of disbarment, and had lost only to Norton and Frazier. What ultimately propelled him to proceed against Frazier — apart from having been defeated by him in their fabled first encounter — was the obvious fact that it was necessary in order to get a shot at Foreman’s title.
The second Frazier fight, and not his return after his suspension, marked the actual beginning of the second half of Ali’s career. Despite the layoff, Ali was only 28 when he re-emerged in 1970, and had never been seriously hurt. Joe Louis, for example, lost more than four years to WWII and then successfully defended his title four times. It was the damage inflicted by Norton in their two meetings — a broken jaw and a severely sprained right hand, added to the many hits he took — that accentuated the accumulating years for Ali and provided him his initial sense of ring mortality. At his training camp a despondent Ali remarked to a visitor, “You see any people around here? People don’t hang out with losers.” The antic brashness and doggerel that had been a staple of the man since the then–Cassius Clay first emerged on the boxing scene, was nowhere in evidence.
And yet he trained hard for Frazier and was in shape. The dancing master was in evidence through the first half of the fight, on his toes, circling, sticking and floating. The judges’ cards had him winning four or five of the first six rounds. In the sixth Frazier began scoring with hooks, started verbally taunting and gesturing toward Ali, and only barely lost the round when Ali closed with a spirited last-second effort.
The next two rounds were all Frazier: bobbing, ducking, swarming with incessant headlong rushes, his hooks were landing with staccato thuds. The pressure was relentless, and Ali, now no longer dancing but retreating to the ropes, must have been revisiting the last Norton battle and the way in which he had slowed in the middle rounds and Norton had pursued and scored repeatedly. But there was something else about that fight that was significant, and what Ali had done next plumbed all of his natural athletic instincts and repertoire as a fighter. At the very least it was uncharacteristic of his style, and clearly a stopgap move. In the closing seconds of the final round Ali had practically ceased all movement, planted his feet and traded freely with Norton. It was effective enough to win him the decision.
So late in the eight with the momentum all Frazier’s, from the corner came shouts from Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer: “Stay there! Stay there!” Stop moving, stay in the center of the ring, plant your heels, throw the left, the right, double the combinations if you can, then tie him up. Stay. Plant. Left. Right. Double up. Clinch. Don’t back up. Don’t back up. And Ali listened; and in the ninth round literally commenced the second half of his career. The legs, which had taken him to renown, were now obviously only a part of the arsenal. The voluble, headstrong, mercurial legend with the outsize ego and his own unwavering ideas on the techniques of boxing would, in the exigencies of the situation, incorporate another skill set into the mix. With everything on the line — his pride, his fame, another title shot — all seamlessly rolled into that inimitable self-regard, in that instant he would become the complete fighter. Ultimately, the best of athletes achieve that pinnacle because they prove to be coachable, and Ali was no exception.
The ninth, in my estimation, was as tactically brilliant a single round as Ali ever fought. And he had to do it with the lingering after effects of a thunderous overhand right at the close of the eight round which caught him flush, pushed his face into slack bewilderment and nearly had him out on his feet. Ali had already proven he could take a punch, although the two most devastating blows and knockdowns he’d experienced, a left hook from Frazier in their first fight, and a similar shot from Henry Cooper in London, both occurred at the ends of rounds. Had Frazier had another 15 seconds at his disposal in the eight, he could very well have ended it. Between rounds, it’s hardly idle speculation to suggest that Ali ruminated on the times the bell had saved him and, at this juncture, how he would need to spend the next 12 minutes of his life. That gangly 12-year-old growing up in the segregated South who put on the gloves for the first time and was determined to make his mark upon the world couldn’t have been far from Ali’s thoughts as he awaited the bell. We might even surmise that in that portentous instant the internal poetics of the man became, in effect, nothing short of Shakespearean, and it was clear that, ultimately, as had always been the case, Cassius from bondage would deliver Cassius.
Ali proceeded to spend the entire next three minutes essentially standing in place and punching, with Dundee continuously screaming, “Stay there!” Watching it was to witness the very best in the lineage of boxing history filtered through one man. Ali’s admitted influences had always been apparent: Gene Tunney’s timing and ability to gauge range; Ray Robinson’s hand speed and lancing jabs; Willle Pep’s incomparable evasiveness and defense. Then in the final minute of the concluding 12th Ali put it — and them — all together in spectacular fashion, landing upwards of 40 times in those 60 seconds with a furious medley of flat-footed combinations.
Styles make fights, Dundee was always fond of saying, and his guy that night sculpted a new one out of the gifts of the gene pool, all that he had learned, and his genius for improvisation. Long after he named himself “the greatest,” Ali had gone one better, and had become the consummate journeyman. It was a vision of pure will and eclectic combativeness, physicality and prowess honed to a singular moment, without an ounce of awkwardness, and breathtaking in its precision. From what I could see, it even rhymed.