NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 9:48 AM
Bewildered, dazed, hurt and beaten, Muhammad Ali struggles to get back on his feet in punishing 15th round knockdown by Joe Frazier.
(Originally published by the Daily News on Tuesday, March 9, 1971; written by Phil Pepe)
Muhammad Ali came to war, not to dance. It was a mistake. He learned you can’t rumble with a street fighter, and because he tried, he came off the canvas in the 15th round, but suffered his first defeat in 32 fights as a pro and a possible fractured cheekbone and Joe Frazier has the heavyweight championship all to himself.
Smokin’ Joe pounded out a unanimous 15-round decision over Ali before a packed, celebrity-studded crowd at the Garden last night and stands alone on top of the heavyweight crowd. He did it with his typical, two-fisted, never-retreat attack and he left no doubt that in a slugging match he is the better man . . . the best man in his business.
The two judges made it a convincing victory for Joe, his 27th without defeat as a pro and only the fourth time he failed to put his opponent away. Bill Recht had Frazier ahead, 11-4, Artie Aidala voted for Frazier, 9-6, referee Arthur Mercante had it much closer, 8-6-1, but cast the unanimous vote for the winner. THE NEWS card had it even, 7-7-1, but gave Frazier a huge edge on points because of the more damaging punches.
ONE OF THOSE damaging punches came in the final round . . . a long, looping left that caught Ali flush on the chin, possibly breaking his jaw. It sent the former champ to the canvas, dazed and in serious trouble. But, instinctively, he bounced up at the count of three and took the mandatory eight count on his feet.
Frazier tried desperately to put over the clincher for the more than two minutes that remained in the fight. Ali was wobbly, reeling all over the ring, but his fighting instincts kept him on his feet. He held, he tried to dance, he even struck back, a series of feeble punches that managed to occupy Frazier long enough to keep him from delivering the solid blow that would surely end it.
By then, Frazier was arm weary and peering out of slits in his head that substituted for eyes. His left eye was swollen and almost completely closed, his right eye was half closed and his lips were puffed. His face looked like a death mask, but it turned out to be a victory mask when the end came.
IRONICALLY , although he took the heavier pounding, Ali had no marks on his face until the savage 15th round left hook swelled the right side of his cheek twice its normal size.
For some reason, possibly because he was concerned about his ability to maintain a furious pace through 15 rounds, Ali abandoned his usual “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” style. He was not the stick and move, bicycling Ali he had been before his three and a half-year layoff, and that was his undoing.
He chose to stand and bang with Frazier although he had to know he must come out second best.
There were times when Ali taunted Frazier, waving him on, asking to be hit. Joe whaled away with both hands, but most of the shots – long, looping lefts like the climactic one – were picked off on the arms or gloves or on the back of Muhammad’s head.
AND ALI WAS taking Frazier’s best shots and coming back for more, beating him to the punch, popping fix, six, seven shots and getting just one in return.
In the 11th round, Frazier back Ali into the ropes, as he had done often throughout the fight. This time, Joe had Ali in a neutral corner and Muhammad was content to stay there, to let Frazier smoke away. Nothing happened. Ali slipped punches. Instead of trying to fight his way out or dance his way out, he stayed there. Frazier ripped lefts and rights and Ali ducked, slipped or picked shots off on his gloves. He dared Frazier to hit him . . . again . . . and again. Finally Frazier connected, a devastating hook to the chin and Ali was rubber-legged. Or was he?
He reeled and stumbled about the ring as if being supported by jellied legs. But he didn’t go down. Was he faking? You never know with Ali. Either he was just one punch from being taken out or he was an even greater actor than people have given him credit for.
HE SURVIVED that round and was talking to his corner. He seemed all right, and he came out fighting in the 12th and held his own although losing the round on the cards of two judges.
Ali had his moments. The biggest one came in the ninth round. He opened up a series of one-twos and a left-right combination to the head buckled Frazier’s knees. But Ali could not put over any more punches that might have turned his imminent defeat into victory. That was to be Ali’s last big round, and Frazier added to his lead by winning the 10th on one card, the 11th big on all three official cards, the 12th on two cards, the 13th on two cards and the 15th big on all three cards.
If Ali surprised everybody by going right to Frazier at the opening bell, he surprised no one by talking a good fight. He started before the first bell. While waiting for the introductions, he danced over to Frazier and said, “Chump.”
HE TAUNTED Frazier, daring him to “come on, hit me,” saying “You can’t hit.”
Before the eighth, the crowd chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali,” and Muhammad raised his right hand straight up.
Several times, when he picked off left hooks on the gloves or Frazier’s blows did not land flush, the crowd roared and Ali turned to ringside and shook his head, “no,” as if to say he wasn’t hurt, the blows were ineffectual.
In the 10th, he turned his head from a clinch and said to ringside, “He’s out.”
Frazier wasn’t, of course, but Ali almost was.