Ali, Frazier and the ‘Fight of the Century’: A Photographer RemembersPosted: January 17, 2014
Ben Cosgrov writes: After refusing to register for the draft in 1967 — at the very height of his career — 25-year-old Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title and endured a forced layoff from the ring for three years. In 1971, after winning the appeal of his conviction and five-year prison sentence before the U.S. Supreme Court, the former champ returned to boxing, fighting a few bouts against lesser (albeit ranked) rivals before facing the title-holder, Philadelphia’s “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier.
Long before the first bell of their March 1971 fight sounded, the contest was billed as “The Fight of the Century” and, amazingly, it lived up to the hype. That night, a star-studded crowd watched two of the greatest fighters who ever lived battle for supremacy in the world’s premier sports arena.
Frazier had earned the heavyweight belt a year earlier. “I often felt bad for Joe,” photographer John Shearer told LIFE.com, recalling the weeks and months he spent with both fighters before the bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “He was completely miscast as the bad guy in the fight. In so many of the pictures I made of him that winter, when he’s with friends and relaxed, there’s something genuinely charming there — but something in his face suggests that if you scratched the surface, you’d find a world of other feelings.”
“The pictures I made of Ali training in Chris Dundee’s Miami Beach gym, meanwhile, are incredibly revealing in another way,” Shearer said, “not least because you can see that Ali had a belly. And this is not all that long before the fight. He just wasn’t in the kind of shape he needed to be in to battle a warrior like Joe Frazier.”
Many of Shearer’s photos of Frazier — including several in this gallery — make the clear case that Frazier simply wanted the title more than Ali. He was fighting, scratching and clawing for it long before the two men stepped into the ring…
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
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