Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier: A Legendary Trilogy

Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier

When people today think of trilogy fights we aren't sure how excited to be about them. A trilogy of fights between two opponents occurs when the first fight between the opponents ends and one is declared winner although it may have been close. If this happens, most promoters and fighters themselves aren't shy from arranging and booking a second fight, one that is usually more built up and dramatic given the result of the first.

If the SECOND fight goes to the opponent that originally lost, and the fighters stand at 1-1, then an option for a tie breaking 3rd match is considered, and more than often scheduled as it is the most compelling and built up of the 3. Both fighters have proven that they could beat the other man and now it was about pride, skill, and toughness. Both men have had ample time to study the other fighter both on film and in the ring, even against themselves. The draw of a truly grand trilogy fight however, is dependent on the personas of the men facing off in the ring. Both men of course need to be skilled enough to bring something different and better each fight, they both need to be tougher than nails physically and mentally to be able to face the same man 3 times, knowing they've lost to each other in the past and dealing with that pressure.

There have been many legendary trilogies in the past, such as those between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. But none of these have ever come close, and none most likely ever will come close, to the Trilogy that took place over 4 years between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. 

Ali vs. Frazier - Part 1

To get a good idea of how this trilogy started, we take a look at the background behind the first fight. Muhammad Ali had just won two fights after his 3 year layoff due to a jail sentence given for refusing to be drafted into Vietnam.

He had two stoppage victories in his two return fights and was ready to make another run for his Undisputed Heavyweight championship, which current champ at the time Joe Frazier captured while Ali was out of boxing. Frazier had beaten Jimmy Ellis for the vacant title and had another stoppage victory after that fight going into the fight with Ali. This fight took place at the Madison Square Garden on March 3, 1971. Both men came into this Heavyweight title bout undefeated (Frazier 26-0, 23 KO's and Ali 31-0, 25 KO's), the first time this had ever occurred in a heavyweight championship fight.

The fight was billed as "The Fight of the Century" and as many have agreed, it definitely lived up to the title. The fight went the full distance at the time of 15 rounds, and Ali came out dominant first. He peppered Frazier with jabs and used his famous footwork to out-maneuver the champion in the first two rounds. In the closing moments of the third, however, Frazier landed a big hook right on the jaw of Ali, drawing the crowd's reaction as Ali's head snapped back.

Frazier kept this momentum up in the fourth, landing more of his dangerous left hooks both the head and body of Ali. Ali fought back with big shots of his own however and it was a great back and forth battle for the next two rounds.

He was able to put together good combinations against Frazier in the 6th, but this would be the turning point as Ali appeared very fatigued following that round. Both men had championship heart however, and the back and forth battle between the two heavyweights raged on and in round 8, we see another huge shot from Frazier do damage to Ali, although he was able to survive the round.

After a good round by Ali in the 9th where he showcased his defensive ability and counter striking, Frazier once again took over in the 10th taking advantage of Ali's fatigue and in the 11th Frazier landed another big left hook which led Ali to fall to knee and gloves but shortly get back up, strangely with no count or knockdown signaled by the referee.

Ali still fought back hard and gave Frazier all he had, but it wasn't enough, and early in round 15 Frazier landed another huge left hook that this time sent Ali down to the canvas. He got up quickly though, and was able to survive the rest of the fight. However at the end the judges scorecards confirmed that on that night, after a historic battle, Joe Frazier was the better fighter. He won by Unanimous decision and retained his Undisputed Heavyweight title in one of the greatest fights in history.

Part 2

In the second fight, which didn't take place until January of 1974, we got a more seasoned version of both fighters coming back to face off against each other once again in a non-world-title 12 round bout.

Ali had done some serious work in his fights leading up to the second bout with Frazier. After "The Fight of the Century" Ali racked up an 11-1 record, avenging his only loss, a Split decision to Ken Norton just 6 months later with a decision win of his own over Norton. He also had 5 KO's during that span.

Frazier was a bit less active since his first fight with Ali, fighting only 4 times since his title defense in "The Fight of the Century". He successfully defended his title twice before being TKO'd by Heavyweight legend George Foreman in the second round of their championship fight.

He won in a fight in Britian by points (their version of decisions) and then was set to square off the second time against Ali. This fight played out much differently, and mostly because Ali took a smarter strategy into the ring with him in this fight. He came out aggressively from the start winning rounds one and two, even hurting Frazier with a huge right hand at the end of the second. A mistakenly-called stop by the referee (who thought he heard the bell) allowed Frazier to recover from this blow, however.

The tactics that Ali employed that helped him win the fight were a combination of offensive and defensive. He used his height advantage to clinch up Frazier when he tried to work inside for his body blows that set up his left hooks, and while he did this he also tied up the left hand of Frazier with his right so he couldn't use it.

Throughout the fight Ali used this strategy, going for combinations and lightning fast flurries and then after them, clinching so Frazier couldn't come back with his power punches. Frazier tried to throw heavy still and had some punches connect, but not nearly enough to damage or faze Ali, and although many considered this second fight to be least eventful of the trilogy, it showed the intelligence of Ali in not brawling with the more powerful man. He used his speed to land more and his size to stuff the offense of Frazier so he couldn't even begin to build any sort of Momentum. He did this through the whole fight, and Ali took home the Unanimous Decision Victory against Joe Frazier.

Part 3: The Fight of the Century, Thrilla in Manila

Now we get to one of the greatest, if not THE greatest fight in Heavyweight Boxing history. After his win over Joe Frazier, Ali was slated to face the man that beat him, George Foreman, and in a spectacular display of skill, heart, and speed, Ali was able to invent the rope-a-dope technique mid fight and out boxed Foreman until he over-pursued and Ali landed a flurry that knocked him down and subsequently out.

He then went on with his recaptured Undisputed Heavyweight Championship and defended it 3 times, knocking two of his opponents out. He was back on top and looking unbeatable once again. Frazier went on after his loss to Ali and TKO'd his next two opponents, showing that he still had what it takes and that he wanted another, final shot at Ali too officially dethrone him and take back the title.

The fight was billed as the "Thrilla in Manila" taking place at the Philippine Coliseum (originally Araneta Coliseum, but renamed specifically for the fight) in Quezon City of the Philippines on October 1, 1975. Prior to the fight, Frazier corner man Eddie Futch played a pivotal role in making sure that a Filipino referee was chosen, as he objected to the American referees thinking they would allow Ali to overly-use his effective but illegal clinching and tie-up techniques.

He caught the attention of the Filipino officials by suggesting that choosing a Filipino referee would reflect well on the country and be a source of pride for its people. Filipino Boxing referee Carlos Padilla, Jr. was then chosen as the third man in the ring for this bout.

The fight itself was nothing more than spectacular. Ali started out fast and tee'd off against the slow-starting Frazier, landing many jabs and right hands that followed them. Ali won the first two rounds easily with his jabs, movement, and was successfully keeping Frazier at bay.

In the 3rd he began to use his rope-a-dope technique but against Frazier it wasn't as successful. Frazier's strength was power punching at short distances and Ali backing into the ropes allowed him to do just that. He landed some powerful body shots showing he could still land on Ali when his strengths were being played to. Ali also returned with a huge flurry at the head of Frazier, an extremely aggressive attack for the usually calmer Ali. This was because his strategy in this fight early on was to attack Frazier's head aggressively and often, so that it would get harder for him as the fight went on.

In the 5th round, Frazier began to get his timing and was able to begin finding his way past Ali's jabs. Ali went back to the rope-a-dope but this continued to prove ineffective against Frazier's body shots and hooks. Ali's guard visibly lowers as he has to cover up from the barrage to his body. In the 6th round, early on, Frazier lands a devastating left hook to the side of the head, knocking him back into the corner of the ropes behind him, but he ate it and continued to fight on, still standing. Frazier continued with his barrage and again landed a MASSIVE left hook to the head of Ali.

However to everyone's surprise Ali stood strong, and was able to survive the rest of the round and wasn't knocked down. It was clear that if this wasn't Ali, this fight would've been over. The fact that he was able to take those punches and keep fighting shows what kind of level Ali was on.

Even years later, while Frazier watched the video of his 3rd match with Ali for first time, he shook his head after watching Ali take those punches. Even he couldn't believe the man still stood after that. Ali tried the rope-a-dope for a bit in the 7th but after it was apparent that he was appealing to Frazier's strength he moved forward. In the 8th round these men put it all on the line and there was no going back.

Ali and Frazier traded in the early minutes of the 8th and traded punches, which Ali was landing more of. At the end of this round Ali grew tired and Frazier was able to land a great body and head combo in the last 30 seconds. 

he 9th and 10th rounds were just as brutal, with Ali continuing his relentless attack and Frazier still hanging on and throwing power Ali's way. After the 11th round, a round where Ali clearly landed more shots and more effective shots, Frazier's face was swelling up. This combined with the fact that Frazier was partially blind in his left eye due to an accident in 1965 was very troublesome for Frazier. In fact, when his corner asked about all the right hands he was taking he admitted that the couldn't see some of the shots Ali was landing. When his corner asked him to stand upright to see better in the 12th Ali found his rhythm and landed many shots off of the ropes, doing more damage to the head of Frazier.

In the 13th the turning point came when Ali landed a couple of right hands one of which knocked out Frazier's mouthguard. In round 14, Ali came forward with all of his might, power, and fuel left in his tank and landed punch after punch on Frazier in the 14th round rendering his face a swollen mess.

His corner man, Eddie Futch decided to stop the fight after the 14th round, and even if Frazier persisted saying he wanted Ali, Futch had this to say before saving his fighter from his own toughness:

"It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today."

He signaled to Carlos Padilla, jr. that Frazier was done, and the fight was stopped. Ali collapsed in exhaustion and relief, and beat Joe Fraizer by 14th round TKO due to corner retirement to retain his Undisputed Heavyweight championship, and also came out on top in the greatest trilogy of fights the world has ever seen.

This trilogy of fights shows an era of boxing most aren't aware of when they compare it to today's sport. Back then before the days of MMA where the greatest stage was boxing, men often spent more than the limit of today's 12 rounds in a ring fighting for their life. These men were willing to die for their sport. Ali even later admitted, that he felt as such during the third fight with Frazier…that it was the closest he had ever been to dying. We will never get to see an epic series of battles like those in the glory days of boxing but we can always look back to these moments, as they will stand forever in history as the greatest battles in the ring that the world will ever know. 


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