World Heavyweight Champion: 1974-1978
Muhammad Ali was sidelined for three-and-a-half long years. His rehabilitation into the boxing fold began in August 1970, when Georgia, of all places, broke ranks and granted him a licence. Two months later, on 26 October, Ali stepped into the ring with Jerry Quarry for his first competitive fight since knocking out Zora Folley in March 1967.
Quarry had been a top contender during Ali’s enforced absence. He had taken the WBA champion Jimmy Ellis the distance, and he had lasted seven rounds with the WBC title holder, Joe Frazier. It wasn’t quite a vintage performance – it would have been amazing if it had been – but in the three rounds the fight lasted, Ali showed glimpses that the old verve, panache and silky skills were still there. Naturally, there was ring-rusriness to be shaken off, and the only cure for that was more fights.
He waited just six weeks to give himself another test, and a stiff examination it was, too. His opponent was Argentina’s Oscar Bonavena, a very tough customer who had met Joe Frazier twice and given him plenty to think about. Bonavena lost both fights against Smokin’ Joe on points, but he was certainly durable – and dangerous.
Ali cuts loose
Ali was scoring freely and comfortably ahead on points, but he couldn’t put his man down, let alone out. There was no great shame in that, since nobody else had managed it either. Then, in an explosive 15th round, Ali cut loose and floored Bonavena three times in rapid succession. The Argentine got up each time, but under New York rules the third knockdown of the round brought the fight to an end. The Bonavena fight was an enormous fillip for Ali and his supporters. He had proved he could go the distance if required, and he had put Bonavena on the seat of his pants, something the current champion, Joe Frazier, had failed to do. So it was that just two months and two fights into his comeback, Ali already had Frazier in his sights.
The script was written for Ali’s triumphant return, for him to assume the mantle that had merely been on loan to his opponent. It didn’t work out that way, though. Frazier, like Ali, was an undefeated champion. Ali himself was gracious enough to recognise that his opponent was no usurper; Joe was a worthy title holder in his own right.
It was a murderous encounter, widely regarded as one of the most thrilling in the sport’s history. Ultimately, it proved a step too far for the former champion. Frazier put him down with a brute of a left hook in the final round, but that was academic. All three judges had Frazier ahead when the bell sounded for the end of the contest, one of them by as much as an 11-4 margin.
Ali went off to hospital with a suspected broken jaw. Still dazed and disorientated, he muttered: ‘Must have been a helluva fight, I’m so tired’. Those who subscribe to the ‘they never come back’ school of thought must have believed he was also being carted off into boxing oblivion. He wasn’t far short of his 30th birthday, and his famed leg speed, one of his most important attributes in the ring, seemed to have deserted him.
Doubters proved wrong
How wrong they were. When the dust had settled, Ali and his army of fans looked to the positive. After a long enforced absence he had taken the best in the business (himself excluded!) all the way; he had got up from a left hook that would have finished just about anybody else; and while he was having his jaw checked, Frazier was also on his way to hospital. Ali picked up the cudgels and started knocking over all the top contenders of the day, including Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis and Bob Foster. He praised Britain’s Joe Bugner after the latter took him the distance. By contrast, Frazier was taking things easy. In 1972 he had just two uninspiring fights, against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander, both of whom were stopped in the fourth. Ali cranked up the pressure, taking every opportunity to taunt and belittle the champion. The world wanted to see Frazier v Ali 2.
Events overtook all thoughts of a rematch, however. In January 1973, Frazier lost his crown to George Foreman in four-and-a-half brutal minutes in Kingston, Jamaica. Ali turned his guns on the new champion, only to suffer an unexpected reverse himself.
Nine weeks after Foreman’s defeat of Frazier, Ali took on Ken Norton. He had already agreed a deal worth £1.4 million to fight Foreman in Houston that September. That unravelled in a single punch, when Norton broke Ali’s jaw early in the contest. Ali again showed all his resilience and durability by taking the fight the distance, although defeat was inevitable. Joe Bugner watched the fight and professed himself hugely disappointed with Ali’s performance – until he learned of the injury. Then he was full of praise, for he had first-hand experience of how painful and debilitating a broken jaw was.
Once again the sporting obituary writers were out in force. Ali was nearly 32; surely there was no way back this time.
As usual, Ali proved all the doubters wrong. After a period of recuperation and a couple of warm-up fights -including avenging the defeat by Norton – Ali was ready for the long- awaited rematch with Joe Frazier. It wasn’t a title fight this time, but as an eliminator for the right to face Foreman it had just as much of an edge. Since the 1971 encounter, both men had tasted defeat; whoever was vanquished at Madison Square Garden in January 1974 would surely be staring retirement in the face.
It was a fight of high drama, arguably even better than the previous clash. In the third, seventh and eighth rounds Frazier hit Ali with some blows which fell just short of being decisive. Ali later said he was out on his feet a couple of times, and any other fighter would have succumbed.
Ali’s best moment came in the second, when he sent Frazier reeling with a chopping right. He was prevented from following it up, and maybe finishing the fight, by an amazing refereeing blunder. Believing he’d heard the bell, Tony Perez parted the two men some 10 seconds early. Had Ali not gone on to win a comfortable points decision, this incident would have gone down as one of the most controversial in the sport’s history.
Ali had only one thing in mind after his victory. ‘If George Foreman wants to fight, we can get at it. I think he will meet me because his people want him to be number one and nobody can be that if he doesn’t fight me. He’s got the title, but I’m the people’s champion.’ The Madison Square Garden crowd confirmed this latter point by booing Foreman when he was introduced before the Ali-Frazier fight. They didn’t appreciate the fact that in his 12 months as champion he had fought just once, against a nobody. ‘Rumble in the Jungle’
The Foreman-Ali fight took place in Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974. It was the first time that a heavyweight title bout had been staged in Africa, and what a spectacle it was for the 65,000 people ringside. The Rumble in the Jungle has acquired legendary status in the annals of boxing. At 32, Ali was seven years older than the champion. More tellingly, he had lost to both Frazier and Norton, men whom Foreman had brushed aside disdainfully. Ali remained supremely confident, however. ‘I shall be the matador, Foreman the bull.’
The image was apposite. Ali knew that even he could no longer dance his way out of trouble for the duration of the fight, so he didn’t try. Instead, he drew Foreman onto him, smothering, spoiling or simply absorbing Foreman’s heavy artillery. He backed onto the ropes and into corners, inviting the champion to do his worst. Foreman pounded Ali’s gloves and forearms; his wild swings often missed completely. Barely one punch in ten got through.
When Ali had had enough of this, he launched devastating counter-attacks, picking off his man with volleys of jabs and hooks. By the eighth round, Ali had connected with 65 head shots. It was yet another flashing combination in that round which provided the denouement. The savage right which toppled the champion – in both senses of the word -left him a forlorn, bewildered figure on the canvas. He had never been off his feet before, and he looked helplessly at his corner as he tried to deal with this new and totally unexpected situation. There was no answer, however; the student had to give way to the master.
Joe Frazier was present at the fight, eager to throw down the gauntlet to the victor. Quite understandably, Ali chose three somewhat easier warm-up fights before agreeing to the one everybody wanted to see. His wins over Chuck Wepner and Joe Bugner were dull affairs. Ron Lyle gave a good account of himself before succumbing to an onslaught in the 11th.
Out on their feet
And so to Ali v Frazier 3 – the Thriller in Manila – on 1st October 1975. This was a punishing encounter. In the early stages, Ali had too much speed and too many tricks for his opponent. By round six he was comfortably ahead on points. Then Frazier started to find his target, landing some heavy blows to Ali’s body and head. Both men were almost out on their feet by the end of the 14th. Frazier’s face was a total mess, his eyes just about closed. His corner decided that another three minutes was simply too much to ask, too great a risk. Ali, too, had come perilously close to calling it a day, but in the event he wasn’t required to front up for the 15 th.
Once again Ali could have left the stage with his head held high; once again he declined to do so. He won six more fights in the next two years. Belgium’s Jean-Pierre Coopman and England’s Richard Dunn were easily dispatched, both in the fifth.
The other four challengers all took him the distance. No one doubted the decision over Alfredo Evangelista. The other three fights, against Jimmy Young, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers – were all mighty close. Ali was now a declining force, only occasionally showing flashes of his brilliance.
On 18 February 1978, Ali’s luck ran out. His opponent was Leon Spinks, a novice pro who had taken Olympic light-heavyweight gold at Montreal in 1976, the same title that Cassius Clay had won 16 years earlier. Ali took his man lightly and undertrained. It was to cost him the title and bring his second reign as champion to an end. It would only be the end of another chapter, though; Ali wasn’t finished yet.