The following article is a dedicated contribution from Jeff Burns.
Ali returned to the ring in November stopping two-time former champion Floyd Patterson in round 12. He made a further seven defences of his title, beating the durable Canadian George Chuvalo on points in Toronto before stopping Henry Cooper, again on cuts at Ar in Frankfurt then magnificently stopped Cleveland Williams in the third in Houston. He then maliciously out-boxed WBA champion Ernie Terrell over 15 again in Houston before knocking out Zora Folley in the seventh round at the Madison Square Garden.
The fight with Folley was to be Ali's last for three and a half years!
The bout with Folley, who had previously knocked out Henry Cooper in two rounds, was to be Ali’s last contest for three and a half years as he was stripped of his title after his boxing licence was suspended and his passport confiscated.
Ali had refused to accept a draft into the US Army on religious grounds
Ali had refused to accept a draft into the US Army on the grounds that his religious beliefs made him a conscientious objector. He was jailed for five years though the sentence was revoked on appeal. Ali, in defiance of the US authorities, was quoted as saying "I got no quarrel with the Vietcong, I never heard any of them call me a nigger." He was unable to earn his livelihood as a professional boxer, it is estimated that his stance may have cost him more than $20million in ring and subsidiary earnings.
During Ali’s enforced absence from the ring two boxers emerged as contenders for the vacant title. Firstly, his stable-mate and sparring partner Jimmy Ellis who was also from Louisville Kentucky and trained by Angelo Dundee and secondly the 1964 Olympic heavyweight gold medallist Joe Frazier. In a clash for the title that was left vacant by Ali’s suspension Frazier stopped Ellis in the fourth to become undisputed heavyweight champion.
US citizens were beginning to respect the stance he had taken...
Around the latter part of 1969 and into the 1970’s attitudes toward American involvement in Vietnam were changing and many US citizens felt it was time to withdraw. Simultaneously there was an organised campaign to reinstate Ali’s boxing licence, which was as much to do with a growing clamour for a Frazier-Ali showdown as any support for his religious beliefs or opposition to the war in Vietnam. Resentment toward Ali was also diminishing. US citizens were beginning to respect the stance he had taken and the sacrifice he had made in upholding his religious beliefs.
The state of Georgia was the first to reinstate his licence and would host the return of his comeback fight against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on 26th October 1970. In spite of all the excitement about Ali’s return his fight with Quarry ended prematurely and before achieving its potential excitement. His Californian opponent was not selected as cannon fodder, he was a real live opponent, a genuine contender for the heavyweight title and was expected to provide Ali with a testing comeback. He was badly cut in round three before the fight had really warmed up and referee Tony Perez had no alternative but to halt proceedings.
Ali made a quick return to the ring and again his opponent was no pushover. It was against Argentine strongman Oscar Bonavena, a highly ranked contender who had twice taken champion Frazier to hotly disputed decisions. In spite of his long layoff Ali showed true grit out-scoring Bonavena and dropping him three times in the 15th and last round forcing the automatic stoppage.
Whether Ali was ready to take on Frazier for the title remains a debatable issue but it was the fight that the whole of the boxing fraternity wanted to see. It had already been billed the fight of the century!
The fight of the century?
The champion "Smokin’" Joe Frazier out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was Olympic Gold medallist in the 1964 Tokyo Games and undisputed heavyweight champion of the World, unbeaten in 26 contests with 23 inside the distance. He was to fight Muhammad Ali from Louisville, Kentucky and Olympic Gold medallist in the 1960 Rome Games, retired undefeated heavyweight champion of the World, unbeaten in 31 contests, 25 inside the distance wins. What a match! Indeed the fight of the century would take place at the Madison Square Garden on 8th March 1971.
Joe Frazier knocks down Muhammad Ali...
The fight certainly lived up to its billing from the first bell! Frazier was pressing, perpetual motion swaying from side to side crouching low with lateral movement making him a difficult target for Ali’s lightning jabs. Ali was no longer the dancing master who could stay on his toes for 15 rounds, he was forced to take respite on the ropes, as the champion in relentless pursuit, pounded his midriff. The three and a half years layoff had taken its toll, Ali was constantly trapped on the ropes by the determined Frazier. In the 15th and final round Smokin’ Joe stamped his seal on victory catching Ali with a thunderous left hook which must surely have been a knockout blow, amazingly Ali got to his feet and fought valiantly to the final bell! Joe Frazier was quite correctly adjudged the winner on the scorecards of the referee Arthur Mercante and the two judges of a fight that lived up to its label as the fight of the century!
After the fight both boxers spent time in hospital suffering from exhaustion!
After the fight both boxers spent some time in hospital suffering from exhaustion, but already fight fans were looking forward to the prospect of a return fight, though Frazier’s handlers had other ideas matching the champion with two unranked challengers in Terry Daniels and Ron Stander.
After a 10-month break Frazier stopped Terry Daniels in the fourth round in January 1972 and four months later halted Ron Stander in five rounds. There were no plans to engage in a return with Ali. The next appointment in Frazier's diary was a title defence against 1968 Olympic heavyweight gold medallist George Foreman which had been arranged for the following January.