For once in a gabby, gaudy career that transcended sport, Ali understated. His loss to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, New York on 8 March 1971 when challenging for the heavyweight championship was more than fatigue allowed him immediately to remember. More than just a helluva a fight, it was among the most thrilling in boxing history.
Millions of television viewers worldwide sensed the excitement. "I don't know why people speak of Manila [the site, in 1975, of their third epic encounter]," Frazier said last week, "because the first time was the biggest fight in the world. No fight can touch it. We were both undefeated and the atmosphere was tremendous. All the roads were jammed. People couldn't get into the city."
The novelist Budd Schulberg wrote: "When it was announced that two prize fighters, two black men, two heavyweight champions were to divide a purse of $5m to decide which was the one true champion, a special excitement ran through the country, the big money excitement, for this was an event as significant to the Wall Street Journal as it was to Ring magazine."
There was the effect of Ali's cultural independence too, his strident presence a symbol of black consciousness. Stripped of the title in 1967, Ali had only recently returned from more than three years in exile and was still waiting for the US Supreme Court to rule on appeal against a five-year prison term imposed by the Department of Justice when he refused to be drafted for Vietnam.
Polarising opinion, Ali had become all things to all people - hero, traitor, scoundrel, zealot, bigot, philanderer, rabble-rouser prophet, but above all the most remarkable and charismatic sportsman the world has ever known.
The resurrection proved difficult. Despite the efforts of a persuasive cohort, Harold Conrad, state after state had refused Ali a licence when, astonishingly, permission came from racist Georgia. Coming back in Atlanta on 7 October 1970, Ali stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds. A victory over Oscar Bonevena in New York two months later, one that saw the tough Argentinian floored three times before he was stopped in the 15th round, brought Ali into contention for Frazier's title.
With his ferocious Philadelphia-style hooking, Frazier was from the old school, a no-nonsense champion and the antithesis of Ali. Frazier did not play his colour up or down. He concentrated on his work and stepped scrupulously aside from racial issues, ignoring the vibrant new militancy with which Ali was so closely identified. As a poor boy of just six, helping his father to scratch a living from parched fields, Frazier knew bigotry and discrimination and had a much tougher childhood than Ali, but he was content to pursue the American dream. Thus, at a time of great social strife, he was a symbol of black conservatism.
Soon, it wasn't a fight any more, it was a happening, but someone had to bring it all together. The mantle was taken up by a Hollywood hustler, Jerry Perenchio who didn't know a gumshield from a groin protector. Perenchio was bred in television, came of age with the medium, learned with others that the medium was the message. A hawker of happenings, he latched on to one that the world would be watching and persuaded a Canadian millionaire sports buff, Jack Kent Cooke to put up the money.
Differences in application, the irresistible contest between speed and power added to the fascination. The powerful slugger, Frazier, who had defeated Jimmy Ellis for the vacant title, moving relentlessly forward unleashing murderous hooks, Ali, brilliantly unorthodox, each man confronted with the ultimate problem of solving the style of the other.
The referee, Arthur Mercante, did not learn he was to handle the fight until three hours beforehand. "I couldn't imagine ever being involved in anything bigger," he said. "This was to determine the true champion of the world. When I climbed into the ring I could feel goosepimples."
Celebrities were everywhere at ringside, and an estimated 40,000 people filled the streets around Madison Square Garden. Tickets changed hands for three times their face value and were snatched from the hands of unwary punters.
When the two great champions finally came together a suspicion about Ali was soon confirmed. The hands were still breathtakingly quick but exile had taken away his leg speed. The further it went the clearer it became that Frazier was winning. Ali found Frazier easy to hit but the punches he took in return, especially to the body, were shocking by comparison.
In the 10th round, when trying to break them, Mercante caught Frazier in an eye with one of his fingers. "I heard Joe shout that there were two guys beating up on him and I feared a big controversy. What if Joe blamed me at the end of the round for not being able to see properly? Fortunately, he got on with it."
The last thing Frazier's manager, Yank Durham, said before they left the dressing-room was, "Win this and your life is paved". Just before the bell for the 15th and final round, Durham put a slightly different slant on the message. "He came on with that we crap," Frazier recalled. `If we win this'... I growled that there was only one of us going out there."
It was the round in which Ali took such a heavy punch that it seemed his jaw was broken. "I fired off two hooks," Frazier recalled. "The first wasn't much but the second got all of him." Ali went down on his backside, eyes closed, mouth open, legs in the air. "But I knew he had to get up," Frazier recalled, "that the man's pride wouldn't let him stay down there."
The official scorecards confirmed an impression held generally. Mercante had the contest 8-6 in Frazier's favour with one round even. The two ringside judges had Frazier ahead 9-6 and 11-4.
Ali avenged the defeat in a non-title fight and again in Manila, causing Frazier to retire at the end of the 14th round when both men were utterly exhausted.
Comfortably off, Frazier is seen frequently in American boxing circles. Ali treads carefully now, each step a measure of the bleakness that has invaded his mind, and attempts to reach him last week proved fruitless.
A sadness for Jacquelyn Frazier-Lydd, a lawyer and eldest of Frazier's 11 children, is that her father and Ali are not better friends. "Dad has respect for Ali but there isn't any love there," she said.
You know what she means because in that ring 25 years ago they were as one, really something.Reuse content