Details fade like old newspaper clips after 25 years, but the feeling is still electricity. There is no better word.
Twenty-five years ago last Friday night was Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
They promoted it as "The Fight," and the understatement fed the hype. It was the collision of the story lines of sports, politics, race and emotion of the time. This remains the match of this half of the century. It was the rare event that reached beyond the winning and losing of games and annual championships. It was history.
Ali said, "I'm going to put people where pigeons used to sit." And he did. Frank Sinatra got one of the six photo credentials so he could shoot for Life. Norman Mailer did the text. Burt Lancaster did TV commentary between Don Dunphy's broadcasting.
And the glitterati in the crowd! "I'd never seen men decked out like that night," former sports writer Stan Isaacs remembered. "The women, too," George Kalinsky, the elegant Garden photographer, said, stammering. He gave Sinatra the crash course on shooting a fight.
Ali was undefeated, having returned from three years' suspension and the loss of his title for refusing the draft. Frazier was undefeated; he was the champion. Ali was slick and beautiful and glib, and, dropping his name of Cassius Clay, was one of the first black athletes to embrace the Muslim religion. He called Frazier "the Gorilla" and said he was "too ugly to be champion." Frazier was straight ahead in all matters.
John Crittenden, then with the Miami News, covered much of Ali's training camp in Miami. He recalls Ali hijacking his own bus to go into town and driving poorly. When Crittenden, the lone passenger, blanched, Ali said: "Don't worry; Allah is my co-pilot."
Ali called Frazier a Tom, taunted him for persisting in calling him Clay. Six years earlier Ali cruelly kept Floyd Patterson in the ring for 12 rounds for the purpose of hurting him because he wouldn't use Ali's Muslim name.
Frazier knew to reply to Ali's taunt and wit only by boring ahead. The resentment of Ali that tumbles out of Frazier now was building then. It was a grudge fight.
Kalinsky recalls getting the two together in Frazier's gym in Philadelphia for publicity shots two months earlier. Kalinsky planned to get the two nose-to-nose, which has become the cliche, to spar with each other, and then to get in the ring and have each man spar with the camera Kalinsky held. Frazier, who had ached to fight Ali for years, unloaded a punch to Ali's stomach. Ali's eyes got wide and he pulled his trunks up to his neck.
When Kalinsky got into the ring with his camera, Ali threw punches for three minutes. "He missed the camera by quarters of an inch," Kalinsky said. "I couldn't believe his precision."
The Frazier round lasted about six seconds. "Joe had no precision and I was scared," Kalinsky said. "He just knew how to go forward."
Frazier raged, "That loudmouth is going to learn who the real champion is," and it wasn't part of the sell.
Ali vowed to crawl across the ring to congratulate him if Frazier won. "I will tell him he is the greatest," Ali said. Frazier agreed he would crawl across the ring if he lost. "Except I don't know how I'll do that," Frazier said. "I'll be too beat up, if I lose, to crawl anywhere."
Theater TV was relatively new then. Reception was iffy, but it sold out everywhere for $20 and $25 a seat. It was the most lucrative fight in history then, grossing more than $30 million. Each fighter got $2.5 million.
The late Bob Waters, a marvelous fight writer, Isaacs, Joe Gergen and Tim Moriarty covered for Newsday. I was in Florida with the Yankees and assigned to watch in a theater in Miami, Ali country. I abhor boxing; that was separate and apart.
John Lindsay was the glamorous mayor of New York and he had the Apollo 14 astronauts as his guests. Hubert H. Humphrey was there, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Bernadette Devlin, Peter Falk, politicians and senators. In Kalinsky's photographer's eye, "Everyone was a star." Men wore tuxedos, capes and jewels, women wore tiaras. "The miniskirt and boots were the style," Kalinsky said. "Diamond-studded boots up to the thigh. Evening gowns. White fur capes and stoles. We knew what an event it was before they got into the ring."
The fighters beat each other up, faces lumped and eyes peering through swollen slits. It was virtually even. In the 15th round Frazier knocked Ali flat on his back, his body, Isaacs wrote, "stretched like a stiff on a slab, his feet pointing to the ceiling . . .
"At this point, Ali, who has walked the ghettos to become one of the foremost black heroes in America, was walking on the most famous thoroughfare in boxing: Queer Street."
Waters, Isaacs and Crittenden had Ali winning more rounds. Waters said the judges applied the old "Brooklyn yardstick": You get beat up, you lose. Twenty-five years later we see Ali ravaged by Parkinson's disease, at least partly traced to punches he took.
Ali went to a hospital after the fight. Frazier said, "That shot I hit him with--oh, my God, I had to go back to the country for that one--but he came back."
Frazier said Ali had taunted him by saying, "I'm gonna kill you, nigger."
"I want him to apologize to me," Frazier said. "I want him to say he's sorry for all the things he said about me. I didn't make him crawl across the ring on his hands and knees like he promised."
Then he had said enough. "Let me go and straighten out my face, OK?" Frazier said.
Legend says promoter Jerry Perenchio entered the loser's dressing room and saw Diana Ross kneeling, clutching Ali's legs and sobbing. "Diana," Ali said, "take a look at the man who paid me $2.5 million to get whupped." Ali later went to a hospital to have his battered jaw X-rayed.
The next morning Crittenden went to Ali's hotel room and saw, for some unexplained reason, $100 bills scattered everywhere and Ali in an upbeat mood. "Nobody," he said, "ever licked me twice."
But on fight night Crittenden, writing for an afternoon paper, was battered and lost the decision with the primitive electronics until 4 a.m., resisting throwing the machine out his hotel window, before dictating his story.