Forty years have passed since that night in 1971. But for anyone who was around then - sports fan or not - the Ali versus Frazier fight is still clearly remembered. This was more than a boxing match. This was the culture war brought to life. No one was neutral on that night. Everyone not only backed one man or the other - but fervently so.
And how fitting that what turned-out to be the greatest boxing match in history took place in New York's Madison Square Garden. No other venue than the very epicenter of world sports could possibly have done justice to what was known before - and after - as the fight of the century. Few events so eagerly anticipated ever live-up to the hype. This one exceeded it.
The anti-war movement was in full force. The counter-culture had emerged. The Black Liberation movement (as we then called it) was going full throttle. Nearly every issue of the most radical of all publications at the time - The Black Panther - featured a photo of the exiled Ali with the caption "The People's Champ". Nothing else needed to be said. We all got it. He was us.
A Night to Forget
Joe Frazier was what we all thought we were trying to get away from. He was conservative, humble, deferential. In the black community at the time, everyone's parents liked Joe. But to us young, radical, paradigm challenging youth - Ali was mythic. We were embarrassed by Joe Frazier. We were inspire and proud of Muhammed Ali. And his victory over "the Man's Champion" was to be a very delicious - and rare - bit of cultural redemption for an entire generation. An entire world view.
Well, the rest - as they say - is history. Frazier went on to win that fight in dramatic fashion. Withstanding 14 1/2 rounds of unbelievable abuse until - through an unfathomable act of pure will - he knocked Ali down in the waning moments of the 15th and last round - and thereby won the title. And to us - Amerika had won - and the people had lost.
Times have changed. And so have we. Older and wiser, as the saying goes. And the saying is right.
Joe Frazier died yesterday. And when I heard the news, I thought of that night so long ago - and I remembered my disappointment. And it was weird. The feeling now seemed foreign to me.
The electricity of the age had long ago faded, and given way to the struggle we all wage. The struggle to survive, to grow, to prosper and be complete. And with each skirmish in that battle - I grew to understand - and appreciate - Joe Frazier more and more.
Here was a simple man - struggling against every barrier America could erect - for maybe the only goal worth struggling for; dignity. And as much as anyone in the history of sports - he had won that struggle.
I didn't realize it then - but I do now; that his attainment of dignity was the real victor that night. And because of it - we all gained a little ground in our own pursuit of the same.