There really was a heyday of boxing, when it meant so much more than just two guys getting into the ring and slugging it out. The first Ali-Frazier fight was the culmination of that heyday.

It’s easy to see it as just two people getting into a ring and duking it out for 15 rounds, until Frazier slipped in that left hook that knocked Ali down and thus ended up winning what was a very close fight. But it really was so much more. It was the end of an era where politics had gotten into boxing in more ways than one, and probably the last time the races were both against each other and together at the same time.

Muhammad Ali was fighting his 3rd fight since the Supreme Court had ruled that his not going to Vietnam because of being a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs was protected as a Constitutional right. No other boxer in history had to lose the right to his profession based on a federal case such as this, and for 3 years Ali basically didn’t get to do anything. He couldn’t even leave the country to fight; and he hadn’t really qualified to be drafted in the first place.

It was a time when one realized that the federal government could change the rules any time they wanted to. It was a time when we saw just how far the races still had to go to come together. It was a time when the youth of America could be seen as a changing force in this country, something they keep proving they have the power to do whenever they can pull themselves together.

In the time Ali had gone away, Joe Frazier had come into the sport and assumed the mantle of champion. But not many people saw it that way because Ali was the champion. They had taken it away from him, and until someone beat him, he was the champ. Joe was probably a very nice guy; I didn’t care, because I was an Ali fan. Ali was the people’s champ; Ali was the “black people’s” champ; that’s just how it was. Joe Frazier might as well have been Floyd Patterson, of whom I was too young to know about at the time, but was considered, strangely enough, the “white hope” to shut Ali up, since Patterson was black. Didn’t happen; Patterson didn’t have the talent or the speed or the size to keep up with someone like Ali.

Neither did Frazier. But he had heart and a fairly strong chin, and he and Ali traded with each other for 15 rounds. I didn’t see it until many years later, but I listened to the fight on the radio, which one could do back then. However, it was also on closed circuit TV in theaters across the country, the first time that had happened for a boxing match. It wasn’t the Ali of 1967, the swift footed champion, as he’d lost some of that while out of the ring, but he was pretty good. Frazier was tough, and he took it all.

Frazier won the fight, but spent days in the hospital afterwards. He still didn’t get the accolades he probably deserved, and later he went up against a man even bigger and stronger than Ali and got manhandled, a man Ali eventually beat. But it didn’t mean anything by that time. The politics were gone. The worry about race relations, at least in that regard, were gone. This fight was as big as the O. J. Simpson trial back then; that’s why it still stands out.

It was a time when the races could have found common ground and lost. Just like the O. J. Simpson trial, it was polarizing. There was no opportunity to find positive steps towards diversity. And it’s too bad.

But it was a slice of magic, even laying there in bed, pretending to be asleep, listening to my transistor radio. And my dad knew I had listened because the next morning he woke me up before having to go to work and asked me who won the fight.

No lessons today, just a reminiscence. Now Ali can’t talk because of Parkinson’s, and Joe Frazier still doesn’t really get the respect he deserves. Hard to overcome someone who was a legend in your time.

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