This article originally appeared in The New York Times on March 9, 1971.
In a classic 15-round battle, Joe Frazier broke the wings of the butterfly and smashed the stinger of the bee last night in winning a unanimous 15-round decision over Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden.
Defying an anonymous “lose or else” death threat, Frazier settled the controversy over the world heavyweight championship by handing Ali his first defeat with a savage attack that culminated in a thudding knockdown of the deposed titleholder from a hammerlike left hook in the final round.
But even before Ali’s jaw began to bloat, the unbeaten Frazier had dulled the vaunted weapons of his revival in recording his 27th victory, although he failed in his quest for his 24th knockout. Ali’s defeat ended his winning streak after 31 triumphs, with 25 knockouts.
“I always knew who the champion was,” Frazier, his brow swollen above each eye, said with a smile.
Ali had predicted Frazier would fall “in six rounds” and he had maintained that there was “no way” the recognized champion could outpoint him. But the swarming Philadelphia brawler, battering his Cherry Hill, N.J., neighbor, ended the 29-year-old Ali’s credibility as a prophet.
At the age of 27, Frazier justified his reign for all the world to see on a television network with an audience estimated at 300 million. Each fighter will receive $2.5 million from a possible $25 million in total worldwide receipts. The $1,352,951 gate at the Garden was a record for an indoor bout.
Ali remained unscratched, except for a slightly bloodied nose, but his jaw began to swell on both sides in the late rounds from Frazier’s persistent hammering.
In the final round, Frazier landed a wild left hook that sent Ali sprawling onto his back in a corner. But the 6-to-5 betting underdog was up almost instantly and took the mandatory eight-count on unsteady feet. Moments later, Frazier jolted his 215-pound rival with another left hook.
With a minute remaining, Ali desperately tried for a knockout, but his punches had virtually no effect. With the crowd roaring in the final seconds, the bell rang and Frazier playfully cuffed Ali across his head, bowed in apparent defeat.
When the decision was announced, a patter of boos erupted, but the cheers soon thundered above them.
While his exile matured Ali’s physique, it sabotaged his speed. But in red velvet trunks, he was as arrogant as ever even before the midring instructions. Twice he shouldered Frazier, in green-and-gold brocade trunks, as he whirled around the ring. And twice Frazier glared in contempt.
During the early rounds, Frazier pounded his left hook into Ali’s midsection, but several times the deposed champion shook his head in the clinch as if to reassure his idolators.
At the end of the second round, Ali waved his right glove in derision at Frazier as they walked to their corners. And during that intermission, he showed his disdain by refusing to rest on his stool and moving threateningly to the center of the ring before the bell rang for the third.
Moments later, Ali’s voice could be heard through the microphone hanging over the ring. Mercante warned Ali that “no talking” would be tolerated.
Soon, Ali wasn’t talking anymore. Near the end of the fourth, Frazier’s left hook bloodied Ali’s nose. And in the fifth, Frazier strayed from his taciturn character.
Frazier was literally laughing in Ali’s face now and he was in command. When the bell ended the fifth round, Frazier cuffed Ali across the top of the head.