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Beautiful Photograph: Ali vs Frazier, 1971

I’m a teenager of the 70s and my absolute love of boxing was founded in the training gym of Des Mills at the George Town Boxing Club. The smell of Goanna Oil, sweat and machismo that drove us two nights a week was fuelled by legends like Ali, Frazier, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Class fighters of the day.

When Alex Charchar shared on Twitter a geometric dissection of a classic Ali vs Frazier photograph my brain bubbled with nostalgic excitement. Those were also the days of film photojournalism – you could say I’ve developed an even deeper passion for film photography than boxing.

So here is the background to that beautiful photograph.

The setting was Madison Square Garden at 8th Avenue in Manhattan on March 8, 1971 for the The Fight of the Century between Heavyweight Champion of the World Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Their boxing records were an impressive Frazier at 26 wins (23 by Knock Out) and 0 losses; Ali stepped into the ring with a record of 31 wins (25 by Knock Out) and 0 losses.

Frazier had a devastating left hook. Ali had a punishing left jab and as a boxer’s boxer he could pull devastating combinations out of a hat. Frazier was a fighter and Ali was a boxer. Frazier was pro-establishment. Ali had refused to fight in the white man’s war in Vietnam stating “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger” and had been stripped of his World Heavyweight title and banned from fighting in 1967. With two fights in 1970, Ali had gained his shot at regaining the title from Frazier.

The gangsters and actors were all there. This was a fight so hard to get tickets to watch that Frank Sinatra entered with a press pass and a 35mm camera and shot the cover for Sports Illustrated from the front row.

Ultimately, Frazier’s crushing left hook connected onto Ali several times with the result that in the 15th Round Ali hit the canvas. The fight went the distance and Smokin’ Joe Frazier retained the title. Muhammad Ali suffered his first loss.

The in-fight photography is pretty amazing considering these guys were shooting film ringside at a live event in 1971 with 35mm and medium format cameras. The image Alex Charchar geometrically dissected is a brilliant example (the dimensions indicate it as a 6cm x 4.5cm film negative). The Fight of the Century video clearly shows those photographers right under the bottom rope throughout the event.

An even clearer picture of that photographer-fight dynamic of the 1970s can be seen in Elliott Erwitt’s photograph (of Magnum) taken from back in the crowd as Ali’s knees buckle under that crushing Frazier left hook. Sports photojournalists at work thrust their cameras under that bottom rope to capture the money shot.

While George Foreman took the title from Frazier in 1972, the second (and non-title) fight between Ali and Frazier in 1974 gave a 12 round points decision to Ali. They fought a third time in the gruelling Thrilla in Manila where Frazier couldn’t enter the ring at the beginning of the 15th round because his eyes were swollen closed. Giving Ali 2 wins to Frazier’s 1 win in The Fight of the Century.

Ali went on to re-capture the World Heavyweight Boxing Title from George Foreman in October 1974 in another epic fight called Rumble in the Jungle held in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman had taken the title from the undefeated Frazier in January 1973 at a fight held in Kingston, Jamaica.

All I’m saying is sometimes a beautiful photograph has levels of beauty and being that transcend the time and place of the original event. Life throws a constant array of geometrically balanced frames, and photographers – names like Henri Cartier-Bresson come to mind – are sometimes lucky or adept at spotting that symmetry. It’s all in the beauty and wonder of the universe we live in and why photography excites me even more than boxing.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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