Fight of the Century was the promotional nickname given to the first boxing match between champion Joe Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) and challenger Muhammad Ali (31-0, 25 KOs), held on March 8, 1971 at New York's Madison Square Garden.
The two fighters were the subject of numerous magazine cover stories and TV documentaries. They were guaranteed purses of $2.5 million each, then a record for a single prizefight.
By the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of policemen to control the crowd, outrageously dressed fans, and countless celebrities, from Norman Mailer and Woody Allen to Frank Sinatra, who took photographs for Life magazine. Artist LeRoy Neiman painted Ali and Frazier as they fought. Burt Lancaster served as a color commentator for the closed-circuit broadcast. Even though Lancaster had never performed as a sports commentator before, he was hired by the fight's promoter Jerry Perenchio, who was also a friend of his. The other commentators were play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy and boxing champion Archie Moore.
The fight itself exceeded even its promotional hype. Ali dominated the first three rounds, peppering the shorter Frazier with rapier-like jabs that raised welts on the champion's face. Frazier began to dominate in the fourth, catching Ali with several of his famed left hooks and pinning him against the ropes to deliver tremendous body blows. The fight was about even until late in round 11, when Frazier caught Ali, backed into a corner, with a crushing left hook that almost floored Ali, sending him falling into the ropes. Ali managed to survive the round, but from then on Frazier seemed to come back in the next three rounds. At the end of round 14 Frazier held a lead on the three scorecards. Early in round 15, Frazier landed a spectacular left hook that put Ali on his back (for only the third time in his career). Ali, his right jaw swollen grotesquely, got up from the blow quickly, and managed to stay on his feet for the rest of the round despite several terrific blows from Frazier. A few minutes later the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss.
Ali was visibly tired after the 6th round, and though he put together some flurries of punches after that round, he was unable to keep the pace he had set in the first third of the fight.
This was the most crushing defeat for Ali. He was still in his prime and took many hard blows to the head and body. Ali would not win another world title fight until three and a half years later, on October 30, 1974. The only time that Ali looked worse was in the Larry Holmes fight. In that fight Ali was 38 and was defeated by Larry Holmes as Ali's corner threw in the towel after the 10th round.
Ali and Frazier fought twice more, Ali winning both encounters. The last of these was the 1975 Thrilla in Manila, which, like the first bout, won the Ring Magazine fight of the year award and many other honors.
Both boxers are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.