March 8th is a special date on my calendar for a few reasons. It’s my niece and goddaughter Grete’s birthday. It’s also a significant date for two of my favorite athletes - Muhammad Ali and Dick Allen, two of the sporting world’s greatest iconoclasts. Both boxing legend Ali and baseball star Allen were sporting and life inspirations to me while growing up. March 8th is Allen’s birthday and the anniversary of Ali’s famous “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier.
Allen and Ali have much in common beyond being neighbors in the alphabetical community of sports stars:
Allen and Ali, were born just 50 days and 400 miles apart. Allen was born in Wampum, Pennsylvania 70 years ago last Thursday. Ali also recently turned 70. The boxer was then born again 41 years ago March 8th to a public that had ostracized him four years earlier.
Both Allen and Ali were controversial African-American athletes during the modern civil rights era. Both Allen and Ali changed their names as a sign of their independence from the mainstream’s expectations. Both Allen and Ali had larger than life personas. Both Allen and Ali were entertainers in the arts. Both Allen and Ali had regrettable comebacks from retirement. Both Allen and Ali were the most feared sluggers of their respective sports and both Allen and Ali were bigger than life personalities who were impossible to corral.
Muhammad Ali, Boxing’s Iconoclastic Slugger
Ali’s back story is well known. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he won the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960. Ali became the youngest heavyweight to take the championship from the defending champion when he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 and again in 1965. He held the title for three years before being stripped of his title and convicted for refusing conscription into the US Army for the war in Vietnam. Rather than reporting for duty, Ali famously stated:
“I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong... No Viet Cong ever called me nigger"
Ali wasn’t shy about sharing his view on the war. These Ali quotes helped further drive a wedge between the nation’s doves and hawks, young and old and blacks and whites:
“No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.”
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”
Ali was arrested and convicted for draft evasion, but served no time as his case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned four years later. Ali was not permitted to box during most of this period and instead became a national spokesman against the increasingly unpopular war.
March 8, 1971 was known as The Fight of the Century. It was the first time two undisputed champions had fought. It was Ali’s return to the ring after having his boxing license stripped - the first of his trilogy of battles against Smokin’ Joe Frazier. It was the most hyped and anticipated sporting event of the 20th century. I know that is an audacious statement given the hype around all the Super Bowls including SuperBowl III with Joe Namath 26 months earlier. A closer comparison would actually be the Tennis Battle of the Sexes featuring Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King 30 months later.
A record purse of $2.5 million per boxer was offered. All the stars came to Madison Square Garden for the match – Frank Sinatra served as ring photographer and Norman Mailer as reporter for Life Magazine. Woody Allen, Burt Lancaster and many other celebrities of the era had ringside seats. The fight superseded sports and became a cultural clash between the establishment represented by Frazier and the counterculture represented by Ali. Everyone cared about this bout - men and women and adults and children. As a ten year old at Montini Catholic grade school, I became an enterprising businessman. I became a Bowery Boy bookie on the playground at recess taking quarter bets from dozens of children wanting in on the Ali/Frazier excitement. I lost my allowance and then some as Frazier held his title with a unanimous decision.
Almost three years later Ali and Frazier returned to Madison Square Garden for Ali-Frazier II – a nontitle fight. Ali won this one on a unanimous decision to set up his title fight with George Foreman.
Ali defeated Foreman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, which set the stage for the greatest fight of all time - The Thrilla in Manila. It was the finale of Ali and Frazier’s trilogy on October 1, 1975. Ali won on a technical knockout when Frazier did not return for the 15th round.
Ali held the title into 1978 when he lost it to 1976 Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks. He regained the title a record third time in his rematch with Spinks and retired as champ. He subsequently returned to the ring in 1980 in an attempt to regain the title a fourth time from Larry Holmes. The result was disastrous as he lost the fight on a TKO and suffered injuries that many say contributed to his current struggles with Parkinson’s Syndrome. Ali fought once more, a 10 round loss on decision to Trevor Berbick, before retiring for good.
Part Two Next Week: Dick Allen, Baseball’s Iconoclastic Slugger