Joe Frazier died Monday night at the age of 63, and with his passing, the sport lost more than a legendary athlete. Frazier’s death comes at a time when the sport that propelled him to iconic status is receding in the national consciousness.
The golden age of boxing, which seemed to culminate with the infamous match-ups between Frazier and Muhammad Ali, has passed along with most of its stars. While today's boxing is seen as a just another sport — and a pretty vicious one at that — Frazier's passing brings back memories of a time when ringside seats were akin to the front row of New York Fashion Week.
On the night of their first match-up, March 8, 1971, more than 700 press credentials were distributed, and 500 more turned down. The fight where Frazier retained his belt against Ali was the first card to be fought in the new Madison Square Garden, the mecca for the best boxing matches during the heydays of the 1970s.
Stars like Dustin Hoffman and Diana Ross, who were rumored to have been thrown out after trying to sneak into the press section during the “fight of the century” in MSG, were regular attendees.
John Shearer, a photographer for Life magazine who took pictures of the night, said “people were in all of their finery, from the outlandish to the most elegant.”
And as a result, those in the ring became stars as well. Not just fighters like Ali and Frazier. But supporting actors like the sportscaster Howard Cosell and promoter Don King. They became nationally recognized figures who impacted the era’s style. Cosell’s wry sensibility on the microphone opened up sports broadcasting to the concept of “color commentary.” King’s outsized promotional tactics brought took the Hollywood glitz that celebrities brought ringside with their attendance and sprinkled it on the more benign rituals of the sports like the weigh-in. His bombastic pronouncments and camera friendly tactics turned the site of two men in boxers taking turns on scales into an event worth media coverage and attention.
The three times that Joe Frazier fought Muhammad Ali, the whole world stood up and paid attention. The fighters’ “Thrilla in Manila,” would become such an iconic moment that it was the focal point of the biopic “Ali” starring Will Smith. Beyond that bout, anytime “Smokin” Joe Frazier stepped into the ring was a pop culture moment for the times.
Ringside seats attracted the fashionable elements of society, and became the place to be photographed.
Ali even got in on the fashion scene at the time. He released a sportswear line bearing his name in October 1980. Harold Schulman, a menswear retailing pro who had a license for the line, told the Post “We don’t see him as a boxer, or as a controversial person but as the most recognizable face in the world today. . . .”
Such was the power and prestige of professional boxers at the time.
The contrasts with today’s boxing scene are stark. This weekend, the world’s most famous boxer Manny Paquio will be squaring off against Juan Manuel Marquez. Paquio and Marquez are matching their pugilist predecessors from the 70’s with this, their third fight. But the anticipation for this trilogy pales in comparison to Ali-Frazier. Attention is fractured across the sporting scene with stories like Major League Baseball free agency and football coach Joe Paterno being fired at Penn State.
Even in the fighting world, the Paquio-Marquez III superfight is contending with a mixed martial arts card the same night. The Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion features a fight between their own heavyweights (champion Cain Vasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos) and airing it on free network television. It is a calculated bid by flamboyant UFC promoter Dana White to continue his sport’s march to the front of the sporting world’s fighting attention span. It’s a bold move reminiscent of boxing’s golden age when a flamboyant promoter named Don King took Ali and Frazier to Manila to build interest in their rematch.
To see more photos from the “fight of the century,” and Joe Frazier, visit Life.com.