By Ray Schultz
More than most sports fans, boxing enthusiasts like to fantasize about hypothetical matchups: Would Dempsey have beaten Louis, would Louis have whipped the Klitchkos, would Duran have gotten to Benny Leonard?
I’m guilty of it, too. But I mostly wonder about two men who actually did fight—Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
What would have happened if they’d fought when Ali was in his prime in 1967?
To consider this, one has to crawl out from under the weight of history.
The first bout between this pair took place in 1971 when Ali was just back form his 3 ½-year exile. He was rusty, and no longer had the legs that had once carried him. Frazier was at his best: He had Ali in serious trouble in the 11th and floored him in the 15th. It was a clear win for the man from Philadelphia.
Three years later, after Frazier had lost to George Foreman, Ali won a close 12-round decision over Joe in a fast-paced bout. He staggered Frazier in the 2nd but had to survive savage left hooks later in the fight.
Still, his legs held out and most pundits agree he had outboxed Frazier. In 1975, when both were shopworn, they fought the Thrilla in Manila, a brutal fight that Ali won by TKO at the end of the 14th round after they had pummeled each other incessantly.
The common wisdom is that Ali’s last fights before his exile were his best—he destroyed Cleveland Williams in three, dominated Ernie Terrell in 15 and kayoed Zora Folley in 7. Angelo Dundee wondered where he could have gone from there.
That’s clear in hindsight. Frazier was rising in the rankings in 1967, having stopped George Chuvalo and Eddie Machen. He was already a threat, although not quite as seasoned as he would later be.
That spring, though, Ali refused induction in the Army, and was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and forbidden to fight.
To envision an earlier Ali-Frazier fight, you have to accept one of several unlikely scenarios. One is that Ali served in the Army. But that would have put him out action, too, for a couple of years, so he might have been just as rusty when he met Frazier.
Or, to create an alternate universe, you could imagine there was no Vietnam war and no racial injustice and that Ali just breezed through his career.
I feel a little guilty even thinking about this—it’s irresponsible, given the state of the world and what happened to both of them. But let’s imagine that they ought early in 1968—in fact, maybe on March 8, the date they fought on in 1971. Would Ali have dominated the fight and knocked Frazier out?
I suspect that Ali would have fought Frazier much the same as he did in 1974, dancing and throwing combinations, only more effectively, jarring his opponent with rights, swelling his face and staying away from him on surer legs.
But Frazier would have applied enormous pressure, driving in with his left hooks. Ali might have won a lopsided decision, but it would not have been easy.
Picture this alternate scenario, though: That Ali, who had been champ for four years and might have been a bit jaded, would have underestimated Joe. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone down from a left hook as he did in 1971, but he could have run out of steam at some point, losing points while clowning around.
It has been said that Ali had mostly faced older fighters. Here was a younger one who could give and take enormous punishment.
The fight would have been a classic, and it doubtless would have led to a rematch and maybe to a three-fight series, the outcomes being much the same as they were years later.
Styles being what they were, Frazier would have given Ali hell at any time. And both men would have emerged damaged.