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In the wildest dreams of boxing’s most fervent historian no more captivating boxing artifact could be conjured than this pair of boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali against Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier in a boxing match unprecedented in the sport’s history and rightfully dubbed “The Fight of The Century”. The bout saw two undefeated champions wage an epic battle for titles held by Frazier but arguably still rightfully owned by Ali. Toss in additional protagonists like the United States Supreme Court, the U.S. Army and a divided nation wrestling with its own conscience over an unpopular war in Vietnam and you’ve set the stage for one of the most anticipated, watched and controversial events in sports history. The site was Madison Square Garden, a venerable arena that will never host a bigger event. The glitterati, the famous, the wanna-be nouveau-sports aficionados, every writer who could patch together any semblance of credentials, and even a few real boxing fans crammed into the Garden for what was expected to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. And so it was. Years later, like the Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game, exponential scores of thousands would claim to have been there in order to savor the envy of all that would listen.
In this corner we have Smokin’ Joe Frazier, a brutal puncher, undefeated and largely unmolested in 26 fights, 23 of those won by knockout. The roster of luminaries who fell before the famous Frazier onslaught included the likes of Dick Wipperman, Jefferson Davis and Charley Polite.
With the powerful Frazier, the battle with Ali was thought to be the classic confrontation between brute strength and slugging ability and the legendary speed of the challenger, only recently returned to boxing after nearly a four-year hiatus prompted by his refusal to be inducted into the Army in April of 1967 and the subsequent stripping of his boxing titles. Much as there had been an odd allegiance with fans seven years earlier in his win over Liston, the American public managed to extrapolate epic boxing match into a referendum on the War in Vietnam.
Muhammad Ali’s name became linked with the still-raging protests in America over the Vietnam War that lingered on seemingly without end, and Frazier, with a deferment because of fatherhood, insisted that he would have fought had he been drafted. Ali’s
conviction, then still under appeal, would be tossed aside by a unanimous Supreme Court (8-0) three months later, but as the fight unfolded in March he was looked upon as the poster child for, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” the anthem of the antiwar protesters.
With that kind of backdrop it should have been impossible for the actual event to live up to the pre-fight hoopla and geopolitical gravitas, but somehow it managed that and more. Ali, despite what should have been rust from a long layoff and only two fights prior to facing Smokin’ Joe (Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena), dominated the first three rounds before Frazier came alive and made good use of his famed left hook and maneuvered Ali against the ropes for an onslaught of body blows. Both fighters administered a terrific pounding, but Ali seemed to tire by the sixth round, and though he still scored against Frazier on a number of flurries for the remainder of the fight, Frazier would dominate the late rounds. A monster left hook from Frazier early in the final round sent Ali to the canvas for only the third time in his career. Ali, swollen jaw and all, was able to hang on to the final bell, but the decision for Frazier was unanimous, and Ali was saddled with the first defeat in the ring.
It must have come as no surprise that both fighters would spend time in the hospital in the days following the match. It had been the inaugural bout in an infamous trilogy that would come to largely define both men for the rest of their careers. By the numbers, this was roughly the midpoint of their career totals, but the two remaining bouts between Frazier and Ali, an initial rematch in New York City and ultimately the “Thrilla in Manila” as the pair journeyed to the jungles of the Philippines, would arguably be the most important trilogy in boxing history. Ali would later say of Frazier, “Of all the men I fought in boxing, Sonny Liston was the scariest; George Foreman was the most powerful; Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer. But the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier.”
Ali’s burgundy Everlast gloves from “The Fight of The Century” are in a condition worthy of their historical import, which is to say superb. The laces are largely intact and both gloves remain much as they were when Angelo Dundee removed them from the fists of his valiant warrior on the unforgettable night of March 8, 1971. The notation in white on underside of the fingers on each glove “21086 MSG” is clearly visible; there is virtually no stitching loss on any of the light tan trim. Inside each glove is the “Approved New York State Athletic Commission” stamping, plus Angelo Dundee’s vintage blue ballpoint notation “Ali-Frazier, 3-8-71 MSG” inside each wrist along with Dundee’s black sharpie autographs below. A letter of authenticity signed by the late Angelo Dundee (on his personal letterhead) accompanies. These gloves rank among the most important items of boxing memorabilia ever to be offered at auction. Their significance will surely amplify throughout the ages as the realization of Muhammad Ali’s legacy continues.