The legendary bout saw "The Greatest" taste his first professional loss, with Frazier dropping the champion with a thunderous left hook in the 15th round en route to a unanimous victory over Ali.
The fight would pave the way for one of boxing's greatest trilogies, with the rivals going head-to-head in January 1974 for Ali-Frazier II and for the third and final time in the Thrilla in Manila.
But their legendary first meeting just went to show that even "The Greatest" had to suffer his first loss. Even "The Greatest" needed someone to make him even greater and for Ali that someone was Frazier.
In fact, many of sports' greats, period, needed that someone to push them over the top to a level beyond. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird and it took getting lumps from Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons for Michael Jordan to finally crack the code and go on to win six NBA titles.
Frazier, a Philadelphia fighter, was the real-life inspiration for Rocky, as he used to beat up racks of hanging meat in a meat locker as part of his training. Short and stocky, Frazier swung hammer-like blows in the ring, quite easily the hardest hitter that Ali faced at the time. A no-nonsense Philly slugger.
Leading up to the fight, Ali didn't even know what to do with Frazier, as "The Greatest" would spout his gift of gab, calling his opponent "ugly" and "dumb," only to get a limited, rather quiet response from Frazier.
But when the bell rung on the night of March 8, 1971, Frazier would let his fists do the talking, especially declaring that punishing left hook to be open for business all day.
Ali started the bout dancing on Frazier and peppering him with his jab, but Frazier knocked his head back in the waning seconds of that third round with that left hook and took control of the match the rest of the way through. His left hook paved the way for "Smokin" Joe to punish Ali with some body blows as well.
By the latter rounds of the fight, Ali was drained, walking right into a left hook and falling onto his back in the 15th round, sealing the victory for Frazier. That 15th round knockdown had Ali falling like a tree falls after being chopped down — which is fitting, considering Frazier chopped Ali down over the course of the fight, setting him up for that momentous punch and thudding fall.
After handing Ali his first loss, it was time for Frazier to do a little talking of his own.
"I always knew who the champion was," Frazier told the New York Times after the fight.
Meanwhile, Ali didn't want any part of the media, making a quit exit to the hospital to get X-rays on his badly-swollen jaw after the bout.
The "Fight of the Century" was everything it was cracked up to be with a sold-out crowd of 20,455 filling the Garden — and many more watching on TV at home.
Although Ali accepted the painful loss, he would have to wait nearly three years until having a chance for revenge, as he and his new rival would meet two more times, with Ali winning both.
In a way, Ali needed that loss to push him that much further.
But the "Fight of the Century" will always be remembered as time that even "The Greatest" was forced to lean back.
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(Photo: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
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