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Savran: Ali-Frazier I had nation's attention

Saturday, March 10, 2001

This past Thursday came and went, like a shadow disappearing when the sun ducks behind a cloud. Unless it was your birthday, anniversary or contained some other personal significance, it arrived just like any other day.

And in a fast-frame, time-lapse sequence, it was gone, melting into March 9. But 30 years ago, this particular March 8 was more. So much more. In sports, in history. Because 30 years ago on March 8th, 1971, it was Ali-Frazier I.

The country inhaled deeply and held that breath.

For the period leading up to and through that day, this deeply scarred and polarized country turned its head from the protesting and the protests to the protesting, although this fight was actually an extension of that polarization. Both sides lined up to support its chosen gladiator -- support generally connected to one's politics.

And one's politics was generally linked to one's position on the war in Vietnam.

This was as much a societal morality play as it was a prize fight.

With few exceptions, the young and liberal anti-war faction was fanatical in its support of Muhammad Ali. Older, more conservative, members of the "establishment," as it was called back then, made a curious choice to stand behind Joe Frazier.

Sons of sharecroppers generally weren't embraced by that percentage of the population leaning to the right. But, as they say, politics often creates strange bedfellows. And in this case, politics and social upheaval made this sporting event all the more conflicted.

Frazier was the heavyweight champion by virtue of winning a tournament of top contenders. The title vacancy had existed only because Ali had been exiled after his refusal to enter the armed forces.

Frazier shouldn't have been regarded as a paper champion, but he was considered by many as a pretender to the throne. More than anyone, Frazier understood he would never prove his pedigree as the champion until he, not a trumped-up boxing tribunal, defeated Ali.

It wasn't that Frazier wasn't popular. He conducted himself with a callous-laden, workingman, blue-collar dignity, showing great respect for what was then sports' most honored title.

Smokin' Joe had only one problem -- he wasn't Muhammad Ali. He didn't fight or talk with style and grace. He left panache on the ring apron. All he brought inside the four squares was brute force and a thunderous left hook. He was like a wolverine with a relentlessness so ugly it made him beautiful to watch. But when it came to verbal sparring with Ali, he was TKO'd in every bout.

Ali had a great sense of theater. He knew exactly how to cast this play. He would be the wronged man, illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, stripped of his title and constitutional right to conscientious objection ... a stance later upheld by the United States Supreme Court, back when it decided legal issues, not elections. The young, anti-war, anti-Nixon, anti-authority faction had their anti-hero. Frazier would be positioned as the undeserving holder of the title belt.

As stupid, as ugly, and worst of all, as an Uncle Tom -- a black puppet attached to strings pulled by the white man.

By playing the race card, Ali turned most of black America against Frazier, portraying him as a man who had betrayed his own people.

And coming on the heels of the race riots of the 1960s, this remained a festering wound in the country. It was this imagery that most deeply injured Frazier. Especially after he not only had aided Ali financially, but also had helped him regain his boxing license after the exile had ended. Ali thought he was just hyping the fight, but Frazier felt betrayed, filling him with bone-deep hate, making Ali an enemy to this day.

If you are too young to have experienced it, or you're now too far removed to remember it, you couldn't believe the anticipation, the tension, the excitement. The nation -- clothed in Nehru jackets, medallions, apache scarves and tinted glasses -- literally stopped what it was doing. It wasn't just front page news, it was screaming headline front page news!

I was working at a radio station in a remote Oklahoma outpost at the time. Two friends and I drove two hours to the nearest closed-circuit showing. On the drive there, we chatted a thousand words per mile. On the way home, there was silence. Perhaps due to the disappointment of the outcome -- Frazier won a 15-round unanimous decision, but more to do with digesting the enormity of it all. For anyone who remembers Ali-Frazier I, March 8 of any year will never arrive, or exit, unnoticed.

Stan Savan is the host of a sports talk show weeknights from 8 to 9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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