When it comes to reporting on boxing, Colin Hart is bona fide royalty. Having started writing about the sweet science back in the first half of the 1960s, Hart has seen it all. But nothing came close to the truly “gigantic” first affair between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.
“It was the first fight I covered in America and it wasn’t a bad one for starters,” Hart told the Betfred Boxing Show.
“We know Ali and Frazier fought three times and we had the fight in Zaire ('The Rumble In The Jungle' vs George Foreman), the 'Thrilla in Manilla' - but this is always the one that sticks in your mind.”
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the now legendary ‘Fight of the Century’ that Ali and Frazier shared at New York’s Madison Square Garden and it’s a scrap that still sets the bar for any heavyweight showdown in terms of magnitude and meaning.
Crooner Frank Sinatra had to pick up a gig as LIFE magazine’s ringside photographer, whilst Hollywood tough guy and three-time Academy Award winner Burt Lancaster was forced to provide some colour commentary for the bout’s broadcast just to get close to the action. This was no ordinary boxing match.
“It was gigantic in every sense. When we were given our press passes by the press chief at the Garden, he handed each one of us this,” Hart continued, bringing a red cap with an Ali vs Frazier logo emblazoned on it into the frame to show Boxing Show co-hosts Dom McGuinness and Anthony Crolla during their conversation on Zoom.
Hart recalls that when one of his “pompous” fellow colleagues questioned the meaning of press members wearing the hat, claiming he wouldn’t be seen dead in one, he was warned, “I would if I was you. We’re going to sell out and there will be 5,000 people without tickets outside trying to gatecrash. If there’s a riot, the cops want to know which heads to hit and which heads not to hit.”
Amidst the pantheon of famous sporting rivalries, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali still sit comfortably at the top of the very best. The pair encapsulated everything boxing can be when they met in the ring - elegance, beauty and brutality. Never was it more clear than in that first tussle half a century ago.