March 8, 1971. Madison Square Garden, New York City. Heavyweight champion of the world Joe Frazier (26-0 23 ko's) fights Muhammad Ali (31-0 25 ko's) for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali is fighting to regain the title he lost three years earlier when he was stripped of the belt for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war. The crowd was a who's who of the biggest celebrities of the time. Frank Sinatra was a ring side photographer for Life magazine and Burt Lancaster did color commentary.
What made this fight of such interest to the public, even the non-boxing fan public, were the archetypes the two fighters embodied and the archetypal energies the public projected upon them.
Ali was adored by people for his good looks, charisma and charm. Frazier was respected by people for his toughness, persistence and grit. Politics played a part as well. Ali was adored by anti-war liberals for his Vietnam war stance and his principled stand against the government. The black community embraced him as well for his defiance of the white power structure. They projected upon him their hopes of strength and a change to the system under which they lived. As much as Ali was loved by liberals, he was hated by conservatives. To conservatives he represented the worst of the sixties in his anti-authoritarian and brash public image. The pro-war and anti-civil rights people despised this brash young fighter, and his joining the Nation of Islam earlier in the sixties certainly did nothing to endear him to that same crowd. Frazier was loved by blue collar workers and conservatives and Ali was loved by intellectuals, liberals and minorities.
So when Ali-Frazier squared off in 1971, it wasn't just two men fighting, it was a battle of two ideologies, two archetypes, two opposite world views colliding in a ring after a decade of cultural turmoil and upheaval where those ideologies collided in the public sphere and dinner tables across the country. Each side wanted victory, but almost as importantly, each side wanted defeat for the other. Being proven right wasn't enough, the other side had to be proven wrong. Conservatives saw the fight as a way for every long-haired hippie in the country protesting against the war to get punched in the face, while liberals saw it as a chance to punch Richard Nixon and the crew cuts in the face.
The fighters themselves embodied these opposite views with clearly opposite fighting styles. Ali's style was one of speed, precision and grace. He danced from side to side and floated above the canvas, constantly on his toes, dancing effortlessly while surgically carving his opponent up with flare and style. Frazier fought from an awkward crouch. He squatted low to the ground with his head jerking from side to side and his torso rocking back and forth. Frazier constantly moved forward, not side to side, and his attack was a punishing combination of bone crushing body shots and violently devastating left hooks. Frazier was grounded to the earth as a fighter, and Ali was dancing through the air. It was the difference in styles as much as anything that made this fight great and made these fighters such great foils for one another throughout their careers.
Regardless of the archetypal drama they played out for us all, it was a deeply personal battle between the two men. Frazier felt betrayed and disrespected by Ali. During Ali's banishment from the sport, he had fallen on hard times financially and Joe Frazier had actually given him money to help him survive (sadly, a fact that is NOT portrayed in the Michael Mann film "Ali" but is rather dramatized to show Ali not accepting the money). Prior to the fight Frazier considered Ali a friend. This fact never stopped Ali from belittling Frazier in order to hype the fight. Ali called Frazier "ugly" and even went so far as to call him an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla" in the lead up to later fights. This sort of race baiting was particularly ugly especially coming from another proud black man, but it never cost Ali any support in the black community. It didn't cost him any support from his other fans or the media. It did cost him his friendship with Frazier. Even though in Ali's mind he was just hyping the fight and trying to get into Frazier's head, Frazier took the verbal attacks personally and never forgave Ali. Frazier was so incensed by these verbal attacks that even when Ali was suffering from Parkinson's later in his life, Frazier said, in effect, that 'he had done that to Ali' by hitting him and punishing him so many times in their three fights. Obviously, this fight was charged with an energy that lasted for decades after.
Now, what does this have to do with acting? Some might say nothing. I disagree. As an actor, if we can see the world through archetypes and myth, it gives us an enormous amount of power to feed our performance. A plethora of creative and imaginative energy and choice is available in archetypes and myth. If we can can discover a Greek god or a fairy tale that our character represents or embodies, then we can use that myth or tale to inform and define the soul of the character and to tap into the collective unconscious for source and creative material to feed our imaginations and our choices. When the ancient Greeks acted in theater, they believed that they were the embodiment of the gods(archetypes) on the earth. For actors today, we can wear the invisible mask of archetype to bring a near religious fervor to our commitment to character.
This fight can also teach us about the craft of acting. Just as in the fight, differing styles can make for electric moments. Think of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in P.T. Anderson's "The Master". Phoenix' style is a physical one, his body contorted to reflect his mental anguish, while Hoffman's style is one of the intellect, his energy is contained and controlled within, only bursting out into the world when he is intellectually trapped and frustrated. The clash of these two styles makes for an electrifying performance by both actors. Actors don't need the same approach or style to create great performances, in fact the opposite can often be true. Diverse approaches and choices can make for the most entertaining of clashes.
Speaking of clashes, let's get back to the fight.
Ali controlled the action early, but Frazier's relentless attack paid off midway through the fight. He hurt Ali with left hooks to the jaw and punished him to the body. Frazier wore Ali down with his persistently brutal attack and counter punching.
Frazier connected with arguably the greatest left hook in history early in the fifteenth and final round, sending Ali to the canvas for only the third time in his career. Ali got back to his feet and finished the round and the fight with a viciously swollen jaw. Frazier retained his heavyweight title with a unanimous decision.
42 years ago today was the fight of the century between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Two of the greatest fighters of all time would fight two more 'Fights of the Century', cementing their legacies. It is a shame that boxing, and the heavyweight division in particular, are at the height of irrelevance and hurtling toward oblivion. The world was a more interesting place when boxing mattered and when giants like Ali and Frazier dominated our consciousness.