The first act in the historic trilogy starring Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was an epic drama which transfixed the world.

New York was buzzing with anticipation and inside a packed Madison Square Garden the atmosphere was so intense both before and during the fight that two spectators died of heart attacks.

I remember, too, how we all sat at ringside with garish blue and red Ali v Frazier baseball caps plonked firmly on heads on the instruction of the wonderfully laconic Garden PR John XF Condon.

Some of the more venerable members of my trade had protested that it was undignified, but Condon had warned, “Well guys, it’s like this. There are 20,000 people in here and another 5,000 outside fighting to get in. When it all goes off at ringside the cops will want to know which heads to hit, and which not to hit!”

Both Ali and Frazier received $2.5m, the largest single payday for any entertainer or athlete at the time. In today’s money that would be worth 20 times or more that figure.

By the evening of the fight, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of police to control the crowd, outrageously dressed fans, and countless celebrities, from Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and Diana Ross to Frank Sinatra, who was taking photographs for Life Magazine. Burt Lancaster served as a colour commentator for the closed circuit broadcast.

The fight itself exceeded even its promotional hype. Ali dominated the first three rounds, peppering the shorter Frazier with rapier-like jabs that raised welts on the champion’s face. Frazier began to dominate in the fourth, catching Ali with several of his brutal left hooks and pinning him against the ropes to deliver tremendous body blows.

I scored it about even until round 11, when Frazier caught Ali, backed into a corner, with a crushing left hook that almost floored him, sending him falling into the ropes.

Ali managed to survive, and fought back over the next couple of rounds. At the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on the scorecards of referee Arthur Mercante and two ringside judges.

Early in the final round, Frazier landed a spectacular left hook that put Ali on his back, for only the third time in his career. His broken jaw swollen grotesquely, Ali got up at ‘two’, and managed to stay on his feet for the rest of the round despite several terrific shots from Frazier.

A few minutes later, the arbiters made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional defeat, nine rounds to six on the cards of Mercante and one ringside judge, and 11-4 on the other. My own scorecard had it 9-5-1 for Frazier.

Those three-and-a-half years he had spent in exile, with only two warm-up fights, finally caught up with Ali. But Frazier had been ruthless in his pursuit of the revenge he had sought for the “Uncle Tom” bad-mouthing and ticket-selling taunting he had endured from Ali in the build-up. He was a worthy victor.

Ali, though well beaten by Frazier, was far from diminished, as his career subsequently demonstrated. He had been floored, outfought and his jaw shattered. But both he and “Smokin’” Joe lived to fight another day – and how!

They were to meet twice more, with Ali winning both times, most significantly the 1975 Thrilla in Manila, a war that outstripped even the initial Garden clash in its savagery.

Sandwiched between these two titanic tussles was their 12-round non-title fight, again at Madison Square Garden, in January 1974, Frazier having lost the title to George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, a year earlier.

Ali, the No. 1 contender, was not only out to avenge his 1971 loss to Frazier, but wanted to secure a shot at Foreman.

The fight itself was a rather more prosaic affair than its predecessor, but there was drama galore in the build-up when both Ali and Frazier visited the ABC television studios to review their first fight with the celebrated commentator Howard Cosell for ABC’s World Wide of Sports, which would air two days before their rematch.

During the filming Frazier mentioned that Ali had to go to the hospital after the fight. “I went to the hospital for 10 minutes. You went for a month,” Ali replied. “I was resting,” said Frazier, who spent three weeks in a Philadelphia hospital for high blood pressure and a kidney infection.

“Nobody goes to the hospital to rest. That shows how dumb you are,” Ali responded. “That’s ignorant.”

An angry Frazier stood up and confronted Ali. “Why do you think I’m ignorant?” he asked. Ali’s brother, Rahman, then walked on stage and stood next to the fighters. Frazier looked at him and asked, “You wanna get in on this, too?” Immediately, Ali stood up and grabbed Frazier. The two wrestled to the ground and had to be separated. Following the altercation, Frazier left the studio. “I don’t want anyone calling me ignorant,” he said, “and I’m sick of taking his abuse.”

Both fighters were later fined $5,000 by the New York State Athletic Commission for “deplorable conduct demeaning to boxing.”

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The real fight, another Garden sell-out, began with Ali circling, jabbing and throwing combinations, and Frazier bobbing and weaving, trying to get under Ali’s arms and land the left hook that had floored Ali in the 15th round of their epic three years earlier. Throughout all 12 rounds, they maintained that pattern, Ali winning a unanimous decision.

And so to Manila on October 1, 1975, where a couple of days before the fight Imelda Marcos had on her dancing shoes, selected from her famous collection of footwear, some 3,000 pairs.

The occasion was a gala ball at the sumptuous palace in Manila she shared with her husband Ferdinand Marcos, the late lavish-living president of the Philippines.

She had arranged it in honour of Ali, who had regained the title from Foreman and was there to defend it against his still bitter enemy Frazier. So, naturally, as the band struck up, she approached Ali and asked him for the first dance.

There was an embarrassed silence as Imelda’s invitation was politely declined.

Ali’s big secret was out. He couldn’t dance (actually he couldn’t swim, either).

The possessor of heavyweight boxing’s fastest feet had rapturous rhythm in the ring, but the man who had quickstepped his way to fistic immortality couldn’t tell a waltz from a tango.

The inventor of boxing’s soft shoe shuffle was a dunce on the dance floor.

A couple of days later, at a time of the morning when Regency gentlemen used to fight their duels, Ali and Frazier went to war. In a sweltering atmosphere inside the Philippine Coliseum, more resembling a bear pit, before a full house of screaming Filipinos, Manila was about to have its ‘Thrilla’, an encounter that surely ranks as the greatest heavyweight title fight of all time.

Forty one years on, that morning glory (it was scheduled for just after breakfast time in Manila for the benefit of US television) remains etched indelibly in the mind. The previous year, Ali had rumbled in the jungle, demoralising Foreman in what was arguably his defining performance and the most bizarre occasion in heavyweight boxing. Norman Mailer wrote an entire book about it, called The Fight, but in essence what happened in Manila was the fight. The fight of a lifetime.

Actually it wasn’t in Manila, but at Quezon City, a dusty suburb six miles from the capital, where we witnessed a bout that transcended anything the sport had seen before. Neither man would ever be the same again; for both it was to prove a fight too far. Ali was to describe it later as “the closest thing to dyin’.”

The word ‘epic’ is a label all too casually applied, whether it is films or fights, but not in this case. This was boxing’s Gone With The Wind.

Ali had launched it with a poem: “It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila.” Frazier was incensed, gritting, “I want his heart”. A decent, simple man, brought up in cotton-picking country, Frazier was never able to comprehend that Ali’s ‘insults’ were largely designed just to psych him out and sell more tickets, as they had been on the two previous occasions the pair had met, Frazier memorably winning The Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971, and Ali their return three years later.

Both had reigned in an age when world boxing crowns were not bits of bling. Ali fought, and beat, everyone of note, as well as many others of little consequence. No challenge was shirked, though some proved more difficult than others, notably those against two men he met three times. One was Ken Norton; in the first encounter Ali’s jaw was broken, and all ended in controversial points decisions. The other was Frazier.

Ali’s people thought before the last act in their trilogy that “Smokin’” Joe was a dying ember. They should have known he would be fired up to face the one man who was in his head, and in his blood.

On the assumption that this would be a fairly easy encounter, Ali spent much of the time before the bout canoodling with his new girlfriend, Veronica Porsche, a stunning model whom he was later to marry. However, at the time he was still married to his second wife, Belinda, who followed him to Manila and gave him almost as hard a time out of the ring as he was later to have inside it with Frazier. Belinda, a black belt in karate, wrecked the hotel room where he and Veronica were staying, and facial scratch marks were testimony to the fury vented on her husband.

In the fight itself, Ali was in control in the early rounds, but Frazier refused to wilt, pounding hooks into the champion’s body and forcing him on to the ropes. Ali was unmoved, though impressed. In a clinch, he muttered to Frazier: “Joe, they told me you was washed up.” Frazier fired back: “They lied!”

The exchanges then proceeded with such brutal intensity that one almost had to shield eyes already damp with the sweat running into them because of lack of air conditioning in the sauna-like arena.

Ali was to say later: “Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of the city. Lordy, he’s great! Joe Frazier is one hell of a man. If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”

The tributes were not returned by Frazier. But the punches were, both men belabouring each other with relentless savagery. By the end of the 14th round, Ali was exhausted and Frazier’s features so grotesquely swollen he could hardly see. It was then that Frazier’s great trainer, Eddie Futch, acted with foresight and compassion, refusing to let his man come out for the final three minutes. “Sit down son,” he instructed. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

In the opposite corner, Ali was visibly relieved, momentarily slumping to the canvas. He had told his own cornerman, Angelo Dundee, to cut off his gloves. Dundee ignored him, sponging his face down for the last hurrah that wasn’t to be. “Frazier quit just before I did,” Ali was to confide some years later. Even if the truth was that Futch made Frazier quit.

Later, as he was on his way to offer his commiseration to a bruised and bleeding “Smokin’” Joe, Ali encountered a sobbing Marvis Frazier, Joe’s then-14-year-old son. “What you cryin’ for, boy?” Ali demanded of young Frazier. “I’m crying ‘cos my daddy got beat,” came the reply.

Ali looked at him: “You stop that, you hear. Your daddy lost nuthin’. He’s a winner. Just you remember that for the rest of your life.” It was one of the many things about that day that all of us there will remember for the rest of our lives, too.

Alan Hubbard is a former sports editor of The Observer and latterly sports columnist and boxing correspondent for The Independent on Sunday and now a regular contributor to TV channel BoxNation.