WE were strangers in the night exchanging glances when the guy with the trilby standing next to me in a men’s urinal at Madison Square Garden enquired: “How ya doing fella?”

“Fine thanks, Mr Sinatra.” I stuttered.

“Who d’ya fancy?” he enquired.

“Well… Ali,” I replied hesitantly.

“Nah, Frazier’ll destroy him,” came the snapped response.

End of conversation. We returned to the press seats – Sinatra was accredited as a photographer for Life Magazine and I was a humble young scribe from south London covering the Fight of a Lifetime.

Was it really exactly half a century ago that I was perched alongside ‘Ole Blue Eyes and such literary luminaries as Budd Schulberg and Norman Mailer at boxing’s Mecca? One of some 760 media (500 other applications were turned down) chronicling one of the most memorable episodes in the annals of sport. Even now I have to pinch myself as I recall the sheer magnitude and magnificence it all.

Fight of the Century

As an Ali aficionado I had been taken aback by Sinatra’s terse dismissal of his chances. But of course the old warbler was known to detest him because of his stand on Vietnam and also probably because Ali was the one figure even more globally famous than himself.

New York, New York. That really was some night. The city was alive with lick-lipping anticipation. Inside Madison Square Garden the atmosphere was so intense both before and during the fight that two spectators died of heart attacks.

The Fight of the Century really was the Thrill of a Lifetime for me. As we awaited the entry of the gladiators we at ringside sat expectantly with garish red baseball caps trimmed with blue and and a Frazier v Ali insignia badge plonked firmly on our heads. 

They had been distributed by the wonderfully laconic Garden public relations chief John X F Condon. (X F standing for Xavier Francis). Some of the more venerable members of my trade, led by the Daily Mirror’s somewhat precious Peter Wilson protested that it was undignified. “You don’t really expect us to sit here wearing these, John,” expostulated the doyen of the tabloids. “Well Peter,” Condon replied. “It’s like this. There’s a 20,000 capacity crowd here tonight and another 5,000 outside trying to break the doors down to get in. If they do, and there’s a riot at ringside, the cops will want to know which heads to hit and which heads not to hit.”

“Half of Hollywood seems to be here tonight,” my good friend Colin Hart of The Sun remarked to me as he glanced around the massed ranks of A-listers.

Earlier at the lunchtime weigh-in Condon, who had a great affinity with we British hacks, asked a few of us, including Hart, Peter Moss of the Daily Mail and the late Reg Gutteridge if we would like to meet Burt Lancaster, who was a colour commentator for the fight. Burt Lancaster, star of Trapeze, From Here to Eternity and a host of other macho movies? You bet.

“Hey Burt. say hello to these Limey writers,” called Condon to Lancaster, who turned from watching the fighters strip for the scales. He was wearing rouge, bright red lipstick and his eyelashes, thick with mascara, fluttered in our direction. “Hi guys,” he simpered. “Don’t ya just love their muscles!”

“F**k me!” exclaimed London Evening News and ITV commentator Gutteridge, clearly surprised at the actor’s sexuality. It was, of course, a different world back then.

Some weeks later Lancaster was arrested in Hollywood while wearing women’s clothes. The thrice- married father of five turned out to be a transvestite and one of a clique of gay (not that the word then had that connotation) or bi-sexual matinee idol celebs, along with Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.

Condon seemed surprised that we didn’t know. “That’s showbusiness for you,” he chuckled.

We liked Condon. He was an old school PR who took no prisoners. At the post-fight press conference (which neither combatants attended as they were hospitalised – Frazier for six weeks) he spotted singer Diana Ross sitting in the front row of the packed media room.

“Who ya with, little lady?” he queried.

“I’m Diana Ross,” she trilled.

“I know who you are, little lady,” Condon retorted. “I said, who ya with? What media d’ya represent?”

“Well, none,” she said. “I’m just me, Diana Ross.”

“Sorry little lady,” said Condon. “Out. This is strictly working press only.”

And out The Supremes superstar had to trot. Can you imagine a similar scene today, a PR daring to remove such celebrity fans of such stature from a press conference? They’d rather remove the reporters… How times change.

Only a handful of the principals at the Garden on March 8,1971 are still with us and I think fellow octogenarian Hart and myself are the only two surviving British journos still writing about boxing today.

Fight of the Century
Getty Images

Colin, who will be penning his own recollections in Sunday’s Sun. echoes my views about just how humongous an occasion this was.  
He says: “I doubt the fans of today can appreciate just how big this fight was and how good Ali and Frazier were.

I would say that compared to this fight what they are calling the proposed Fight of this Century, Tyson Fury against Anthony Joshua, would be top of the bill at York Hall, Bethnal Green. Does anyone really give a damn about Fury and Joshua in China or Africa? But back then the whole world was talking about Ali and Frazier. It really was global, even though there was no pay-per-view – just closed circuit TV. It was so huge that even the Soviet Union, where professional boxing was then banned, for sent two reporters from the state news agency, Tass.

Yes, it really was an epic encounter which transfixed the world.

By the evening of the fight Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of police to control the crowd. Eight of New York’s finest had been assigned to act as round-the-clock bodyguards for Ali, who had received numerous death threats from redneck factions.

It was not my first visit to the Garden nor my first encounter with Frazier. I had covered his vacant world title-winning contest with Ali’s pal Jimmy Ellis but if I have any claim to fame at all it is because I was the first to put Smokin’ Joe on the floor! Honest. Seven years earlier, in 1964, as a still wet behind the ears rookie reporter for a Fleet Street-based based provincial newspaper group, I was despatched to cover my first Olympic Games, in Tokyo. In those pre-terrorism days security was far more lax than now, and we media types were permitted to roam the Olympic Village unaccompanied. I was doing just that when around a corner on a bike hurtled a large, thick-thighed young man in shorts pedalling furiously at breakneck speed. He saw me rather late. I jumped; he swerved, skidded and fell off heavily. I recognised him from his T-shirt as a member of the United States team, one Joseph William Frazier, their heavyweight representative in the boxing tournament. I gulped as I looked down at the cursing figure spread-eagled in front of me. “My God,” I thought. “Am I in trouble here!”

Fight of the Century

I worried that he had been badly hurt enough to put him out of the Games – or worse. Was something broken? Young Joe – he was 20 – glowered at first, then hauled himself up, rubbing his grazed knees. He grinned sheepishly and apologised. “Sorry man, I guess I was going a bit fast,” he said. “My fault. You ok?”

I nodded and my sigh of relief was audible. We shook hands and I wished him luck in the forthcoming Olympic tournament, hoping that this near-catastrophe had not damaged his chances.

It hadn’t. He went on to win the gold medal, deploying the wrecking ball of a left hook that was to become his trademark in the semi-finals against a Russian, on whose features he broke a thumb. That injury restricted his punching power in the final, when he outpointed the German Hans Huber on a majority decision.

The next time I saw that awesome left hook in action was at Madison Square Garden six years later when he felled Ellis and subsequently exploded it on the grotesquely swollen jaw of Ali in the 15th and final round as he clearly won the first of what was be the most dramatic trilogy in boxing history. The report I telexed back to my newspaper group immediately after the fight, began: “A legend has been licked. The man who mesmerised the world with his mouthy magic is no longer The Greatest…”

Ali’s shock demise was front page news all over the world, The London Evening Standard simply headed the great, late, George Whiting’s report: “Ali-oops!”

The fight itself exceeded even its promotional hype. At the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on the scorecards of ace referee Arthur Mercante and two ringside judges and even as a committed Ali-phile I could not disagree with Mercante’s final assessment of 8-6-1. Those three-and-a-half years a leaden-legged Ali had spent in exile, with only two warm-up fights, finally caught up with him.

But Frazier, 205lbs of smouldering resentment, 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.

Walking back from the Garden in the early hours the air on 7th Avenue was still electric – and it was not just from the shocks received from the acrylic wallpaper at the hotel where we stayed, the Statler Hilton, famously dubbed as the the Static Hilton.

On reflection, to be honest, in terms of boxing this was not actually the fight of the century. Ali v Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila four years later was, in my view, three times as good a ring spectacle. ”The closest thing to dying,” Ali was to remark. Yet there is no doubt their first Garden party was the boxing occasion of the century.

I still have that baseball cap and the superbly produced $1.50 programme, with its stunning cover by famed sporting artist Leroy Neiman, and assorted other memorabilia which I am told may be worth a few bob to my grandchildren when I pass on.

But my personal memories of that magical night are priceless.