In honor of the one-year anniversary of his passing, I take a look back at his eight professional fights at Madison Square Garden.
Enjoy this look back at the career of The Greatest, through the lens of the World’s Most Famous Arena:
Clay stops fellow top prospect Banks after suffering first career knockdown
Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Banks (February 10, 1962)
Ali’s Record: 10-0
Ali’s Age: 20 years, 24 days
Result: Ali wins by 4th round TKO
Ali’s debut at The Garden wasn’t as monumental as you might imagine. Only 2,000 fans were in attendance to see the boxer then known as Cassius Clay defeat another key Heavyweight prospect, Sonny Banks.
Ali found himself on the canvas for the first time in his professional career after Banks surprised him with his signature quick counter left hook. Ali got up almost instantly and took control for much of the remainder of the fight, flooring Banks in the second and battering him in the third before earning the TKO victory in the fourth.
By the way, Ali did correctly call his shot in this fight, as he was known to do: “The man must fall in the round I call. In fact, Banks must fall in four.”
Clay narrowly passes biggest career test in Fight of the Year
Cassius Clay vs. Doug Jones (March 13, 1963)
Ali’s Record: 17-0
Ali’s Age: 21 years, 55 days
Result: Ali wins 10 round fight by Unanimous Decision
This would be considered Ali’s biggest test of his young career. From Thomas Hauser’s book “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” “Clay had now captured the public imagination, and expectations were running high. Seven of his previous eight fights had ended in the predicted round. The time was ripe to return to New York, and Madison Square Garden signed him to fight Doug Jones.”
This fight presented a unique challenge. Though Ali’s successful promotion of his fights was never a problem, New York City, in the months leading up to the fight, was going through a newspaper strike. So, Ali went on a publicity tour de force in Manhattan. Including predicting he would stop Jones in 6. Then changing his prediction to 4.
It worked. For the first time in six years, Madison Square Garden held a sold out boxing fight. Ali wasn’t able to stop Jones, and this report wasn’t so flattering about Ali’s unanimous decision win, claiming the crowd yelled “fake” as the decision was read, and writing “despite his victory, Clay lost plenty of prestige.” (Now might be a good time to note that two fights later Ali would defeat Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship.)
Champ Ali stops Folley before losing several years of his prime
Muhammad Ali vs. Zora Folley (March 22, 1967)
Ali’s Record: 28-0
Ali’s Age: 25 years, 64 days
Result: Ali wins by KO in 7th round
It was a pretty quiet four years for Cassius Clay between the Doug Jones fight in 1963 and this one:
Said he would refuse to serve in the army in the Vietnam War if called which caused public outcry and governing bodies refusing to sanction his fights forcing him to fight outside of the USA for a few fights
Yeah, pretty quiet.
That last point is the most pertinent leading into this fight. Ali had been reclassified by the US Army as “1A,” meaning he was eligible to be called upon to join the fight in the Vietnam War. Famously, Ali was not a fan of what was happening overseas. Very soon before going into this fight with Folley, Ali lost his appeal to reclassify, which meant he (and the public) knew this would likely be the last time he would step foot into a boxing ring for a long time.
One month after Ali defeated Folley at The Garden by 7th round KO (his 9th consecutive title defense), he refused draft induction which caused him to be stripped of the Heavyweight championship, his boxing license and lead to a lengthy legal battle which would cost The Greatest three years in the prime of his career.
Writer Robert Lipsyte noted that this, the first Heavyweight title fight at Madison Square in 16 years, saw a crowd of 13,780 and paid $244,471, a record for boxing at the time at The Garden, and ringside seats for this tilt went for $50, until then the highest price ever charged at The Garden.
Late KO of rugged Argentine sets up highly anticipated title fight
Muhammad Ali vs. Oscar Bonavena (December 7, 1970)
Ali’s Record: 30-0
Ali’s Age: 28 years, 324 days
Result: Ali wins by TKO in 15th round
Even though The Greatest’s legal troubles were mostly behind him, it wasn’t easy for him to fight again in New York. The New York State Athletic Commission still hadn’t granted him back his boxing license and wasn’t planning on doing so, until the NAACP Legal Defense Fund successfully appealed on Ali’s behalf.
Ali won his return fight after a three and a half year absence in Atlanta, stopping Jerry Quarry in 3 rounds, leading to this fight with Bonavena.
From BoxRec: “At a pre-fight physical examination, Bonavena asked Ali why he didn’t join the Army. Ali told Bonavena that he would tell him during the fight’s first clinch. Bonavena called Ali a “big chicken” and started making chicken noises. He then repeatedly called Ali by his pre-Muslim name. “Clay … Clay … Clay,” he said while laughing. Ali yelled to the crowd, “Please! Tell everyone to get to your theaters. I have never had a man that I wanted to whup so bad!”
From Thomas Hauser: “The Bonavena fight was another example of Ali’s ‘magic’: He’d looked awful; it was a boring fight. But the knockout had been so dramatic that afterward, people forgot the first fourteen rounds.”
But what would be remembered most about this fight was what Ali shouted after it: “I want Joe Frazier!”
And he got him, three months later, at Madison Square Garden.
Frazier hands Ali first professional loss in the Fight of the Century
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier (March 8, 1971)
Ali’s Record: 31-0
Ali’s Age: 29 years, 50 days
Result: Ali loses 15 round fight by Unanimous Decision
Both of these fights were promoted by Tex Rickard. The same Tex Rickard that founded the New York Rangers. I guess he really liked to promote his boxing fights as the “Fight of the Century!”
OK, back to Ali.
This might have been the greatest setup to a boxing championship fight, ever.
First, it was the first time in history two undefeated fighters would battle for the Heavyweight title. The epitome of “somebody’s 0 must go.”
Muhammad Ali was stripped of the title, and four years later, almost to the day, he was back to claim it. He was 2-0 since returning but in both fights had shown signs of a cracking armor. Was he capable of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee?
Joe Frazier, 26-0 going into this battle, earned his way to the championship, with seven wins at Madison Square Garden, including claiming the Heavyweight crown from Jimmy Ellis a year prior. But ever since “Smokin’ Joe” put that belt around his waist, the cloud of the former never beaten champion loomed.
As soon as Ali returned to the ring, the debate began to rage: who is the REAL Heavyweight Champion of the world?
There was so much interest for this fight that each fighter was guaranteed $2.5 million dollars, the largest sum for any athlete or entertainer ever at that time. 300 million people watched the fight around the world in over 50 countries and in 12 different languages. In 1971.
A larger-than-life personality who always brought a smile to people's faces, watch Muhammad Ali have some fun during his weigh-in before his legendary fight against then-champ Joe Frazier in 1971.
Jun 6, 2016
What might have brought the interest over the top at a mainstream level was the cultural significance of what both fighters represented. Ali, standing up for his beliefs not to fight in the Vietnam War, on the side of the anti-establishment. Frazier, even if a little involuntarily, became the symbol of the conservative, pro-war movement. Ali would repeatedly call Frazier “Uncle Tom” throughout the build up of the fight. Interest continued to grow, and all roads led to The Garden.
The fight itself is one of the greatest fights of all time. Watch it for the first time, watch it again. It’s always worth your time. (This was also the very first fight Ali used the “Rope A Dope” technique.)
Ali sends legend into retirement in rematch
Muhammad Ali vs. Floyd Patterson (September 20, 1972)
Ali’s Record: 38-1
Ali’s Age: 30 years, 247 days
Result: Ali wins by RTD (corner stoppage) in 7th round
Only two boxers have fought Muhammad Ali both before and after his exile: George Chuvalo and Floyd Patterson.
Their first meeting was much more brutal than their second.
After Ali defeated Sonny Liston in the rematch, his next challenger was Floyd Patterson, the youngest fighter to ever win the Undisputed boxing title, as well the first to regain the Heavyweight crown.
Ali, newly converted, still found himself with many people referring to him by his former name, Cassius Clay, including Patterson, leading up to this fight. Their back and forth was fierce, and it enraged Ali to the point where he toyed with Patterson in their fight, yelling “say my name!” in between a battering of blows.
Their second meeting was at The Garden in what would prove to be Patterson’s last professional fight. Said Patterson about Ali in the ring pre and post exile: “Ali was better before. That’s when he was in the prime of his life, when he had his speed and all his skills. When he came back, there was still a lot of movement, but not as much as before.”
As much animosity as their first fight had produced, Ali was gracious about his opponent after this fight: “Patterson is a great, great fighter. I thought he’d be nothing, but he surprised me. I didn’t knock him out. I didn’t get him on a TKO. All I did was close his eye.”
If you watch nothing else from the clip above, start at around 1:03 and you’ll see Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, in a suit, enter the ring to accept an award, much to the chagrin of Ali. He took the opportunity to ham it up and have his trainer restrain as he went after him moments before he was going to actually fight Floyd Patterson. It’s a pretty funny moment. Also, a sign of things to come in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Ali avenges defeat, boxing's best rivalry is even
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier II (January 28, 1974)
Ali’s Record: 43-2
Ali’s Age: 32 years, 11 days
Result: Ali wins 12 round fight by Unanimous Decision
Most people will tell you this was the least exciting fight of the three between Ali and Frazier. Well, it’s pretty tough to beat the “Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Any fight ever would probably fall third behind those two fights. So the criticism (if you can call it that) is understandable.
Perhaps the most exciting part of Ali-Frazier II happened in the build up to the fight. Both men were on set at ABC studios in New York City with Howard Cosell, reviewing their first fight (side note: this kind of setup should happen in boxing a lot more often).
At around the 10th round, both men got into an argument about who spent more time in the hospital after that fight. Frazier stood up, Ali stood up, words got heated, then Ali grabbed Frazier and both men wrestled to the ground.
Mark Kram of Sports Illustrateddescribed the fight result like this: “In the end, it was a unanimous decision for Ali: ring generalship over a one-man army fighting a war of attrition. If the fight ever seemed close, it was only because of Frazier’s incessant pursuit, which cannot fail to impress even those who may consider it plug ugly, and the occasional bursts – spaced far too far apart – of his left hook. For years it had been sudden evil, yet now it seemed only a moderately bad dream to Ali. For Ali knew what he was about on this night, recalling all the little things that make one a survivor: tying an opponent up, clever volleying when it would count the most, skirting sure trouble like a bank robber.”
Ali was in talks to fight Jerry Quarry next for a third time at Madison Square Garden for a $1 million dollar purse. But promoter Don King found a fight for The Greatest that would make him five times that.
And so, Ali’s very next fight would be his most famous, defeating George Foreman for the Heavyweight Championship in the “Rumble In The Jungle.”
Muhammad Ali vs. Earnie Shavers
Muhammad Ali vs. Earnie Shavers (September 29, 1977)
Ali’s Record: 54-2
Ali’s Age: 35 years, 255 days
Result: Ali wins 15 round fight by Unanimous Decision
Ali’s next fight at The Garden happened almost six years after the Frazier rematch. Ali had been champ for pretty much all of that time, defending the gold nine times successfully.
The situation is almost fitting. A decade earlier, Ali would have his last successful title defense at Madison Square Garden before his exile from boxing. Now, he would have his last successful title defense at The Garden before losing the Heavyweight title and three of his next four fights before retiring from the sport.
Shavers rocked Ali in the second round with one of the hardest punches Ali ever absorbed in his career. Though The Greatest would secure the unanimous decision, he spoke of that blow from the 2nd round: “Earnie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa!”
For most Ali fans, watching this elder version of Ali was less fun and more concerning. Many felt this should have been it for The Greatest.
From Sports Illustrated: “Thinking more, perhaps, of Ali’s dignity, Teddy Brenner, The Garden’s boxing boss, added his vote for (Ali’s) retirement. “As long as I’m around,” Brenner said, “The Garden will never make another offer to Ali to fight.”
And they didn’t.
Ali Returns To The Ring In a Different Role
After his boxing career came to an end, Ali donned a referee’s uniform to become a special enforcer st the inaugural Wrestlemania, held at The Garden. The showmanship of both brands were a great match.