It was described as “the Fight of the Century”: Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his World Heavyweight Championship and suspended from boxing for three years after refusing to serve in the Vietnam war, on this day, March 8 1971, took on Joe Frazier, the man who had taken his title, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Both fighters were undefeated and the event was broadcast live to an international television audience. It was also attended by countless of stars including Woody Allen, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman, Burt Lancaster, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr, Hugh Hefner, author Norman Mailer and, doing it his way, Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra, who listed photography as a lifelong hobby, had secured a deal (and with it a much sought-after ringside seat) with Life magazine to take pictures of the fight. How he achieved this task, is uncertain. It was said that, despite his connections and influence, he was unable to secure a place in the front row. So he approached Ralph Graves, the managing editor of Life, to work for the magazine as a guest photographer.
Graves insisted later: “Sinatra was always going to be at the fight and was always planning on bringing a camera with him. For our pictures of the action, we were relying on the magazine pool photographers at ringside. But it never hurts to have a horseshoe in your glove.”
Four of Sinatra’s pictures, including the front cover shot, were used by Life to illustrate the story of the fight, written by Norman Mailer.
But not to everyone’s approval. For istance Robert Kelley, a former Life staff photographer, wrote a scathing letter to the magazine, saying: “Sirs: I’m so mad I could chew nails and spit tacks. I’ve been a professional news photographer 34 years (about 18 on Life’s staff) and what irks me is your cover. It was obviously selected because Frank Sinatra took it, rather than for any photographic excellence. In fact, it was a bad picture. What millions of Life readers wanted to see was Frazier’s fist firmly implanted against Muhammad Ali’s mouth.”
In his defence, Sinatra said later: “I got some good pictures, but I kept watching Frazier putting his head too far out for Ali to punch it. He was defying Ali, and I said to the newspaper guy next to me: ‘He may win, but if he keeps that up, he’s going to the hospital, taking all those punches.‘”
He was right. Joe Frazier did win but had to receive hospital treatment over the following month suffering from hypertension and kidney problems. Muhammad Ali was also taken to hospital straight after the fight for treatment on his badly swollen jaw.