Khalilah Ali, who was married to Muhammadi Ali 50 years ago at the time of the “The Fight of the Century,’’ told USA TODAY Sports she remembers what she wore that night to Madison Square Garden in New York.
“All black because I knew he was going lose,’’ she said.
Khalilah Ali said she even predicted as much before her famous husband, then 31-0 with 25 knockouts, stepped into the ring with Joe Frazier, then 26-0 with 23 knockouts, on March 8, 1971.
“He said, ‘Why would you do that?’ ” Khalilah Ali recalled. “I said, ‘Let me tell you something. You have not been training the way you’re supposed to train. And you know what? It’s time for you to lose. So I’m just going to sit back and watch.’’
Frazier won in 15 rounds by unanimous decision in what was the first fight of a trilogy, with Ali winning the next two fights. But the “Fight of the Century’’ was considered more than a fight.
‘THE FIGHT:’ Inside the biggest boxing match in history
It was an event — now considered one of the greatest boxing matches in the history of the sport.
Frank Sinatra, actor Burt Lancaster and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey were among those in attendance in the sellout crowd of 20,000. They were there to watch something unprecedented — two undefeated boxers fight for the heavyweight title for the first time ever.
Tickets were sold outside the arena for up to $1,000, a then-astronomical sum.
Other fights have been billed as “Fights of the Century,’’ but none lived up to what transpired that night inside and outside of the ring.
At one point during the fight, Ali told Frazier, “God wants you to lose tonight.’’
Shot back Frazier, “Tell your God he’s in the wrong house tonight.”
For much of the fight, Ali retreated to the ropes. It was no surprise to Khalilah Ali, who watched Frazier knock her husband down with a crushing left hook in the 15th round. Though Ali got off the canvas, he lost the bout as scored by each of the three judges.
“He laughed at me when it was over,’’ Khalilah Ali recalled of the “Fight of the Century.’’ “He said, ‘Wow, you’re one of those crystal balls.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t do all that. I know you. That’s why. It wasn’t hard to figure out.’’
But she said she knew the loss would prove pivotal down the road and explained as much.
“I’m telling you, there’s going to be a fight that’s more important than this one,’’ Khalilah Ali recalled saying. “‘And if you act like this then, then you’ll lose at the big one.’’
That big fight, Khalilah Ali said, was the 1974 “The Rumble in the Jungle,’’ in which Ali knocked out George Foreman.
Contributing: Bert Randolph Sugar