One March morning in a suite at Essex House half a century ago, Muhammad Ali’s longtime friend and advisor Gene Kilroy received a call from the late Budd Schulberg, a writer whose contribution to the American canon “The Harder They Fall” , Contains “On the Waterfront” and a line best known to be recited by Marlon Brando but apparently uttered by almost every failed fighter before or since: “I could be a contender”

Although Ali had just suffered his first loss, it was Joe Frazier who came to St Luke’s Hospital in Philadelphia The undisputed heavyweight champion was wrapped in ice, his blood pressure was racing and unable to stand, urinate, eat or drink. Schulberg heard a rumor that Frazier’s condition was fatal

Ali heard Kilroy and Schulberg on the call. He didn’t have to explain. But even when Kilroy grimly repeated what the writer had heard, the most confident man on the planet began to crumble

Ali knelt and pressed his head to the floor “Allahu Akbar” God is great

Five decades later, well into a new millennium, the “fight of the century,” as Ali-Frazier I has been billed for (see ESPN), remains the fight of every century. Since other sports are metaphors for what Boxing actually is – fighting – other athletes inevitably compare themselves to fighters. But Ali and Frazier remain the fighters with whom the fighters compare themselves

They were more than epic antagonists In a seething, divided country preoccupied with race, they were meaningful, each making a proxy for something greater than themselves

Ali’s reputation was earned the hard way by refusing to join the army during the Vietnam War, the decision cost him his title and a nearly four-year layoff, meanwhile, becoming the man who won the heavyweight championship in his absence won – the 12th Child of Rubin and Dolly Frazier, partners from Laurel Bay, South Carolina – unforgivably cast as “White Man’s Champion” But if sociology and politics can be shed (perhaps an even more difficult task now than then), her virtue will always be clearer

Every man came with a legend in his left hand For Ali it was the push; For Frazier, the hook. If they remembered archetypes – the Stoic and the Fabulist – they were even greater together than they were for themselves. Together they made an art of perseverance

Not only did you need each other you had to fight each other again and again and again

And the way they did it – the qualities they struggled with, their ability to withstand both cruelty and corporal punishment – today feels like those prayers have been answered

A look at the recently remastered tape from Madison Square Garden suggests a movie, or maybe several from the late director Sidney Lumet, who says something very specific, both in terms of taste buds and mood, time, and location, says it was the early ’70s Years, and New York felt like the most powerful city in the world despite all the turbulence and the beginning of old age

It was the American capital of sport, television, and intellectual life on Aug. By March 1971, however, they would all run together, there were cops and mob guys and hustlers and playmates, and everywhere you saw an abundance of stars (including mere writers who counted as stars in this long-ago city) By the way, it was a star who managed the most unlikely coup of the evening: Frank Sinatra, who signed a job as a ring photographer for Life magazine

Yet the most captivating description of the evening is not visual, but acoustic “A visceral roar,” recalls Larry Merchant, then a columnist for the New York Post “Madness in the Sound Machine”

The decades in between haven’t done anything to reduce the noise.Merchant has heard it again since then – in the 10th Round of the first fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe and at selected points during the trilogy between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales But again only in a few moments – Round competition prevailed

There were 20455 people in attendance “And everyone in that crowd thought he or she was on the right side of the sky,” recalls Merchant

The judges’ point cards – all for Frazier – only determined the winner of each round – where the ropes seem to hold Ali upright – and the famous 15th – where Ali was felled for the first time – won 10: 8 But the grades are just arithmetic None of them reflect the majesty of the evening

“In the abstract math of boxing, it’s not always easy to tell who won the fight,” says Merchant. “I was one of the astigmatic fools who scored the fight for Ali”

Like Kilroy, whose sympathies were known. Nonetheless, none of the men would argue with the result

If you look at tapes from the NFL or 1971 NBA, for example, you will see men smaller and slower than you might have remembered as a kid.They just couldn’t keep up with today’s players, but that’s not here the case Most of today’s heavyweights are taller than Ali and much taller than Frazier, who weighed 205 pounds on the morning of the fight. But they are no more skillful. They are no better, And no one in tandem has always been braver

It was a turning point for Ali. Wherever Vietnam or the draft was to be found, it was now impossible to deny your bravery. When he started the night as the prettiest, he ended up as the toughest

Even with a grotesquely swollen jaw (which Diana Ross would put a bag of ice on herself), his trip to the medical facility on Flower First Avenue after the fight took “about 10 minutes,” recalls Kilroy. “Ali didn’t want that someone says Joe took him to the hospital “

Frazier was the night of his life “Frazier came and came and came and came,” says Merchant

But at what price? It was also a turning point for Frazier, the beginning of his physical decline, his hospital stay lasting several weeks

Finally, Ali’s prayers were answered and maybe Frazier too, because only in boxing do you need the man you have to destroy again and again and again

The third fight, the last, was in Manila. “It was like death,” recalled Ali, “the closest to dyeing that I know of”

Despite all the talk of death – how close they got and how ready they were – something about them will last forever

View ESPN Presents: Muhammad Ali / Joe Frazier 50th Anniversary Special on Sunday on ABC at 2 p.m. and on ESPN at 6 p.m.

Joe Frazier

World News – USA – After 50 years, Ali-Frazier I remains the fight that transcends sport