The self-anointed “greatest of all time” was already used to making a comeback. After refusing to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, the man formerly known as Cassius Clay was stripped of his title and had his boxing license suspended from 1967 to 1970. A couple of comeback fights followed, paving the way for one of the greatest (and lengthiest) battles in boxing history.
What Ali had wanted was a shot at the undefeated Joe Frazier. Their first face-off became known as the not-at-all overhyped Fight of the Century. (Even Frank Sinatra couldn’t get a seat; he managed to end up ringside by volunteering as a photographer for LIFE magazine.) The bout went the distance: Frazier floored Ali in the 15th and final round, sealing a unanimous points decision, retaining his title and handing Ali his first ever professional loss. The inevitable rematch of 1974 didn’t sustain the magnitude of the first fight, as by that time Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman. Ali won that fight in a unanimous 12-round decision.
With the score now at 1-1, the world craved a decisive, deciding fight. And they got it with the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. The battle lasted 14 rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ali took an early lead in points, but by the middle rounds Frazier had mounted a ferocious comeback. Ali, however, would not be denied; the fight was stopped when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round. His eyes had swollen shut and his trainer, Eddie Futch, simply wouldn’t allow him to continue. In typically modest fashion, Ali lauded his finest rival after the match: “He is the greatest fighter of all times,” the boxer said, “next to me.”