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Shades of Ali-Frazier

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By Mark Vasto

When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 for dodging the Vietnam War draft, he was, without question, the greatest fighter in the world. He had just dismantled Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley — three fights that stand as clinics, all of them must sees for any fight fan.

But time has a way of wearing a man down. When Ali was cleared to fight again he had lost nearly four years of legs. His return to the ring saw him dismantle a bloodied Jerry Quarry, stopping him with a vicious cut in just the third round. Waiting in the wings for Ali was the much-overlooked standing champion: Joe Frazier.

Ali was not yet the people’s champ. His draft dodging, combined with a brash, outspoken demeanor and views that many found unpatriotic, saw him vilified by press and fans alike. Still, he had never lost his belt in the ring and held a record of 31-0 by the spring of 1971.

Frazier, on the other hand, had none of the charisma or charm that Ali possessed, but he did have a hell of a left hook and was unbeaten at 26-0.

The two met in Madison Square Garden in March of that same year. The fight lasted 15 rounds and it went to the scorecards, but there was little doubt in the minds of the 20,455 in attendance who witnessed the spectacle that night: The great Ali lost. There was no doubt. Frazier floored him in the final round. “The Greatest” of all times was, after all, beatable.

In the world of mixed martial arts and in a world starved of the kind of stardom that Ali, Frazier and their contemporaries supplied, Ronda Rousey was the most popular fighter in the world when she stepped into the ring in Australia on Nov. 14. She was to face another unbeaten woman, Holly Holm.

Like Frazier, Holm was overlooked. She had never lost a fight, but had been a boxing champion. She was attractive but not a “Hollywood” starlet — something Rousey was able to be in her spare time. Rousey, from Venice Beach, California, could be seen knocking out Turtle from “Entourage,” tossing Michael Strahan to the ground in front of a giggling Kelly Ripa and sitting in on “The View.” Holm, meanwhile, kept her mouth shut and trained for the fight of her life.

Holm, an 800-point underdog according to the odds makers in Vegas, stunned the world when she floored Rousey in 59 seconds into the second round at UFC 193. Like Frazier, Holm was a striker, and she managed to hit Rousey in the head with full power 29 times, many sustained by Rousey as she lay flat on her back, the clock ticking on her reign as champion.

The parallels between the two fights and the four fighters are striking. There must be a rematch. The world did not so much lose or gain a new champion that night in Australia … it merely punched its ticket for a possible Thrilla in Manilla, the kind of epic that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time.

Mark Vasto is a veteran sportswriter who lives in New Jersey. © 2015 King Features Synd., Inc.