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August 17, 2000|LARRY STEWART

What: "Ali-Frazier I: One Nation . . . Divisible"

Where: HBO

When: Tonight, 10

The first of the three fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, held March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, ranks with the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" 1951 New York Giant-Brooklyn Dodger playoff game and the "Do You Believe in Miracles" U.S. Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 as one of the great sporting events of the 20th century.

HBO revisits that fight in award-winning fashion. This one-hour documentary does more than recap the fight; it explains the social climate in the United States at that time and the social aspects of the fight. Ali was a symbol of the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam movement. Frazier, unfairly, was viewed as the symbol of the pro-war, conservative segment of American society.

Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom. He called him ugly. He called him dumb. It wasn't until recent years that Frazier retaliated, saying Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, is the dumb one now.

It's pointed out by Philadelphia sports columnist Stan Hochman that these men brought out the best of each other in the ring and the worst of each other outside the ring.

The most poignant moment of the documentary comes at the end, when Frazier asks Ali for forgiveness. "I swallowed a lot of razor blades, and sometimes they cut inside," Frazier says. "I would live rambunctious and would say things I shouldn't say. . . . I want to throw in the towel. I am willing to say . . . to all his fans, all his family--if I have done anything wrong to him--hey, man, forgive me."

There are many tidbits we learn from the documentary. Ringside seats went for $150. Each fighter got $2.5 million, the referee $750. Hollywood talent agent Jerry Perenchio, who promoted the fight, came up with $4.5 million of the purse. He got Jack Kent Cooke to chip in $500,000.

This from son Marvis Frazier on his father's mood in the dressing room before the fight: "I said, 'Pop, what did you pray?' He said, 'I asked the Lord, I said, Lord help me kill this man because he's not righteous.' "

And this from George Foreman: "Joe Frazier made up his mind that 'I'm going to do what I can to get Muhammad Ali, even if I die.' And that's what he did."

Frazier spend five days in a hospital after the fight, and there were rumors he had died.

Boxing writer Bert Sugar says, "The winner that night was the loser, and the loser that night was the winner."

The winner of the fight that night was Frazier.

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