As was perhaps befitting of a man who had evolved from merely a cosmically gifted champion into a genuine global superstar, by the 1970s Muhammad Ali’s fights had become so much more than merely international sports events. As his fame grew and grew, so his fight-nights morphed into something extraordinary, almost surreal, somewhere between a catwalk show, a film premiere and a Harlem grindhouse. They became an irresistible whirlpool for celebrities, hustlers, pushers and pimps. Where the rich and not-so-famous came to strut, jive and swagger. To be seen and photographed. Where vanity and ego swelled cavernous arenas, the smell of greenbacks and chinchilla threatened to overwhelm. And where, frankly, what happened in the square ring was almost incidental.
The zenith of this ringside showboating was almost certainly Ali’s iconic 1971 championship fight against Smokin’ Joe Frazier, at Madison Square Garden, NYC (famously photographed, again for LIFE magazine, by a ticketless Frank Sinatra.) But here are some fantastic photographs of a slightly earlier contest, from 1970, against the cast-iron Argentine Oscar Bonavena, also at MSG.
They are a wonderful document of the time, the place…and the intoxicating attitude.
(For the record, Ali knocked out Bonavena in the 15th round. The only time the Argentine was stopped in his craeer.)