Alan Hubbard

Was it really exactly half a century ago next Monday (March 8) that I sat at ringside as one of 760 scribes covering what had been labelled the Fight of the Century, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York, a city throbbing with lip-licking anticipation.

Even now I have to pinch myself as I recollect the magnificence and magnitude of that fabulous night which will go down as one of the momentous occasions in the annals of sport.

How things change. Then the whole world was agog when it was announced that the two unbeaten heavyweight champions - Smokin’ Joe had picked up the title of which Ali was stripped and exiled from the ring for three years because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War - would receive the richest ever prize in sport - $2.5 million (£1.7 million/€2 million) apiece at the mecca of boxing.

Now we await what is already being touted as the fight of this century - two Brits, Tyson Fury against Anthony Joshua some time this summer.

And guess what? It is quite likely that it could well be staged in the real Mecca - the Islamic holy of holies in the heart of Saudi Arabia. 

That is my latest information. And the pair will pocket some £100 million ($1.3 million/€1.1 million).

The desert sheikdom is strong favourite to host this pugilistic extravaganza, another indication of how the Middle East is taking over as the epicentre of international sport, with, among other things, football’s World Cup being held in the neighbouring Qatar next year.

The economic effects of the global pandemic, COVID-19 suggests that only nations with deep pockets because of oil reserves may be able to afford these sporting spectaculars in the coming years. 

Yet the emergence of Saudi, once a pariah state, just as South Africa was during apartheid because of its historic abuse of human rights, comes as a shock, especially to someone like myself who had seen at first hand just how medieval and ingrained the feudal practices were until a few years back.

I was the only western journalist to cover the first ever Islamic Games in the real Mecca back in 2005. Mecca housed a magnificent stadium. But there wasn’t a woman in sight. Then they were excluded from both watching and playing sport, driving or even eating in the same room as men.

Our columnist recalls how 50 years ago he was lucky enough to be one of 760 writers ringside for the fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier ©Getty Images
Our columnist recalls how 50 years ago he was lucky enough to be one of 760 writers ringside for the fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier ©Getty Images

As in South Africa it seems that the influence of sport, and its monetary value has, in the immortal words of Nelson Mandela, the power to change the world.

It all may also have been the threat of a red card from the Olympic Games by then President Jacques Rogge unless they changed their ways which caused the Desert Storm which swept through Saudi Arabia - or at least selected parts of it, to permit massive change.

Now not only women are included in Olympic teams but they have a female representative on the IOC itself, 46-year-old Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, a vivacious horsewoman and skier.

And our TV screens today portray Saudi as a holiday paradise ready to invite tourists as if it was an oasis for pleasure seekers. A sort of Cannes or Caribbean of the Middle East.

A number of sporting events - previous world title fights, including one involving former Olympic champion Joshua, motor racing, football, Mixed Martial Arts wrestling, golf and tennis have been held just outside of the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea resort of Jeddah.

It seems the younger element of Saudi rulers have overridden the mullahs and religious police at last as far as sport is concerned to haul the country towards the 21st century.

Of course we should not be fooled. Saudi Arabia’s new drive to hold world-class sporting events is part of its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy beyond oil through sport and tourism.

This is the same sleazy sheikh held responsible for masterminding the grizzly murder and dismemberment of the anti-Government journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago.

So the country where cinemas were banned until recently, where drinking alcohol is punishable by whipping, hands chopped off for theft, women and men stoned or beheaded for adultery, which wants to reinvent its image. Women are still asked to wear an abaya to cover themselves in public although this law appears to be easing.

It seems to me that what Saudi is doing is hanging their sports washing out to dry, using sport to deflect attention from some of the evil practices which still exist there. It’s all about covering the cracks.

Tyson Fury v Anthony Joshua is being billed as the fight of this century - if it takes place ©Getty Images
Tyson Fury v Anthony Joshua is being billed as the fight of this century - if it takes place ©Getty Images

It is why it is eager to splash a king’s ransom on productions like Fury and Joshua. You can be sure that if it happens there before a mixed audience there won’t be a Burka in sight though no booze will be available and gambling banned, at least ostensibly so.

But back to the Fight of Last Century. One of my favourite recollections is of the old school Madison Square Garden, the wonderfully laconic public relations (PR) John Condon.

We all liked Condon. He was an old school PR who took no prisoners. At the post-fight press conference (which neither combatants attended as they were hospitalised - winner Frazier for six weeks) he spotted singer Diana Ross sitting in the front row of the packed media room.

"Who ya with, little lady?" he queried.

"I’m Diana Ross," she trilled.

"I know who you are, little lady," Condon retorted. "I said, who ya with? What media d’ya represent?"

"Well, none," she said. "I’m just me, Diana Ross."

"Sorry little lady," said Condon. "Out. This is strictly my working press only."

And out The Supremes superstar had to trot.

Can you imagine a similar scene today, a PR daring to remove such celebrity fans of the stature of Shirley Bassey or Elton John from a press conference? They’d rather remove the reporters. How times change.

Only a handful of the principals at the Garden are still with us and I think my fellow octogenarian and friend Colin Hart of The Sun and myself are the only two surviving British journos present still writing about boxing today.

Our columnist argues that Muhammad Ali against George Foreman was a better spectacle than Ali-Frazier, billed as the fight of last century ©Getty Images
Our columnist argues that Muhammad Ali against George Foreman was a better spectacle than Ali-Frazier, billed as the fight of last century ©Getty Images

Colin echoes my views about just how humongous an occasion this was.

He says: "I doubt the fans of today can appreciate just how big this fight was and how good Ali and Frazier were. I would say that compared to this fight what they are calling the proposed Fight of this Century, Tyson Fury against Anthony Joshua, would be top of the bill at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

"Does anyone really give a damn about Fury and Joshua in China or Africa? But back then the whole world was talking about Ali and Frazier. It really was global, even though there was no pay-per-view - just closed circuit TV. 

"It was so huge that even the Soviet Union, where professional boxing was then banned, sent two reporters from the state news agency TASS."

Yes, it really was an epic encounter which transfixed the world.

By the evening of the fight Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of police to control the crowd. Eight of New York’s finest had been assigned to act as round-the-clock bodyguards for Ali, who had received numerous death threats from redneck factions.

The report I telexed back to my newspaper group immediately after the fight, began: "A legend has been licked. The man who mesmerised the world with his mouthy magic is no longer The Greatest."

On reflection, to be honest, in terms of boxing this was not actually the fight of the century. Ali v Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila four years later ("the closest thing to dying", Ali was to remark) was even better a ring spectacle, as was Ali v Foreman in Zaire.

Yet there is no doubt their first Garden party was the boxing occasion of the century. Whether Fury and Joshua’s Arabian night can match it remains to be seen.