Muhammad Ali, who passed away at age 74 on Friday, became a worldwide icon through his globe-trotting, larger-than-life boxing career and his quest for social justice. Yet as many stops as the late, great — make that “Greatest” — heavyweight champ made in far-flung locales such as Zaire (“The Rumble in the Jungle”) and the Philippines (“Thrilla in Manila”), no city hosted more Ali fights than the Big Apple.
Ten of Ali’s 61 career pro bouts took place in New York City. TKO victories over Sonny Banks (Madison Square Garden) and Billy Daniels (the old St. Nicholas Arena) came before his 21st birthday. In the 1963 Ring magazine Fight of the Year, a hotly-contested decision victory over city native Doug Jones at the Garden preceded the former Cassius Clay’s first heavyweight title victory by 11 months.
Here’s a look at Ali’s seven lineal heavyweight championship bouts that took place within the five boroughs.
Ali (28-0) vs. Zora Folley (74-7-4)
March 22, 1967 at the Garden
For the first time as heavyweight champion, Ali returned to Manhattan to take on the 34-year-old Korean War veteran. Folley earned Ali’s respect before the fight by referring to the champ by his preferred name, saying at the time, “He calls me Muhammad Ali, thanks me all the time for giving him a chance. How am I ever going to get mad at him and build up this fight?”
But Ali didn’t need his trademark commentary to get in the zone against the journeyman from Arizona. The champ seemed to coast before a combination briefly dropped Folley in the fourth. After stepping off the gas once again, Ali finally finished Folley midway through the seventh round.
Ali couldn’t relish the victory for long, however. His declared status as a conscientious objector and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War led to being stripped of his boxing license in New York, as well as his WBC and WBA championship crowns. He would not fight again for 3 1⁄2 years.
Ali (30-0) vs. Oscar Bonavena (46-6-1)
Dec. 7, 1970 at the Garden
Still considered the lineal and Ring magazine champion, Ali returned to the Big Apple for the first time since his suspension was overturned in federal court. Having TKO’d Jerry Quarry in the third round just six weeks earlier, Ali’s return to New York came against Argentine heavyweight Bonavena.
Despite a prefight claim by the Louisville Lip that Bonavena would “be mine in nine,” Ali cruised through the bulk of the first 14 rounds. Although ahead on the judges’ scorecards, Ali took matters into his own hands with three knockdowns in the final round to score a TKO stoppage and secure the vacant NABF heavyweight crown.
Ali (31-0) vs. Joe Frazier (26-0)
March 8, 1971 at the Garden
‘The Fight of the Century,” as it was billed at the time, pitted Ali against fellow unbeaten Frazier for Smokin’ Joe’s WBC and WBA titles. It was the hottest ticket in town, with ringside seats at the time selling for $150 — the equivalent of nearly $900 today. Frank Sinatra, who couldn’t procure such a seat, opted to take photos for Life magazine just to be close to the action.
Ali and Frazier brought plenty of action, to be sure. Ali started strong during the first three frames, using his speed to mark up Frazier’s face. But the powerful Frazier started to turn the tide near the end of Round 3 with a punishing left hook to the jaw followed by some work to the body.
Round 11 went worse for Ali as Smokin’ Joe stumbled him more than once, and Ali later was sent to the canvas in Round 15. He survived, but Frazier won a unanimous decision and scored the first blemish on Ali’s professional record.
Ali (38-1) vs. Floyd Patterson (55-7-1)
Sept. 20, 1972 at the Garden
Now 30 years old, Ali was relegated to defending his NABF title while working his way back to a rematch against Frazier. Another rematch crossed his path in his first fight in Manhattan since the loss to Frazier as he took on Brooklyn-raised Patterson in what would be the final fight of the former champion’s career.
Patterson was 37 and, according to W.K. Stratton’s biography of him, in financial trouble. Despite the bad blood and epithets between the two ahead of their first meeting, Ali agreed to the bout to help Patterson earn one more payday.
The bout itself wasn’t remarkable. Ali was still in his prime and it showed. He opened a gash above Patterson’s left eye in the fourth, and the fight was called after Round 7 when the ringside doctor was concerned with the aging fighter’s blurred vision.
Ali (43-2) vs. Joe Frazier (30-1)
Jan. 28, 1974 at the Garden
Having lost and regained the NABF title in a pair of 1973 bouts against Ken Norton, the time was right for Ali and Frazier to fight once again. However, the Philadelphia-based Frazier had lost his heavyweight titles to George Foreman a year earlier. Ali continued to insult Frazier’s intelligence in the buildup to the rematch, enraging Smokin’ Joe and leading to a brawl on the ABC Studios set in Manhattan.
A closer bout played out at the Garden this time, but also a less thrilling one. Ali mixed in less clowning antics this time, and Frazier already had lost a step since the first fight. Constant clinching by Ali flustered Frazier, but by the end Ali had piled up enough points with his jab and combinations to earn a 12-round decision.
Ali went on to reclaim the heavyweight crown from Foreman in October, utilizing his famed rope-a-dope strategy to win the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Ali (52-2) vs. Ken Norton (37-3)
Sept. 28, 1976 at Yankee Stadium
Ali had defeated Frazier, the first man to beat him, a second time in 1975, and he sought to do the same to the second man to defeat him. Ali predicted he would knock out “the sucker” Norton before the end of the fifth round, despite fighting 12 full rounds in each of the first two meetings. An NYPD strike at the time left fans to head to the House That Ruth Built at their own risk. Although announced attendance was 30,000, it was estimated only 19,000 made it to the fight.
Ali failed to live up to his prefight prediction again, going the distance with Norton a third time in a 15-round affair. Ali secured the decision, but his third fight against Frazier had sapped much of his trademark speed. However, the decision is considered by many to be among the most disputed in boxing history.
Ali (54-2) vs. Earnie Shavers (54-5-1)
Sept. 29, 1977 at the Garden
No longer looking like the force that claimed the lineal heavyweight title on two occasions — and later a third — Ali had one more victory in him before the losses started to pile up. While the 35-year-old version of Ali still possessed the gift of gab — he nicknamed Shavers “The Acorn” because of his recently shaved head — his in-ring skills were eroded.
Although Ali found himself in trouble as early as Round 2, the two traded rounds throughout. The champion began to fade late against the heavy hitter, later saying, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”
But Ali found the strength to put together a strong 15th round and won by a close decision.
Ali lost three of his final four bouts, but his final victory earned him the world heavyweight championship for a record third time.