Muhammad Ali Goes Down
I’d been hounding my bosses at United Press International to send me to Vietnam to cover the war. The opportunity was slipping away as the U.S. was beginning to withdraw its troops and turning over the responsibility of conducting the war to the government of South Vietnam. As a young news photographer this was the biggest American story of my generation, the kind I lived to tell, and I couldn’t miss it. Also, and most importantly, four of my classmates from my Oregon high school had been killed there. I wanted to see for myself what took them away.
In early 1971, UPI finally agreed to transfer me to Saigon. I was going to replace Kent Potter who had been covering Vietnam for three years. Potter and I were both 23. I was really excited about finally being able to get to the action. Although several photographers had died there over the years, I hadn’t let that bother me. Two weeks later, on February 10, four photographers were shot down in a helicopter over Laos and killed. One of them was a personal hero, LIFE photographer Larry Burrows. The others were Henri Huet of AP, Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek, and UPI’s Kent Potter. Although I didn’t know Potter it freaked me out to think of stepping into his job under these circumstances. What was I doing? This was feeling totally nuts and suddenly even more dangerous. I started to have serious second thoughts, but the idea of changing my mind and not going seemed like an even worse option. I also didn’t want to look back years later and regret not doing it. I didn’t want to be one of those people who said, “I could have gone, but . . .” That was even scarier.
The next few weeks turned into one big going away bash. It seemed like I and everyone else thought this was going to be a one-way trip, so the theme became, Let’s Party!
As a parting gift, or perhaps a guilty farewell present because they knew I was going off to my death, the UPI brass offered me a coveted assignment. A ringside position at the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier “Fight of the Century” World Heavyweight Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8th. It was the first time that two undefeated boxers who held or had held the world heavyweight champion designation had fought each other for that title. It was my last domestic job before shipping out to Vietnam.
When fight day arrived, I was totally fatigued from too many going away parties and fun but managed to pull myself together for the epic bout. In the shot below you can see me with my camera ringside.
At ringside I was squeezed in between three others, all veteran fight photographers. They were the best in the business. We shot through and under the ropes. Between each round I would hand off my film to a messenger. The film was developed in the building, and the pictures were transmitted to UPI from there too. No such thing as digital 50 years ago.
As the bell rang signaling the start of the 15th and final round it appeared that the match was tight. Then lightning struck. “The Greatest” got hit with Frazier’s supersonic left hook and headed to the mat. To me it played out in slow motion. In reality, it was a split second from the time he was up to the instant he was down. But I nailed it. Nobody else at ringside did.
Frazier was declared the winner. And apparently so was I. Larry DeSantis, UPI’s chief editor and a tough critic congratulated me on my coverage.
I woke up the next morning to see my Ali knockdown photo on the front page of the New York Times. It was also my 24th birthday. I also scored the front page of the New York Daily News with another image of Frazier landing a right to Ali’s head. Landing on page one of both papers when they each had several of their own photographers at the event was unprecedented. The photo of Ali going down became part of my Pulitzer portfolio for my year’s work in 1971. It included photos from the Vietnam War, Cambodia combat, and refugees pouring into India from East Pakistan.
It was quite a sendoff, but not like the one Frazier gave Ali!