By: Shawn Simmons
One of John Shearer’s most famous stories, “Fight of the Century” covered the first Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier fight, the two unbeaten heavyweights battling for boxing supremacy. It added dimensions of politics, religion, race, and ego whipped into frenzy by the most charismatic and controversial athlete of the 20th century that would capture the attention of people around the world, a lot of whom had never seen a boxing match before.
Frazier had earned the heavyweight belt the previous year. “I often felt bad for Joe,” Shearer said, recalling the time spent with both fighters before the bout at Madison Square Garden. “He was completely miscast as the bad guy in the fight. In so many of the pictures I made of him that winter, when he’s with friends and relaxed, there’s something genuinely charming there but something in his face suggests that if you scratched the surface, you’d find a world of other feelings.(Cosgrove)”
“The image of Frazier remained, unfairly and for the longest time, that he was just another fighter,” said Shearer. “That he was just another guy with his nose pushed off to the side of his face. But he felt, strongly, that he was every bit as articulate as Ali and, as importantly, perhaps, that he was every bit the showman that Ali was.”
“The pictures I made of Ali training in Chris Dundee’s Miami Beach gym, meanwhile, are incredibly revealing in another way,” Shearer said, “not least because you can see that Ali had a belly. And this is not all that long before the fight. He just wasn’t in the kind of shape he needed to be in to battle a warrior like Joe Frazier.”
Many of the photos Shearer took of Frazier make the case that Frazier simply wanted the title more than Ali. He was fighting, scratching, and clawing for it long before the two men stepped into the ring.
“When I see the pictures I made of Joe running by himself, for example,” Shearer recalled, “the one thing that strikes me, maybe even more now than when I was making the photos, is his discipline. He was training, training, training. He was driven. And in many ways, he was a man alone.”
“That fight was the last time Ali took Joe for granted,” Shearer said. “I wonder if, deep down, he hit a point in Miami where he looked for that fire, that drive, and it just wasn’t there. You know, you want to fight, you want to hold that title belt again, but you can’t make yourself run those extra few miles at five in the morning, or spar for twenty more minutes every single day.”
“It was electric in the Garden the night of the fight,” Shearer recalls. “It was the night of the great showdown between the era’s two gladiators, and there was a sense that the unprecedented hype for the fight might actually fall short of the reality. And, I remember, without a doubt it was a very, very pro-Ali crowd. They all came to see him win, to see him destroy Joe Frazier.”
Unfortunately for Ali and his fans, that’s not the way it worked out. Frazier, relentless and punishing stalked and pummeled Ali all night and in the final round floored him with a massive left hook. Ali was able to get back to his feet quickly, but the damage had been done. Frazier won by unanimous decision, and held on to the crown until losing it in spectacular fashion to George Foreman two years later, in 1973.
“Frazier didn’t fight by going for the head, the way a lot of other boxers did against Ali,” Shearer recalls. “He went after Ali’s body the whole fight, pounding away, taking terrible blows to the head himself. You know, you keep whacking at the base of the tree, and the tree is going to come down. And that’s what happened. That’s really the story of that first, unforgettable fight between those two great champions.”
Ali and Frazier were guaranteed to earn $2.5 million for the fight, a record for a single prizefight at the time. Both fighters were actually offered $1.5 million and a percentage of the total gate, but both took the guarantee instead. Little did they know how big the fight would be. After they signed the contracts, Ali stood up and said to Frazier, “Hey Joe, they got us cheap.” The fight ended up grossing over $30 million. Had Frazier and Ali taken the $1.5 million and the percentage, they each would’ve grossed over $6 million (Otierzo).
Muhammad Ali’s career earnings per fight before the “Fight of the Century”
Graphs act as a form of visual argument. Graphs are classified as a visual representation of an emphasized point. Bar graphs are useful when comparing numerical data. Both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier earned the highest purse of all time for their fight in March 1971, $2.5 million. The bar graph compares what Ali earned for the “Fight of the Century” versus all previous fights in his professional career. Color is used to contrast the data in the graph.
Potential Earnings vs. Actual Earnings
Pie graphs are useful when showing parts of a whole. The Ali/Frazier fight ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations, grossing $30 million. Both Ali and Frazier took home $2.5 million, the highest purses of all time at the point, but the total amount could have been even higher had they taken the original offer made to them.
Both fighters were offered $1.5 million and a percentage of the gate, had they agreed on those terms, Ali and Frazier would have earned $6 million apiece. Color is used in the graph to contrast data.
Gordon Parks is a pioneer in African-American photography and first black staff photographer at LIFE magazine, John Shearer was the second. Also, like Parks, Shearer has also been a writer, author of the “Billy Jo Jive” children’s book series, a director, lecturer, and professor. Shearer was inspired and molded himself after Parks. Shearer recalls a meeting with Parks:
I had a whole portfolio, about 15 images, and Gordon looked at them very quickly and then he literally tore them all up but one. I was 13. He said, “Only show your best pictures.”
Shearer was a staff photographer for LOOK magazine from 1966-1969. LOOK hired Shearer at 17, one of the youngest staff photographers ever hired by a major publication. While at LOOK, Shearer covered civil rights marches in the south as well as race riots.
In 1969, Shearer was hired by LIFE magazine where he worked as a staff photographer until the magazine ended weekly publications in 1972.
Asked what kept him going during his early days as a photographer, Shearer responded:
If you want to take pictures, a lot of people tell you you (sic) can’t. I heard that a lot. I was the second black staff photographer and people told me, dear friends of mine, “You can’t do this because you can’t go into a hotel, you can’t cover a story.” And that made me work twice as hard to prove them wrong, that I could do it.
In addition to the “Fight of the Century,” another one of Shearer’s most important stories was the Attica Prison riots of 1972. As the only photographer allowed inside the prison, many of Shearer’s pictures was used in numerous court cases inmates and guards of the prison brought against the state of New York.
Shearer is the winner of 175 national photography awards, including the 1972 Photographer of the Year. He has had his work exhibited in many cultural institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Uncut Funk.
In 1971, Shearer was equipped with a 35 millimeter, Cannon F-1 with a 50 millimeter lens. Black and white color. No flash, light used from Madison Square Garden, training facilities and outside.
Cosgrove, B. Ali-Frazier: Rare and Classic Photos From the ‘Fight of the Century’ | LIFE.com. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from http://life.time.com/culture/muhammad-ali-joe-frazier-photos-fight-of-the-century/#1
Donnelly, D. John Shearer. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from http://www.johnshearerpicturebook.com/index.php#mi=1&pt=0&pi=2&s=0&p=0&a=0&at=0
Fight Purses in Some Boxing Matches. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2014, from http://www.saddoboxing.com/boxingforum/59537-fight-purses-some-boxing-matches-2.html
Lombroso, L. (2014, March 18). Photographer John Shearer: Images of life. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from http://www.lohud.com/story/life/2014/03/17/photographer-john-shearer-images-life/6534877/
Otierzo, F. (2004, August 3). Fight of The Century: Still Nothing Close To It 33 Years Later. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://www.eastsideboxing.com/weblog/news.php?p=779&more=1
Steele, J., & Iliinsky, N. P. (2010). Beautiful visualization: [looking at data through the eyes of experts]. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.