"I'm not the champ," Ali corrected him. "Joe Frazier is the champ."
Indeed he was, and if anyone needed a reminder the morning papers provided it with a picture as shocking to Ali's fans as his defeat the night before. There was Ali, glassy-eyed and struggling to get up from the canvas in the 15th round as Frazier walked to a neutral corner more certain than ever of victory.
"There were a couple of knockdowns, really," Frazier said, chuckling at the thought. "They called the first one a slip. But it was the left hook that made him slip."
It was 40 years ago today that Ali and Frazier met at Madison Square Garden in a fight so big it was simply referred to as The Fight. It was Frazier's heavyweight title that was on the line, but a lot of boxing fans still considered Ali the champion because he was stripped of the title and sent into boxing exile for refusing to be drafted.
Frazier was undefeated and in his prime, a relentless aggressor with a vicious left hook. Ali, in just his third fight since the 31/2-year layoff, was a sharply polarizing figure.
"A lot of 'em want me whipped because of the draft," Ali said before the fight. "A lot of 'em want me whipped because of religion. A lot of 'em want me whipped because I'm black ... and for other reasons that I might not even know about."
Frazier and Ali would go on to meet two more times, including the memorable Thrilla in Manilla. But nothing could match the stakes that March night at the Garden, where Frank Sinatra shot pictures at ringside and celebrities jockeyed for prime seats. There seemed no way the fight could live up to the hype, but Ali and Frazier made sure it did.
Frazier was on the attack the whole night. He hurt Ali badly in the 11th round -- the same round Ali slipped on a wet spot and went to the canvas -- and landed a crushing left hook 25 seconds into the 15th that put Ali down. Ali got up and finished the fight, but his jaw was swollen like a grapefruit and, when the scorecards were announced, Frazier had won a unanimous decision.
"Ali lost, but it was still one of his greatest moments," said retired Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. "He had fought only twice after coming back from more than three years off, and he went 15 rounds with a guy at the top of his game."
"If Joe Frazier would have fought King Kong he would have knocked him out that night," said Gene Kilroy, a friend of both men who later became Ali's business manager.
Ali is 69 now, living in Arizona and suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson's syndrome, a movement disorder causing tremors of the hands, arms and legs and stiffness. Frazier, who slurs his words at times, is 67 and lives in Philadelphia.
Frazier said he planned to go to parties in New York and Philadelphia to celebrate the night that still defines his life today.
"I can't go nowhere where it's not mentioned," he said. "That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life."