It's amusing—perhaps even illuminating—to wonder just how big the Fight of the Century would be today. Of course, it was plenty big 40 years ago this week, when on March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali, fresh off his political exile, challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in New York City's Madison Square Garden. It was the first bout in their magnificent trilogy, and everybody who was anybody was there, including Frank Sinatra, roaming ringside as a LIFE photographer. But today? When a collection of 60-second TV spots otherwise known as the Super Bowl so reliably brings a nation to its knees? When an NBA dunk contest is all it takes to rouse us from midwinter doldrums? When a budding wisp of self-importance like LeBron James can stop us all in our tracks as we await the navigational direction of his talents?
Oh, my. Ali-Frazier, which even then was more a cultural touchstone than a boxing match, would probably paralyze us if it were held today, leveraging its various themes of race and politics on our social networking fulcrums. America would have to close for business to properly attend to this frenzy. Ashton Kutcher has 6.3 million Twitter followers? Ali would crash the Internet with his feeds (@smokinJoe is so ugly he should donate his face to @BureauofWildlife. #gonnawhupya).
Keep in mind, this was a somewhat interesting event in its own right. Ali had been denied the right to box, had nearly been jailed, for refusing induction into the Armed Forces based on his Islamic faith (effectively standing in opposition to the Vietnam War with his "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" quote), and was freshly back from a 3½-year career interruption. While his motor mouth had obviously benefited from the forced banishment, it was impossible to know if his feet and fists hadn't suffered inverse atrophy. The also undefeated Frazier, meanwhile, had become a caricature of remorseless fury, the kind of glowering presence who knew exactly what to do with high-spirited blabbermouths.
But while it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who'd been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we're so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they're good enough.