1970’s was a decade of gas lines and stagflation but for two sports, it was the last of their golden era. For boxing, heavyweights were in the midst of era in which giants fought in the middle of the ring and for horse racing, the decade contained three Triple Crown winners.
For boxing, the decade began with the fight of the century with Ali challenging Frazier for Frazier’s heavyweight title. Ali, coming back from a three year plus exile from the ring, wanted his title back which he felt stolen by the United States government. In a fight of two undefeated fighters at or near their peak proved dramatic with many twists and turns concluding when Frazier punctuated his decision with a dramatic knockdown of Ali in the fifteenth round (Ali got up at the count of 2 but this cemented Frazier’s win.) This opened up the golden age of heavyweights that featured not only the great Ali and Joe Frazier but included George Foreman and concluded with the rise of Larry Holmes as the decade ended.
Many of the top ten fighters in the 70’s would own portion of the championship belt, if they fought today. If nothing else, the heavyweight was awash with talent that included Ken Norton, a very good fighter who gave Ali three of his toughest fights, the now forgotten British boxer Joe Bugner, who managed to go the distance with both Ali and Frazier, Jerry Quarry, the hard slugging Ron Lyle who engaged in one of the great slugfests with George Foreman and gave Ali all he could handle as well as the hard slugging Earnie Shavers.
In horse racing, Secretariat was the King of the horses but Affirmed engaged in three of the greatest Triple Crown races against his arch rival Ayladar. Affirmed faced Ayladar ten different times, winning seven including all three triple crowns in 1978. Ayladar entered the Kentucky Derby as the 6-5 favorite with Affirmed second choice. Affirmed took over the lead from Sensitive Prince, who led early in the race and then had to hold off a fast charging Alydar to win by 1 ½ lengths. In the Preakness, Affirmed set the pace and once again Alydar kicked into high gear only to fall short one more time, this time by a neck.
The Belmont concluded horse races greatest trilogy as Ayladar was the favorite of many because of his fast closing speed in the longer Belmont Stakes. In the opening half mile, Affirmed set a deliberate pace with Alydar in striking distance, ready to pounce. Over the last three quarter of miles, both horses separated from the rest of the field as they both ran the fastest last mile ever recorded. Alydar managed to get his nose ahead of Affirmed down the stretch before jockey Steve Cauthen whipped Affirmed on the left side and Affirmed reacted by sneaking just his nose past Alydar, thus ending horse racing greatest triple crown races. Both horses overall time were the third and fourth best recorded behind Gallant Man and the great Secretariat.
Seattle Slew went through the pack in 1977 to win the decade second Triple Crown despite his reputation of being speed horse as he combined both speed and endurance. Secretariat won his first two races by sheer dominance. In the Derby, he broke last at the start but each quarter mile was faster than the previous and won the Derby by nearly three lengths in under two minutes. In Preakness, Secretariat started last once again but once again his last charge over the last quarter of mile allowed him to win by 2 ½ lengths, similar to what he finished in the Derby.
The Belmont Stake was Secretariat ticket to sports immortality as he took the lead from almost the beginning and never looked back. There were horse racing pundits, watching him destroy the field, worried if he actually would finished the blistering pace he set for himself. On this day, Secretariat would finished 31 lengths ahead in a performance that never been matched. He finished two seconds ahead of the record and blazed a path never been or seen since. Secretariat was the greatest three years old and Belmont left no doubt on what a great specimen he was.
For those of us who lived in the 70’s it was an era of super horses who strode down the stretch and even the Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in three classical races, would have been a super horse in any other era or any other year other than 1973, 1977, or 1978. If Alydar raced in 1979 or 1976, he would have been a super horse in his own right and the decade may have seen four triple crowns.
The 70’s was the greatest period in boxing history for the Heavyweight division. While Ali overshadowed his follow heavyweights, his shadow no longer hides the talent of other heavyweights. Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali trilogy was one of boxing most brutal and exciting trilogy but George Foreman and Larry Holmes greatness never became obvious until decades later. Foreman came back from a ten year retirement to begin what should have been an impossible quest to win a heavyweight title as he defeated the undefeated Mike Moorer in the most dramatic of ways, a knockout in a fight that he was easily losing. At 45, Foreman recaptured a share of the heavyweight title over two decades after he lost it from Ali.
Larry Holmes came back after he lost his title to Michael Spinks only to lose to Mike Tyson but he decided that he wanted to rewrite his own last chapter as he continued fighting into the 90’s. He fought twice for the heavyweight title in the 90’s and while he did not win a title, he spent most of the decade as a top ten fighter, not bad for a fighter in his 40’s.
Today, we view Holmes as one of the all time great heavyweights but his peak years came as the 70’s wound down and the 80’s began. He was the last of the great giants of the 70’s and he never got his chance to fight Foreman or Frazier in their peak and his fight with Ali was with an old Ai whose skill eroded complete. Between 1978 and 1985, Holmes ran through the heavyweight division before losing to Michael Spinks.
Today both sports have seen their own ratings decline. For Horse racing, outside factors have played a role in the reduced popularity including the rise of legalized gambling, plus there are plenty of sports to view on any given day. Horse racing simply got lost in the smorgasbord of sports on cable.
Boxing own decline in popularity is self inflicted as various sanctioning bodies along with many promoters have so mismanaged the sport to the point that it is losing a new generation of fans to the Mixed Martial Arts. Nor does it help that most of the best heavyweights are now fighting in Europe, so the premier division is devoid of any great American fighter. In the 1970’s, the great heavyweights were Americans.
The 70’s was the golden age for both horse racing and boxing but by time a new century, both sports are now merely relegated to being just another sport, no longer capable of holding new generation in the same awe it held for previous generations.