How Ali-Frazier I led to debate, violence and death in Puerto Rico

While Muhammad Ali nursed his physical and emotional wounds after his first loss as a professional boxer and Joe Frazier felt on top of the world after the biggest victory of his career, the aftermath of their first fight literally ignited the University of Puerto Rico, the state university of this U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

It's possible that neither of the archrivals ever heard about this, but a discussion about the fight, which had taken place March 8, 1971, led to a heated debate two days later between an ROTC cadet and a student opposed to conscription and the Vietnam War -- two forces as polarizing as Ali and Frazier.

Ali was a staunch opponent of the war and had recently won an appeal against his five-year sentence for refusing to perform military service. He had become a symbol for opponents of the war around the world, while for Frazier and those who supported the U.S. presence in South Asia, he was just a plain anti-American defector.

In Puerto Rico, as in the rest of the world, these forces clashed regularly, and on March 10 a short fuse was lit. According to the book "Puerto Rico: Grito y Mordaza" (which translates to "Puerto Rico: Scream and Gag") by Luis Nieves Falcón, Pablo García Rodríguez and Félix Ojeda Reyes, the discussion began when the cadet described Ali as "anti-American." It ended with a fistfight, but no blood was shed -- until the next day.

On March 11, groups from both sides met again at the University Center of the country's main public campus, some with American flags, others with antiwar slogans. As was expected, chaos followed.

Here's how a recent chronicle on the 80grados.net blog descriped the episode: "So, that Thursday afternoon in 1971, there was nothing but disdain between conflicting views. The rocks flew and crashed down. American flags were sneaked in along with food trays, which served as protective shields. The Molotov exploded. A cloud of discord settled on the country's first educational institution. Even the old College of General Studies building was part of the battlefield."

The university guards had lost control of the situation, so the rector asked for help from the state police, a provocation that led to tragic consequences for the university. The result: three people killed -- including two policemen -- dozens injured, dozens of students arrested and several establishments burned down in the neighboring town of Río Piedras. The smoke mixed with tear gas, creating unprecedented chaos in the usually quiet center of the university town. The campus was closed for a month and reopened with a police presence, which served to spark only more controversy in an era of huge political tension on the island.

Ali-Frazier I was just the trigger for these tensions, which already had taken an innocent life. On March 4 of the previous year, during a scuffle, university student Antonia Martínez was shot dead by police as she protested against their beating of a fellow student.

Curiously, five years later, Ali went to Puerto Rico to defend his title against Belgian Jean-Pierre Coopman in what was a fairly insignificant fight on his CV, just a few months after beating Frazier in their third fight, better known as the "Thrilla in Manila." He caused a sensation (as in all the places he visited), performed magic tricks for the visiting kids during his breaks from training and even had a run-in with the island's top comedian.

His activities during the several weeks he spent on the island included a talk with students at the University of Puerto Rico, in the same student center where the riot broke out in March 1971.