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Nikon Owner Issue 15

That's Life - The Story Behind The Front Cover by Gillian Greenwood

Issue V was one of our most sought after issues due to the front cover image of Frank Sinatra and Gillian Greenwood's article.

Life cover

March 8th, 1971. The Muhammad Ali - Smokin' Joe Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden New York, the number one address in the world for sports and entertainment. And the unexpected congress of four titans: Ali, Frazier, Frank Sinatra, and the controversial and celebrated post-World War II American writer, Norman Mailer.

Both Ali and Frazier were guaranteed $2.5 million dollars win or lose, the largest single pay packet in one day for any entertainer or athlete until then. It was the first time in history two undefeated champions had met for the undisputed title. Tickets to the fight were made available to the general public by post on a 'first come first served' basis. Prices were as high as $150 for a ringside seat, a sizeable sum for 1971. It was estimated that 300 million people around the globe would watch the fight, which would be broadcast from the ringside in twelve different languages. In fact, it was the largest audience ever for a television broadcast up to that time, and more people tuned into the fight than had watched the Apollo Moon Landing in 1969.

Life spread

The Madison Square Garden, filled to capacity with 20,455 spectators, was seething with celebrities, much of the diamond-and-mink glittering assembly looking like a set from the Oscars. However, not everyone was able to get a prime seat. Hubert Humphrey, the ex-vice President of the United States, had to sit in the mezzanine and Bing Crosby, with the overflow of stars who couldn't get into the Gar-den, was to be found at Radio City Music Hall wat-ching the match on closed-circuit TV. Few athletic events, even the World Cup, had come even close to generating the sort of excitement and attention that this prizefight was getting.

The fight was galvanising. Here was a raw intensity rarely seen in any prizefight. The match was fought like a crusade - a clash of ideologies between warriors of an earlier time, a more brutal epoch. It was the voice of a younger generation, the voice of the war against Vietnam, the voice for civil rights, and "power to the people" repre-sented by Ali, against that of the establishment, perhaps unknowingly represented by Frazier.

Norman Mailer wrote the stunning lead article on the fight for Life magazine published on March 19th, 1971. Famous for The Naked and the Dead (1948) acclaimed by many people as one of the finest American novels to come out of World War II, The White Negro, Advertisements for Myself, Why Are We in Vietnam, Mailer's heady journalistic style provided the readers of Life magazine with an electric account of the turbulent drama being played out in the ring.

Life magazine had been relying on magazine pool photographers for pictures of the action. However, by some strange fluke, staff writer for Life, Tommy Thompson, whilst doing a story on Frank Sinatra, had discovered the star's fascination with photography. Sinatra had apparently been interested in taking pictures for some twenty years.

Shortly before the fight, it was further discovered that Sinatra had a ringside seat and would be taking all the shots he could get. Thus it came about that a meticulously turned out, dark-suited Sinatra hunched at the ringside with big league elbow-to-elbow photographers shooting the combatants' tempestuous rage on camera, Ali in his red velvet trunks, Frazier in his green. Sinatra's film was rushed to Life's Manhattan office and he ended up getting the cover, an unforgettable full-spread picture and two other pictures in the article. Sinatra's work was later acclaimed by veteran editors to be "brilliant".