It was the Fight of the Century. On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden to battle for the title of Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world—and a then-record $2.5 million purse.

Cassius Clay: Before He Was Ali
Ali: The Key Fights
Muhammad Ai: A Legendary Life

In honor of the match's 40th anniversary, LIFE has published a series of never-before-seen images taken by staff photographer John Shearer. The three that appear below document the progression of the fight: First, the press' infatuation with the charismatic presumed winner, Ali; second, Ali's flagging energy midway through the bout; and finally, Frazier's quiet satisfaction at beating Ali by unanimous decision in 15 rounds.


Muhammad Ali, pre-fight weigh-in, March 1971


Between rounds at Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971


Joe Frazier in his dressing room after the fight

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Image credit: John Shearer/TIME & LIFE Pictures/