40 years of Ali’s ‘Thrilla in Manila’: the fight of a lifetime

The last of the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight trilogy is regarded by many as being superior to their previous contests (including the much vaunted `Fight of the Century').

Muhammad Ali's throws a right at Joe Frazier in the 13th round of their title bout in Manila. Ali would later say, that it was the closest thing to death he had ever known. He and Frazier had gone 14 brutal rounds in the stifling heat of a Philippines morning, before Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch mercifully signaled the bout to an end.   -  AP

Joe Frazier speaks with reporters after losing to Muhammed Ali by TKO in the 14th round of their heavyweight title fight in Manila.   -  AP

World Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali (second ffrom left) and challenger Joe Frazier (right) at Malacanang Palace in Manila before their historic fight.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Ali connects with a right to challenger Joe Frazier in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila.   -  AP

One of the most electrifying boxing bouts in history took place under the auspices of perhaps one of the most corrupt dictators in the 20th Century history — Ferdinand E. Marcos. The stage of the fight was in Quezon City, a short drive outside the capital of the Philippines. The last of the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight trilogy is regarded by many as being superior to their previous contests (including the much vaunted `Fight of the Century').

Watch: >Ali outlasts Frazier in 'Thrilla in Manila'

It was and still is a fascinating fact that Ali's two biggest fights of his career took place almost exactly a year apart under two of the decade's biggest dictators: Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now back to the name of Congo) and Ferdinand E. Marcos ruling the Philippines. Boxing abolitionists would wag their fingers at such questionable venues but a cynic with a wry sense of humour may ask what is the difference between a shrewd, self interested boxing promoter and a bloodthirsty dictator? Not much is the answer. Nevertheless, this background produced a stirring atmosphere to what was in the Golden Age Era of Heavyweights a compelling event: The Heavyweight Championship clash between the two greatest heavyweights of any generation. Unsurprisingly the promoter who again created and sat on the biggest fight, which could be made at the time, was the Ferrari of boxing promotion: Don King. King was a gifted promoter with an acute business sense. He had enjoyed over the previous year a rise to prominence as the Heavyweight Champion of Boxing Promotion. His appearance was bewitching and his wit beguiling. He oozed in charisma, was 6 ft 5in. and steeped himself in Shakespearean quotations. George Plimpton, a writer who followed Ali for many years, said in the film  When We Were Kings that out of all the promoters that he had met, not one had known Shakespeare let alone try their hand at launching quotations in interviews. If Ali and Frazier were superstars, he could make them into megastars. King expanded the lucrative lushness of the fight by leaps and bounds. His weapon? Satellite television, a new form of cementing boxing's legacy at the very top of the sporting world. Millions turned up to see the fight in modern day cinemas, which resembled Greek amphitheatres where these gladiators fought. The camera transported you to ringside and slow motion made you relive key moments of the fight. So what about the fighters themselves? Ali was 33 and Frazier 31. Both of them had already waged their bloody wars and were at the tail end of their careers. Each was past his best but as many fighters like Archie Moore and Bernard Hopkins have told us, it would be unwise to think an old warrior cannot wage war anymore.

In terms of personality and temperament nothing had changed. Ali was still the clown fooling around and winding up Frazier who was the one waiting for his fists to do the talking in the ring. The multitasking Ali was not only in the Philippines to beat his arch-enemy but also to cheat on his wife, Belinda Ali. He was with his mistress, Veronica Porche who later became his third wife. Conversely, Frazier led the Spartan inspired life of solitude with nothing on his mind but the fight. He trained and trained, toning his ageing body and honing his body crunching shots. Ali made grand statements and predictions to the world and danced around the ring launching his old routine which always went something like, `I'm gonna dance and dance, that bum won't be able to see me, I'm the Greatest of all Time!' Still his charade had not lost its charm and still he was as bewitching as ever, to men and women alike. What had changed though was the politics of the fight as this was not 1971. There was no Vietnam anymore or corrupt Richard Nixon, Ali was no longer a champion of an oppressed black community or head of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The overwhelming politics of the 1960s, which had been a long hangover into the early 1970s, had fizzled out. Smokin' Joe wasn't Mr. America anymore and the shallow representative of the White Power Structure that Ali had aimed to destroy. If anything they were as pure as fighters can come, just in the ring to not only do the business but do the business they loved.

Whilst Ali was messing around with his girlfriend and proving his consistency in underestimating Frazier, Freddie Pacheco, Ali's ring doctor, was unpleasantly surprised on a trip to Frazier's training camp. Far from looking like the amateurish blow out in the three-round demolition at George Foreman's titanic fists in 1973 where he had his reputation and the Heavyweight Title taken away from him; Frazier looked ominous: He was in short a man possessed, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey flowed through his veins as he worked the bags and weaved and bobbed with moments of his vintage years flashing before his eyes. Ali didn't know what he was in for. The fight itself was just as breathtaking, heart wrenching and classic as they come, it is arguably the greatest fight at any weight of all time. In the first round Ali defied expectations, perhaps even Frazier's, by coming out and really going after his greatest-ever rival. Ali didn't settle back and try to establish any rhythm: Dance, jab and move, he went out launching snappy left-right combinations that backed Frazier up. He even managed to stagger Frazier and put him against the ropes. At the end of the first round Frazier tagged the Greatest's shorts, was it a sign of respect, goading or both? Whatever he was saying, it was meant to say something important to Ali.

Round Two and Three demonstrated the increasing intensity of the fight that people would be witnessing. Ali kept up his barrage of lacerating headshots and Frazier maintained his relentless pressure style. Half way through the round Ali started trying to fight a more measured pace using the jab to measure up Frazier and pepper him with annoying spurts. He hit Frazier with a beautiful straight right. Frazier though had none of it and was still giving Ali tastes of what to expect later on.

In Round Three Frazier put his rival on the ropes as Ali toyed with him using the rope a dope. Ali whispered to Frazier. For about 45 seconds Ali just stood there idle and soaked up Frazier's bombs. Ali though suddenly broke out of his cocoon and unleashed all the punches you could think of: Hooks, uppercuts, crosses, straights. For about 20 seconds fans at the ringside witnessed one of the most exciting exchanges in history with both fighters going flat out.

Round Four saw Frazier beginning to smother Ali, who was already feeling the pressure as he went against the ropes more and more. Round Five saw Smokin' Joe finally being able to bully Ali and rough him up on the ropes. Frazier landed his first big left hook of the fight and a good one, surely a good sign for the slugger. In Round Six Frazier landed another beauty that really got him. Ali knew that speed and movement were his keys to victory, especially against someone like Frazier but this was not the dazzling dance master of the 60s. Ali then lost his mouthpiece and was making a habit of missing. By the end both gladiators were even. In Round Seven Ali started dancing for the first time. He began to box smartly being more defensive and fighting in clusters of punches, spurts of activity, trying to take the pace and therefore the initiative away from Frazier. In Round Eight Ali gained some resurgence as he made his enemy cover up for the first time. He had that look in his eyes as he sought to harm Frazier as much as possible. Frazier's eyes though were empty, as lifeless as a shark and like the perfect killing machine, he just kept coming.

In Round Nine the pace visibly slowed down. Ali started to find some rhythm, as he was more on his toes. He used the jab, clinched for the rest and covered up when he needed too. Frazier was still getting in though and alternately switching his shots from the body to head and head to body. In Round 10 Ali set himself to punch harder by going flatfooted. Even though the champion was being driven back Ali was still ahead in the fight and hurting with those fast hands. By this time the crowd were awed into silence, as the bout seemed endless. Round 11 saw Ali dancing and landing some wonderful flurries in the first minute. Frazier, however, like a marauding bull got Ali into trench warfare again and hit him with some grazing hooks from both hands. They had some terrific exchanges at the end, with both having their moments. In Round 12 Ali started by scoring heavily with a four-punch combination. By this stage of the fight exhaustion was setting in. Round 12 saw Frazier really wrestle Ali to the ropes and trap him there persistently. Frazier though was developing a huge swelling over his left eye that would soon blind him permanently. By Round 13 he had lost his gum shield and was being mauled by Ali's right hand. The crowd started to chant `Ali!' repeatedly and his opponent was losing very rapidly. By Round 14 Joe was fighting from memory, as he couldn't see. By this time, even if you are the most bloodthirsty fight fan you want the fight to stop. Eddie Futch, Frazier's magnificent trainer with the most heartfelt commonsense, ended it with perhaps some of the most memorable words ever spoken in boxing, "Sit down son, it's all over but no one will ever forget what you did here today!"

Aftermath: Whenever you watch the Thriller in Manila, whether you love or loathe boxing you cannot help but be struck by its drama, brutality and intensity. It makes you wonder why two already great fighters, even before they entered the ring want to send each other to hell all over again. It's probably something no one, not even the fighters themselves can understand. Ali described the fight as the `closest thing to dying I know of.' The following day he also was quiet and subdued saying, "You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you a little insane. I was thinkin' what I'm I doing here with this beast of a man? I must be crazy." Frazier famously proclaimed, `I hit the punches that would have knocked him. He took 'em and came back." Frazier also said "he's a great champion."

What about the fighters as old men now? In the September 2005 edition of  The Observer Sport's Monthly, Ali's biographer, Tom Hauser wrote a piece on Manila. He has met both fighters and it's as if the rivalry hasn't died, at least one part of it. Frazier to this day remains incredibly bitter about the way Ali disrespected him in the 70s. Hauser was told by Frazier 15 years ago, "I sent him (Ali) worse hit home, worse than he came. He was the one who spoke about being dead in Manila, not me. Look at him now, he's the damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it. God has shut him down. He can't talk no more because he was saying the wrong things. He was always making fun of me. I'm the dummy; I'm the one who gets hit in the hand. He can't talk no more and he still tries to make noise. I don't care how the world looks at him. I see him different, and I know him better than anyone. Manila don't matter no more. He's finished and I'm still here." Earlier this year Frazier said of Ali's current physical condition according to Hauser, "I did that to him. I'll outlive him." Ali has at least buried the rivalry and said, "Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn't have done what he did what I did without him and what he did without me." Whatever anyone thinks of both fighters both of them won and lost on that day in the searing heat of the Philippines. Ali retained the title and came 2:1 up against Frazier. Joe forever will go down as the greatest slugger in history, harder then Marciano and Dempsey put together. Both of them lost, however, through sustaining too much damage and being spent forces afterwards. Ali fought on as everyone knows and got Parkinson's. Frazier went on to lead a better retirement with more health.

The Thrilla in Manila has grown into a phenomenon itself. Both fighters were not the same, none of the people who experienced it were the same and none of the fight fans who watch it now are the same. It will forever rank as probably the greatest heavyweight title fight in history with so much brutality, courage, skill and so on that you are left with a more controversial picture of boxing than you'd ever want to be. On that day Ali proclaimed, "Joe Frazier is the greatest fighter of all time next to me. That's one hell of a man." Rare humility and the truest words Ali ever spoke. He was, like Frazier, also a great man and broken man himself that day.

(This article first appeared in Sportstar on issue dated January 14, 2006.)