Title Fight by Martin Hall
Enthusiasm for Heavyweight boxing isn’t exactly thick on the ground these days. The division that has been home to so many great fighters is currently suffering a serious dearth of talent, a situation so acute that in recent years both George Foreman and Larry Holmes have made comebacks, honestly believing their age-ravaged skills and physiques were still sharp and indefatigable enough to overcome the latest bunch of contenders. They weren’t and they didn’t but this says more about Foreman and Holmes respective ages than it does about the quality of the Heavyweight division. It wasn’t always like this though. Thirty years ago this month the final part of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s trilogy of contests took place in Quezon City in the Philippines. Although the fight was staged 6 miles outside of the country’s capital, it was dubbed the ‘Thriller in Manila’ and is widely recognised as one of the greatest fights of all time.
However the fight was not expected to be the classic it is now acknowledged as. Ali hadn’t looked sharp since he defeated George Foreman in Zaire just under a year previously. Frazier had been annihilated by Foreman in the early part of 1974 and many in the boxing community felt he had deteriorated even further than Ali. Ali’s private life was at it’s most complicated during this period. In the build-up to his first fight against Liston the rumours about Ali's (then Clay) links with the Nation of Islam dominated the headlines. His refusal to fight in Vietnam would dominate the agenda before his 1966 bout against George Chuvalo.
Before the third Frazier fight Ali was conducting an affair with the model Veronica Porche. He first noticed her in Zaire but their trysts became more public in the month leading up to the Frazier fight. Ali’s wife Belinda knew about this but decided to stand by her husband. Foolishly and callously Ali brought Veronica to the Presidential Palace to meet the ruler of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who commented to Ali: “Your wife (Veronica) is quite beautiful.” Ali made a non-committal reply but it was too late. Word was out.
Pete Bonventre broke the story in Newsweek. Upon hearing the news, Belinda flew to Manila to confront her husband. After a bitter, hour-long argument she stormed out of the hotel screaming that she would “break that bitch’s back” if she saw Veronica. The anger Ali was feeling at his situation was channelled against Frazier. There were times when Ali’s pre-fight hyperbole would spill over into repugnant bullying. His ridiculing of Floyd Patterson (calling him an ‘Uncle Tom’ amongst other things) and yelling “What’s my name?” at the incapacitated Ernie Terell as he mauled him reflect an odious part of Ali’s personality.
Revisionist historians who seek to deify Ali would do well to acknowledge these abhorrent examples of his behaviour. The treatment he subjected Frazier to before the Thriller in Manila was equally unpleasant. His constant belittling of the South Carolina born fighter was equal to anything he had said during the build up to Ali-Frazier 1 & 2. He dubbed the darker-skinned Frazier “a gorilla” despite having previously said that “the only people rooting for Frazier are white folk, sheriffs and members of the Ku-Klux Klan” and calling him the White Man’s champion. In one press conference Ali read aloud the following poem:
“It will be a killer/ And a chiller/ And a thriller/ When I get the gorilla in Manila.” He then produced a toy gorilla and started pummelling it, saying “This is the way he looks when you hit him. All night long, this is what you see. Come on gorilla; we’re in Manila. Come on Gorilla; this is a thriller.” (I recently saw a T-Shirt saying ‘Thriller in Manila’ above a picture of a gorilla. No doubt it will be sported by parrot-headed student knobheads totally ignorant of the history it conveys).
Reggie Jackson, the African-American baseball legend, felt Ali’s behaviour was unacceptable: “In the days before their fight in Manila, I felt for Joe. That was one time I wasn’t charmed by Ali. Muhammad ridiculed Joe; he humiliated him in front of the world.” Having endured Ali demeaning him for so many years, it is understandable that Joe Frazier cannot forgive and forget: “He shook me in Manila; he won. But I sent him home worse than he came. Look at him now; he’s damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it ; they just don’t want to say.
“He was always making fun of me. I’m the dummy; I’m the one getting hit in the head. Tell me now: him or me- which one talks worse now? He can’t talk no more and he still tries to make noise. He still wants you to think he’s the greatest and he ain’t. I don’t care how the world looks at him. I see him different and I know him better than anyone.
“Manila don’t really matter no more. He’s finished and I’m still here.” The fight reflected the deep enmity between both men. At 10.45am local time (the early start was to accommodate American television) Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier entered the ring for one of the most ferocious fights in the history of boxing. Ali wore white shorts with a black stripe down the sides. Frazier’s were navy blue with white trim.
Despite the stifling midday heat- an issue exacerbated by the breakdown of the air-conditioning in the stadium - the fight began at a frenetic pace. Both fighters were quick to come out of their corners but it was Ali whose laceratingly swift punches landed more in the first three rounds. Copying his tactic from Zaire, he hit Frazier with right-hand leads as Bundini yelled “He won’t call you Clay anymore” from ringside. Frazier’s legs seemed ready to give way within these three rounds and the comprehensively comfortable victory Ali had predicted was looking likely. But writing off Joe Frazier is as devoid of common sense as throwing hand grenades against a rubber wall.
Experts who were declaring Frazier dead and buried after three rounds should have ensured the coffin lid was nailed down as Round Four saw the tide turn in Frazier’s favour. He found his range and adapted to the humidity as he doggedly pursued Ali around the ring. He suffered a cut lip but as the round finished Ali asked him: “What you got in that nigger head? Fuckin’ rock?” Frazier’s style was as inexorable as a threshing machine, something Norman Mailer captured when he wrote “Frazier went on with the doggedness, the concentration and the pumped up fury of a man who has had so little in his life that he can endure torments to get everything, he pushed the total of his energy and force into an absolute exercise of will.”
Frazier settled into his rhythm in the Fifth, connecting with a high percentage of his punches but it was in the Sixth round that one of the defining moments of the fight came. Frazier unleashed two of his devastating left hooks- Frazier’s left hooks were like wrecking balls demolishing a building- against Ali’s jaw. These hooks were even better than the one that had floored Ali in their first fight and Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee later said they were the two hardest hooks he had ever seen. Ali’s head swivelled back and he said to his adversary “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up.” Frazier answered “They lied.”
The next four rounds continued in much the same vein with Frazier’s relentless aggression giving him the edge. Many spectators felt that the judges scoring was irrelevant at this stage as this fight could not possibly go the duration. Frazier put it more colloquially, saying to his Assistant Trainer Georgie Benton after the Ninth: “What is holdin’ this motherfuckin’ fool up?”
Amazingly, Ali found a burst of vitality in the Twelfth Round. He moved into the centre of the ring and peppered Frazier’s face, seriously distorting his features. Frazier’s left eye swelled uncontrollably. In the next round, a left from Ali sent his opponent’s mouthpiece flying into the crowd. By this stage, Frazier could not see out of his left eye and was becoming increasingly susceptible to Ali’s rights. Ali bludgeoned over thirty right hands into Frazier’s left eye in the three minutes of the Fourteenth round. Mark Kram, author of Ghosts of Manila would later write: “When Joe’s left side capsized to the right from the barrage, Ali moved it back into range for his eviscerating right with crisp left hooks.
“It was the most savage round of the forty-one Ali and Frazier fought. It brought out guilt that made one want to seek out the nearest confessional for the expiation of voyeuristic lust.” The half-blind Frazier staggered into his corner after the Fourteenth. His trainer Eddie Futch felt his fighter could not go on, responding to the protesting Frazier by saying “Sit down, son. It’s over. No one will forget what you did here today.” Whether Ali would have made it out of his corner for the Fifteenth round is questionable. He told his cornermen to cut off his gloves and later described the fight as “the closest thing to dying I know of.”
The referee declared Ali the winner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither man was ever the same after Manila. Ali’s career went downhill rapidly, eventually concluding to the sound of a cowbell signalling the end of his 1981 contest against Trevor Berbick. Frazier never won another fight. There is still much bitterness on Frazier’s part against Ali and it is difficult to condemn him for this. Ali has subsequently spoken of his admiration for Frazier but this feud is so acrimonious it is unlikely to ever be resolved. But it would be wrong to remember these icons as ill or bitter old men. Let us instead remember them from a different time- a time when both men were kings.
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