Cut 'Em Off - A Look Back At The Most Brutal Heavyweight Title Fight In Boxing History
13.11.08 - by James Slater - Last night on British television, a boxing documentary aired for the first time. The nearly two hour masterpiece entitled "Thriller in Manila" looks back at the third, savage, instalment of the epic series between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. As compelling as it is at times disturbing, the documentary pulls absolutely no punches.
Article posted on 13.11.2008
With recent interviews with Joe and Marvis Frazier direct from Joe's Philadelphia gym, along with contributions by Larry Holmes, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, writers Jerry Izenberg and Thomas Hauser, and priceless archive footage from the 1975 battle, the re-telling of the story of what to many is the greatest fight of all-time is a sensational piece of work.
Many fight fans will be aware of how Ali, then in exile, at first shared a bond with Frazier. With Ali unable to box due to his refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam war, and short of money as a result, Frazier lent a hand. Loaning Ali money (as recollected in the documentary by Butch Lewis), doing his best to keep the former champion's name out there and even petitioning to allow Ali to fight, Joe proved to be a good friend.
Unfortunately, when he was reissued with his boxing licence and the stage was set for Ali and Frazier to meet in the ring in the very first heavyweight title fight between two undefeated fighters, Ali seemingly forgot Joe's generosity and friendship, and his attitude changed drastically. Now seeing Frazier as his bitter enemy, Ali called him an Uncle Tom - a man who was in servitude to the white man. From there on in, the two men would embark on as fierce a rivalry as has ever been seen in any sport. With nasty, thinly veiled racial overtones added, Ali set about taking away Joe Frazier's very dignity and personality. The result was a third and final fight between the two that would see both boxers pushed almost beyond physical human endurance.
As we know, Frazier upset the odds by beating Ali in fight number one in 1971, then Ali gained revenge with a non-title points win in 1974. The deciding fight would take place in The Philippines, Manila. And, as the documentary shows, in the run-up to this 1975 encounter, Ali got even nastier and more base with his insults.
Dubbing the fight "The Thrilla in Manila," Ali went into overdrive with his vitriolic verbal dismantling of Frazier. Now insisting on calling him a gorilla at every possible opportunity, Ali's jokes had lost all sense of fun and joviality. In the documentary footage runs of Ali punching a tiny rubber gorilla - there is no footage of another, far more disturbing, Ali incident, however.
According to Butch Lewis, Marvis Frazier and others, Ali took it upon himself to carry a fake gun to the window of Frazier's hotel room in the Philippines and proceed to alarm the two Fraziers and Lewis by firing blanks into the air! This, as the documentary's narrator says, was not a staged event for the media; this bordered more on obsession.
To this day, this writer has never heard about the gun incident before. It's likely I'm not the only one. But there are more disturbing revelations in the documentary.
The fight itself was truly damaging for both boxers. But never before has Frazier spoken of how intent he was on hurting his verbal tormentor, or how badly. Joe speaks of how he hammered away at Ali's body in an effort to stop his internal organs, such as his liver, from being able to function and therefore paralysing Ali - such was Joe's ever too real hatred of his rival. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's physician, says he didn't even know who was winning the October 1st battle, such was the dreadful condition both men were left in by the half way stage. "Why are people attracted to boxing?," Pacheco asks. "Look at round 14 of Ali-Frazier 3."
The doctor is referring to the animalistic barbarity that is inside all of us, and how the sport of boxing brings it out - this fight more than any other. Indeed, looking back at footage of The Thrilla," there was little in the way of skill being displayed by the later rounds. By round 10 nothing more than a battle of sheer will, the fight was too much even for hardened and experienced writers like Jerry Izenberg. "I love boxing, and I love these two guys," Izenberg says. "But at that time I hated it. I said to myself, somebody's got to stop this." Ali himself, as has been widely documented, said the fight was the closest thing to death he'd ever experienced. Pacheco says the 14th round is "the closest I've seen to someone killing someone. He [Ali] was very close to killing him."
Frazier was all but blind come the 13th and 14th rounds, and he was unable to see Ali's punches coming at him. Astonishingly, Frazier, when asked how long he'd had trouble with his left eye, which he had been partially sighted in even before the first bell, says since 1964! With only he and trainer Eddie Futch knowing he was practically a one eyed fighter after suffering a training accident in the mid-1960s, Frazier had boxed with just one good eye. How did he do it? "My fights didn't last too long," Joe explained.
But "The Thrilla" had lasted a long time and now he was dangerously close to being completely blind. Ali, himself on the verge or absolute physical exhaustion, hit his bitter enemy with everything he had left, often connecting with flush right hands to the head. Despite this, and despite the intense, well over 100-degree heat that engulfed the almost airless arena, Frazier refused to fall - his sheer dislike for Ali forcing him on.
Then came one of the most important, yet overlooked, moments in heavyweight boxing history. Ali, having emptied himself by hitting Frazier with all he had left in the tank in round 14, staggered back to his corner. Frazier was reeling also, but what Ali said to trainer and corner-man Angelo Dundee proves he was in worse shape than was Joe. "Cut 'em off," Ali gasped to Dundee, who ignored him and continued watering him down for the final round.
The documentary reveals for the first time how we know what Ali said. Marvis Frazier explains how he saw Joe's stable mate, Willie "The Worm" Monroe, who was sat over near Ali's corner of the ring, begin frantically signalling with his arms. At the time, with all the activity going on in the Frazier corner, no-one knew what "The Worm" was trying to say. Today, Marvis knows what Munroe did in 1975 - he had heard Ali tell Dundee he'd had enough. How different heavyweight boxing history may have been if Joe's corner knew Ali was ready to quit. Would Joe have been allowed to come out for the 15th, and upon doing so would Ali not have been there to meet him? Joe Frazier certainly believes so, as does Dave Wolf, a then member of Joe's camp.
History instead tells of how the great Eddie Futch, caring nothing for the rewards of victory his fighter may or may not have gone on to receive, pulled his man out for safety reasons. When asked on film, some 32 years after the fight, if he'd have been willing to have risked his life by going out for the 15th round, Frazier answered instantly, "Yeah."
"When the two best fighters in the world are getting together and one of them is blind! You can't ignore that. It's a signal of how sick the sport of boxing is, and it's a signal of how dumb Joe Frazier was. I don't want to step on Joe Frazier, but Joe Frazier was dumb," are Pacheco's thoughts on Joe's stubbornness, bravery, stupidity, drive, determination or whatever you think it was that Frazier had inside necessary to even allow him to want to fight on while almost blind.
Today, as told by writer Thomas Hauser, Frazier seems to have no sympathy for Ali's condition. Even going as far as to state with a smile that he "did that" to Ali, Joe is unable to forget the awful things Ali said and did to him.
"That's what gets people killed in boxing, when the fight becomes more important than life and death," Pacheco says. How close both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier came to death that sweltering night in October 1975.
"Thriller in Manilla," a documentary produced and directed for Channel 4 by John Dower.
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