“Thrilla In Manila” Documentary Still Dividing Opinions

By James Slater: By way of a tribute to the passing of the legendary “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, HBO Sports have decided to re-air the highly acclaimed (by some) 2007 documentary named after the third epic fight Frazier and archrival Muhammad Ali had.

Some, including promoter Bob Arum, have launched into the documentary, claiming the work is both biased and offensive (“watch it if you want,” Arum said, “but don’t believe a word of it.”)

Promoted as the first in-depth documentary that tells Frazier’s side of the feud between the two legends who went to war, in and out of the ring, in the early to mid-1970s, “Thrilla in Manila” certainly makes Ali look like the bad guy. More than worth checking out if you haven’t seen it (or again if you have but need another look), the near two-hour film is, in my humble opinion, a sensational piece of work. But is the documentary sensationalism at its worst?

Decide for yourselves, but here is my recounting of the film:

Looking back at the third, savage, instalment of the epic series between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, “Thrilla in Manila” is as compelling as it is at times disturbing. The documentary pulls absolutely no punches. With 2007 interviews with Joe and Marvis Frazier direct from Joe's (now closed) 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 the greatest fight of all-time is, in my opinion, an amazing piece of work.

Many fight fans will be aware of how Ali, then in exile, at first shared a bond with Frazier, in the mid to late-1960s. 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 the late 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 black 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 showed, in the run-up to this 1975 encounter, Ali got even nastier and more base with his insults.

Dubbing the fight "The Thrilla in Manilla," 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 ran of Ali punching a tiny rubber gorilla - there was 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 mock-firing the gun into the air! This, the documentary's narrator said, was not a staged event for the media; this bordered more on obsession.

The fight itself was truly damaging for both boxers. But never before this film had Frazier spoken of how intent he was on hurting his verbal tormentor, or how badly. In the documentary, 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, said 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 asked. "Look at round 14 [of Ali-Frazier 3.]"

The doctor was 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 even too much for hardened and experienced writers like Jerry Izenberg. "I love boxing, and I love these two guys," Izenberg said. "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 said 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, said 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 explains in the 2007 film.

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 talked about, most debated 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 what Ali was overheard saying to Angelo. Marvis Frazier explained how Joe's stable mate, Willie "The Worm" Monroe, who was sat over near Ali's corner of the ring, began 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. This section of the documentary caused, by itself, perhaps more controversy than anything else in the film - the very idea of Ali being a would be quitter rubbing many people up the wrong way!

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.

"That's what gets people killed in boxing, when the fight becomes more important than life and death," Pacheco said. How close both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier both came to death that sweltering night in October 1975.

Article posted on 10.11.2011

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