44 Years Ago Today: Two Greats Give Way Too Much In “The Thrilla In Manila”

What hasn’t been written about the fantastic yet equally barbaric and brutal third act, or final fight, between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? What can possibly be thought of this savagely magnificent battle today, by younger fans, who were either toddlers or not even born back then?

It was 44 years ago today when Ali, at age 33 and beginning, maybe, to show the effects of his two ring careers (1960 to 1967 and then 1970 to the present day, 1975), met an undeniably past his best Joe Frazier (who had, with his take a few to land one approach – unavoidable as it was – been toiling in the pro ring since 1965). What took place in the hellish heat of a Manila morning in October in 1975 proved so, so memorable for too many reasons to click off in one mere article.


Ali hated Frazier, and Frazier wanted to kill Ali. No matter what the current historians try and tell us, this is just the way it was. Ali knew Joe was the single biggest, most unstoppable threat to his greatness, to his beliefs and to his ability as the number-one black fighter on the planet to be able to preach his beliefs and to be followed. Joe, a far simpler character, if no less passionate a person, hated Ali for tearing him down the way he had done; mercilessly, for years. Ali had millions of people laughing at Joe, believing he was a “gorilla,” an “Uncle Tom.” “A basic pug who don’t know where he’s at or where he’s going.”

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How Frazier would make Ali pay for his four or five years of hurtful words.

Let’s recap:

Looking back at the third, savage, installment of the epic series between Ali and Frazier, we had at the time an Ali who was apparently on the top of his game. Having regained his crown by destroying the “invincible” George Foreman (who had pulverized Frazier and would do so again in a needles return fight), a 33 year old Ali was a massive favourite to topple Joe in their rubber-match. Frazier, who had won just three fights since being bounced around by Foreman (including during this spell,a losing rematch with Ali, in a 1974 non-title affair), was being looked at as either “shot” or darn near close to it at age 31.

Joe had other, badder ideas.

So why the hatred between the two heavyweight titans? 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, 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 the third and final fight; one between two men who were forced (by themselves mainly) to push each other almost beyond the limits of physical human endurance.

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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 how Ali went into overdrive with his vitriolic verbal dismantling of Frazier ahead of the deciding fight/war. Now insisting on calling Frazier a gorilla at every possible opportunity, Ali’s jokes had lost all sense of fun and joviality.

The fight proved truly damaging for both boxers. Ali pounded away at Joe’s head, Frazier launched a sickening attack on the champ’s body. Plenty of heart, courage and pride was there to behold, yet in painful truth 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. Now he had full respect for Frazier, and this feeling was shared from the opposite corner.

Frazier was all but blind come the 13th and 14th rounds, and he was unable to see Ali’s punches coming at him. Ali, on the verge or absolute physical exhaustion, with Joe in no better shape, 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, to some, that he was in worse shape than was Joe. “Cut ’em off,” Ali, supposedly gasped to Dundee, who ignored him and continued watering him down for the final round.

Neither man quit. Instead, history 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.” But Futch had seen enough. Ali and Frazier had each given way more than enough.

How close both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier came to death that sweltering night in October 1975. And how no-one who was at this fight/war/ battle for survival will ever, ever forget it.

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