The recent passing of fine boxing commentator and all-around good boxing guy “Colonel” Bob Sheridan took away one more of the last links to the greatest world heavyweight title fight of them all. It was, this weekend of 48 years ago (September 30 in some parts of the world, October 1 in others) the day Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met for their thrilling, savage, damaging, and never to be forgotten rubber match.
Sheridan called the fight, as did his broadcasting colleagues, Don Dunphy, Harry Carpenter, and others across the globe who had been blessed with the assignment. For this was a fight to have been at, to have witnessed up close, so close that the blood could have splashed you, so close that the buckets of sweat could be felt. Putting it graphically – as there really is no other way when trying one’s best to adequately describe the red-hot, raw barbarism mixed with some remnants of boxing skill that was on bare display in the Philippines that day – this fight was as sickening as it was at times beautiful. It was grueling, even for hardened ring observers, precious few of whom are still with us.
So much has been written about those 14 hellish rounds, with some of the finest boxing writers who ever took it upon themselves to attempt to capture on the page what two heroes, stars, modern-day gladiators could do to each other in the name of entertainment and God knows what else, being capable of coming out with an admirably exhaustive job of putting the blood and guts on the page. And no writer worked as hard as they did when covering this FIGHT.
This fight was, as Ali put it himself, “the closest thing to dying.” For over 40 minutes, the defending heavyweight champ put it on the former champ, who fired back in kind. Frazier, who got his chance to speak, finally, in the 2007 documentary that took a fresh, and controversial, look at the super-fight, laid it out in cool, calm tones: he had been willing to die in coming out for that 15th and final round. But no, Eddie Futch would not allow it.
The fight/war/duel to the end was over. Ali, shattered but still being able to see out of both eyes, had won, not only the fight, but the fiercest rivalry ever seen in a boxing ring. Frazier never accepted it. Frazier never agreed that Ali was better than him.
Now, almost a half century on, there is almost nobody left to tell the tale, to recall what THEY saw that morning inside an unhealthily overfilled Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City.
Ali and Joe have both passed, as have Angelo Dundee, Ferdie Pacheco, Eddie Futch, George Benton, Milt Bailey, and Drew “Bundini” Brown, these men collectively making up the two rival corners. Yes, there are a few survivors – Gene Kilroy, who was on Ali’s side and always will be, and Marvis Frazier, who, there as a young kid, remembers the bitterness his father took with him to his grave when it came to the pain Ali inflicted on him. Also, Ali’s kid brother, Rahman Ali is still here, as is writer and reporter Ed Schuyler.
Also, referee Carlos Padilla is still here, as is Don King, who promoted the savagery. But most are gone, with almost all of the fine writers who covered this fight to the death, including Mark Kram, who penned a truly masterful 2001 book on the fight, having passed away.
The last real survivor we have is perhaps Jerry Izenberg. Jerry, now well past 90, watched the fight, he covered the fight, yet he in no way enjoyed the experience. “I love boxing, and I love these two guys,” Izenberg recalled for the HBO documentary. “But I said to myself, ‘someone’s got to stop this.’”
It was indeed too much for any civilized person to endure, no matter if they had seen too many other brutal fights to be able to count. Ali-Frazier III was different. It was not just man against man or fighter against fighter. It was soul against soul; it was one version of America against another version of America. It was one political ideal against another political ideal. No man, followed as he was by millions, could possibly back down, yield – give up. And nobody would try and make him.
Aside, that is, from Eddie Futch. The real hero of the piece, Mr. Futch may well have saved a human life on this day back in 1975. Not that either superstar, Ali or Frazier, was left with anything like the life they had had upon entering the ring in Manila approximately an hour before Futch bravely pulled his blinded yet still snarling warrior out of the bear-pit that had been masquerading as a sporting arena.
It was, on this day in 1975, a fight the whole world could not afford to miss seeing. But as great, as thrilling, as capable as it was of pushing human endurance to the limit, nobody could ever tell you with assurance if this fight was close to worth it.
It was “The Thrilla in Manila,” and let there be shame on any fighter since if he dares lay claim of having engaged in as ferocious or as life-changing a struggle as the one these two titans enthralled the world with almost 50 years ago.
Leave it to Izenberg to recall the mesmerizing brutality:
“There’s only one [choice for me] when it comes to the greatest heavyweight fight ever held,” Jerry told me a couple of years ago. “Frazier and Ali, fight-three. Jerry Lister and I, we were sat together, and in the tenth round, I turned around, and I said to him, ‘Jerry, they ought to stop this fight. They ought to stop it, tell them they both won, and then send them home.’ You know who decided that fight? God! But I really don’t think they ever settled their rivalry over who was the greater fighter of the two. It was an incredible fight. I was lucky to have been good friends with both of them.”
We were lucky to have seen such a great, great fight. The likes of which we will never see again. You know that, right?