Like many fans, you might have caught the replay of the classic “Thrilla In Manila” last night, as ESPN aired the unforgettable third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at the conclusion of its 11-hour marathon of great fights. The network sure saved the best for last. Re-watching the two heavyweight greats give their all over those intense, grueling, and in the end, quite savage rounds all these years later really does make a fight fan sit up and realize fully how special Ali and Joe truly were.
Has any world heavyweight title fight, before or since, demanded so much from its two participants? Sheer guts were the order of the day, not skill, not finesse, not boxing ability really. Guts. Raw courage. It was of course so incredibly hot in the ring that morning in Manila – for hot read furnace-like – and with greedy promoters neither paying to air-condition the joint nor keeping the number of attending fans down to the building’s capacity (instead more bodies into the arena; more tickets sold) this made the stifling conditions even worse.
Akin to running two of the world’s finest racing cars on a dirt track, the two heavyweight superstars had to go to work inside a tatty, archaic, even squalid arena. Neither man complained, yet how today’s star boxers would kick up a fuss if they had to fight in over 100-degree heat in such a hellish ring. Ali and Frazier got on with it, and both determined to win. Ali was keen to put on a show, blast Joe out of there early and go home. Frazier was willing to fight his bitter rival to the death. Both men came close to doing what they wanted to do.
Ali, opening up fast, convinced as he was that Frazier was washed up after what George Foreman had done to him in January of 1973, took the early rounds. A number of times, Frazier, always a slow starter, was stung, wobbled, hurt. But then Joe, his engines sufficiently warmed up, began to smoke. It was a different fight from the sixth round on.
Frazier, in better physical condition than Ali, having fully devoted himself to the fight both before arriving in Manila and when there. Ali, well, this was, in the words of his physician Ferdie Pacheco, “a pussy fight.” Ali wanted to get the thorn that was Frazier out of his side by seeing him off in the rubber-match, sure, but he also saw the trip to Manila as a way to spend some quality time with his then mistress, later his wife, Veronica Porche.
Yet even when not in tip-top shape and when he was expecting an easy fight, the great Ali was able to dig deep, and then dig even deeper. “He was a little bit special,” Angelo Dundee often said of his fighter in understated tones. By the tenth round, Ali was close to done. Dehydrated, having trouble staying awake in the corner during the minute’s rest and more arm weary than anyone could imagine (both Ali’s gloves and Frazier’s gloves were literally waterlogged due to the sweltering heat and the sweat the fighters had shed; both sets of gloves visibly misshapen – check out the photos) Ali wanted to quit.
But no way would he, could he. Ali’s pride forced him to keep going. For Frazier, who genuinely hated Ali (and perhaps did so until his dying day), his sheer dislike, his anger at his tormentor (in more ways that one) saw to it that he didn’t stop. Not a chance. These two went to hell and back, and they paid the price for having done so.
Frazier tore into Ali’s body, Ali put everything he could muster into his shots, aimed at Frazier’s head and jaw. By the later rounds, Frazier’s face was a mess. Dundee in the corner saw a glimmer of hope when he had, just a few minutes earlier, feared his guy was all finished. Frazier, almost blind in his left eye since the 1960s (as per a piece in Men’s Journal, Frazier was training with a faulty speed bag and shards of mettle flew into his eyes. Joe’s trainers managed to keep it secret but, by the 1970s Joe was virtually blind in his left eye) was now swollen and battered, Frazier virtually sightless in both eyes.
Ali poured it on in the 13th and 14th, the beating the exhausted champ was dishing out to his blinded, beaten foe too much for even hardened fight figures like Jerry Izenburg – “Someone’s got to stop this,” the sage writer admitted thinking to himself at the time.
And then it happened. The fine man that was Eddie Futch decided he had seen enough, that someone did indeed have to stop this. Frazier was not allowed out for the 15th. To this day, fans wonder what would have happened if Frazier had been allowed out. Would we have seen a fatality, as Pacheco said he feared would have been the case? We will never know. Thankfully.
What we do know is Ali and Frazier raised their standing as the two greatest heavyweights of the 1970s; Ali, THE greatest heavyweight ever. How dare any of today’s heavyweights compare themselves to these two giants. No, that’s not right. Not after what Ali and Frazier went through in October of 1975.
The Thrilla was indeed the greatest fight ever, the greatest display of courage, willpower, and guts ever seen in the ring.
Muhammad Ali’s record is 56-5, 37 knockouts.