There has never been anything quite like the ferocious rivalry between heavyweight kings Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Their bitter, truly intense and very special rivalry comprised of three fights, two of them of the epic, never, ever to be forgotten variety, with the two men fighting their hearts out in 1971, 1974 and in 1975.
The first fight between “Smokin’” Joe and “The Greatest” took place two years shy of a half-century ago today and the action lived up the the enormous hype and then some. It was as great a world heavyweight title fight as has ever been witnessed. But the two men who, although once friends became to genuinely hate one another, Joe especially being unable to forgive Ali for his taunts, might have saved their best fight for last.
Indeed, which fight was the greatest: Ali/Frazier I, or Ali/Frazier III, AKA “The Thrilla in Manila?”
Fight one was unprecedented, as in it marked the first time in boxing history that two unbeaten men who each had a legitimate claim to the throne fought one another. Ali had been robbed of his absolute peak years due to his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war, while Frazier was about as finely tuned, as ravenously hungry and as ferocious a world heavyweight ruler anyone had ever seen at that time. The 15 rounds that followed inside a packed Madison Square Garden remain as electrifying to watch all these years later.
There were many switches in momentum, there were a number of standout rounds, this in a fight where almost every round was special, and there was a shock right at the end of the fight. Round-9 saw Ali sting Frazier with a series of flush left hooks, this while going backwards slightly – the beautiful sequence of action prompting the late, great Mark Kram to describe the violence as “Ali nailing up a picture for the ages.” Round-11 saw Ali take more punishment than at any other time in his career at that point, as Frazier, the fight seemingly now his, battered his tormentor with a number of hooks to the head.
And of course round-15 saw Frazier’s key weapon, his venomous left hook, send Ali crashing to the canvas. Equally memorable, though, was the way a drained and hurt Ali bounced back up so swiftly. Then came the score-cards: it was unanimous, Joe Frazier had won The Fight of The Century and he was now THE undisputed heavyweight champion. Joe had drawn first blood.
The sequel – won by Ali via a unanimous decision of his own – was comparatively dull, if still a good fight, but the rubber-match, the decider, was very possibly the most brutal and damaging heavyweight war ever.
By the time the two ageing rivals met in the sweltering heat of Manila, a lot had happened: Frazier had been destroyed by George Foreman, the man Ali had sensationally upset to take back his crown. Ali had suffered defeat himself since the ’71 classic with Frazier, however. Ken Norton had busted Ali’s jaw and beaten him on points. Now, in Manila, at age 33 for Ali and 31 for Frazier, some wondered which star had the most left. This fight, one that saw two less mobile but no less determined warriors go at it, proved to be a case of both men giving too much. Way too much.
Every round fought at a breakneck, clinch-free pace, was exhausting. Ali’s legs no longer able to get him out of trouble, the defending champ had to soak up Frazier’s nasty shots to head and body; body especially. It was hard to watch at times (the fight very much a guilty pleasure these days), and though the bravery on show was first-rate, the obvious damage these two all-time greats were inflicting on each other was evident.
It was Frazier’s fight in the middle rounds to around the tenth, before Ali somehow found his second (or third) wind and, seeing Joe’s face swelling up badly, poured it on with all of his remaining strength. Fans know what happened then – the brave actions of Frazier’s trainer and corner-man Eddie Futch, the so-called “cut ’em off myth,” with Ali, according to some, saying to his own corner to cut the gloves off as he was done at the end of that fourteenth round. And then the two men went home, “as old men, one with a ruin of a life,” as Kram put it in his terrific “Ghosts of Manila” book.
It should have been not only the end of the Ali/Frazier rivalry, but also the end of each man’s fighting days. But it wasn’t.
So which fight was greater – the first Ali/Frazier battle, or the third? Both fights continue to be the benchmark modern day fights must approach if to be called anything like great, and maybe there is no splitting Ali/Frazier I and Ali/Frazier III. Both fights were, and are, as great as it gets with the heavyweights.