Thriller in Manila: A knockout of a film

A new documentary about the greatest fight ever shows that Joe Frazier suffered most from Ali's verbal punches.

John Dennen

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Rocky is not Philadelphia’s greatest boxer, though the statue the city built in honour of Sylvester Stallone’s on-screen boxing champion might suggest otherwise. You’ll find no statue there – or elsewhere – commemorating the Philly-native Joe Frazier, even though he really is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. It was Frazier’s lot, however, to fight at the same time as the legendary Muhammad Ali – ‘The Greatest’.

Ali is viewed nowadays as something between a god and a culture hero, celebrated in some excellent films and books, most notably in the documentary When We Were Kings and in Norman Mailer’s The Fight, an enthusiastic account of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. This was the fight where Ali, in the depths of Zaire, reclaimed the world championship title from the devastating hitter, George Foreman.

But Ali’s story is incomplete without recognising his crucial relationship, both in and out of the ring, with another figure. Joe Frazier needs to be acknowledged, at the least, for his role in Ali’s greatest fight – and one of the greatest fights in the history of boxing – the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ (watch clips from the fight and interviews with Ali and Frazier below).

John Dower’s new documentary Thriller in Manila (screened on More 4 last month and now available on DVD) reminds the world of who Joe Frazier is, and it reveals the darker, cruel side of Muhammad Ali, which has been overshadowed by his heroic, cult status. The film is built round an interview with Frazier, now an elderly man and still living above his gym in his old, run-down Philadelphia neighbourhood. Frazier’s speech is slurred and hard to understand. His anger at Ali lingers and he does not appear to lament the old age and Parkinson’s disease that have left Ali unrecognisable from the quick-thinking, fleet-footed heavyweight champion he was in his youth. In fact, Frazier credits himself with ‘clipping the butterfly’s wings’.

Boxing usually ends well. It can be surprising how fondly boxers embrace after spending however many rounds trying to knock one another down. But Frazier has not forgotten the insults Ali publicly humiliated him with in the build-up to their fights, a feud which struck fever pitch in Manila. Insults like ‘ugly’, ‘gorilla’ and ‘dumb’ may sound childish, but it seems they got to Frazier. Today, his hostility to Ali is undimmed, even though they last met in the ring over 30 years ago. What appears to have been most galling to Frazier isn’t just that Ali said these things, but that other people bought it. In the 1970s to be called an ‘Uncle Tom’, by none other than Muhammad Ali, would have been a grave challenge to Frazier’s identity, his public role and his pride.

It was all especially hard for Frazier to swallow when he felt that he had never been regarded as the legitimate world champion. He first took the title during Ali’s famous ban from boxing after he refused the draft during the Vietnam War. Frazier lent Ali money at the time and, according to Dower’s film, even asked President Nixon for Ali’s licence to be restored.

But Ali never paid Frazier the respect he was due. Among Ali’s many skills should be counted the sly arts of psy-ops. It has been said that nobody exerted psychological pressure on his opponents quite like Ali. Upsetting Joe Frazier, however, is not a good idea and in their first encounter in 1971, dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’, Frazier beat and beat up Ali over 15 rounds taking a unanimous decision. Almost as if to settle any doubts, he floored The Greatest with an extraordinary left hook in the last round.

Even more extraordinarily, Ali got up.

Perhaps that managed to sow some doubt in Frazier’s mind. Certainly, in spite of the loss, Ali’s popularity was undiminished. If anything, the people were even more fond of their champion and Frazier was not thanked for breaking the script. Ali showed an astonishing toughness then, a quality by which he managed to overcome the odds to beat Foreman and endure the third act of his trilogy against Frazier. But he took a lot of punishment along the way.

It should not be forgotten that Frazier was a great boxer, relentless in style and famed for his left hook and the pressure he brought to his infighting. George Foreman’s reputation, and title, came from his two-round demolition of Frazier, which is hard to believe even now.

Despite equalling the score with a points victory over Frazier in a non-title bout (while Foreman held the championship), perhaps Ali, too, had his doubts about facing Smokin’ Joe – the architect of his first loss. Certainly their verbal sparring took on a vicious aspect in the build-up to their 1975 title fight, hosted by then Philippinian presidential couple, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in Manila.

For his documentary, Dower has assembled an impressive array of talking heads to recall the atmosphere around the time of the fight, combining with them contemporary footage. The humour Ali usually used with the media and with his opponents failed him here. Ali had an extraordinary ability to elevate his sport and his own persona to chime with the feelings of the time. But watching the people’s champion throwing racially charged insults at Frazier is an ugly sight. He kept disrupting Frazier’s training sessions and is said to have appeared at one stage wildly brandishing a gun.

The extreme bitterness of Ali’s and Frazier’s rivalry is clear in the way they fought. Ali dominated initially, before Frazier started to exert tremendous pressure on him throughout the core of the fight. Ali withstood it and by the closing rounds he was catching Frazier cleanly with tremendous shots. But Frazier refused to fall and it was his trainer, Eddie Futch, who famously stopped his man from suffering any more punishment in the fourteenth round and threw in the towel. On the announcement of his victory, Ali collapsed in his corner.

Neither Frazier nor Ali could have become a great fighter without their great fights. Sadly for Frazier it is the nature of boxing that the loser’s name is subsumed into the record of the victor. But Dower’s Thriller in Manila is also a reminder that Ali was not a saint. He became a powerful symbol and at the same time he was a charming and fascinating human being. But he was also capable of troubling cruelty and it has been Joe Frazier’s great misfortune to be tarnished by Ali’s verbal punches.

John Dennen is a journalist and the writer of a short film about Joe Frazier.

Duleep Allirajah is away

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