When it was over, many who saw it agreed: It was like watching a fight to the death, two brave gladiators, bludgeoning each other long after they had exceeded their limits of endurance.
And it wasn’t in Rome’s Circus Maximus 2,000 years ago, it was in an arena in Manila, where Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali concluded their five-year war with a fight unmatched since for its ferocity and courage.
It was their third fight, after classic matchups in Madison Square Garden in 1971 and ’74. Frazier had retained his championship on a 15-round decision in the first one but lost to Ali on a 12-round decision in a non-title fight in the second.
In the interim, in 1973, George Foreman upset Frazier in Jamaica to win the heavyweight championship. Then Ali regained the title in 1974 by knocking out Foreman in Zaire.
So the “Thrilla in Manila” had everyone’s attention. It was a rare case of a great boxing matchup producing a fight that exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Ali and Frazier were perfect for each other: Ali the master boxer but with a punch sufficient to work effectively inside on a shorter, more powerful, more relentless puncher.
After 14 rounds, Ali was ahead on all three judges’ cards and Frazier, although he never stopped charging forward and throwing effective punches, was beginning to take heavy blows to the head.
Just before the bell rang for the 15th, Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, moved to the referee, Carlos Padilla, and asked him to stop it.
“I stopped it because Joe was starting to get hit with too many clean shots,” Futch said. “He couldn’t see out of his right eye, couldn’t see the left hands coming.”
Said Ali trainer Angelo Dundee: “My guy sucked it up. When he looked completely out of gas, he put on another tank.”
Also on this date: In 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old home run record with his 61st, struck off Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard. The ball was caught by Yankee fan Sal Durante, 19, of Coney Island. . . . On the same day, the Los Angeles Angels played the final major league game in Wrigley Field, an 8-5 victory over the Cleveland Indians. The expansion Angels moved into Dodger Stadium the next season. . . . In 1932, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, in Game 3 of the World Series, Babe Ruth made some kind of gesture at home plate, interpreted by some as a declaration he would hit Cub pitcher Charlie Root’s next pitch into the center-field seats. And he did exactly that. The next hitter, Lou Gehrig, was greeted with a knockdown pitch. Then Gehrig homered on the next pitch. . . . In 1984, one year after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, former Dodger Manager Walter Alston died at 72 in Oxford, Ohio.