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Muhammad Ali’s ‘Thrilla in Manila’ against Joe Frazier stands the test of time

Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali, right, and Joe Frazier fight for the third time on Oct. 1, 1975, during their “Thrilla in Manila.”
(Corbis / Bettmann)

A bright morning sun typically symbolizes the birth of a new day, the start of something potentially magnificent.

In October 1975, after Muhammad Ali closed his historic trilogy with Joe Frazier in a superior battle that some rank as boxing’s ultimate prizefight, co-promoter Bob Arum recalls exiting the Araneta Coliseum to burning heat.

“Like something had died,” Arum said.

The best of both Ali and Frazier came out during third and final meeting, the “Thrilla in Manila.”

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Frazier won their first meeting in 1971, a bout between two unbeatens that is considered one of the greatest spectacles of the sports century. Ali won the rematch in 1974.

Frazier’s disdain for Ali rose before the third meeting, with the champion boasting their fight in the Philippines would be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manila.”

President Ferdinand Marcos struck a deal with promoter Don King to bring the bout across the Pacific.

“Ali is a promoter’s dream. He created the magic of excitement,” King said. “Frazier took [the gorilla comment] to heart, though, never really forgave him for that.”

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He should have, King said, pointing to Ali’s attention to human rights that included his previous conscientious-objector stand against the Vietnam War.

“Ali stood for something,” King said. “He stood up for the African American. It was about being a man, m-a-n.

“Look, no one will ever be able to say how great Ali was because he lost four years at the peak of his career standing up for a cause [objecting to the Vietnam War], for humanity and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that he felt would be denied him. Muhammad Ali stood for America.”

The bout was staged in the Philippines, King said, because Marcos pushed to stage a symbolic battle between two proven boxing warriors who could bring attention to the past obscured war efforts of Filipinos in the battlegrounds of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Saipan.

“This fight was about manhood,” King said. “The rubber match … was super sensational. It will be immortalized for the standard of time. Ali said it was the closest to death he’s ever been.

“The fight illustrated man’s courage, the spirit that nobody can fight your battle but you, and the enemy is in front of you. They had that will of giving it their all, for all mankind.”

Ali, the champion at that time following his epic “Rumble in the Jungle” victory a year earlier over George Foreman, ruled the first four rounds, belting Frazier with precise blows.

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Frazier rallied impressively, dominating with power left-handed shots and his patented toughness that continually gave Ali fits.

“I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city,” Frazier said afterward.

Both men were gassed in the late championship rounds. Ali scored hurtful blows on Frazier, swelling the former champion’s eyes and blasting him with hard rights to the head in the 14th round that might have impaired – or killed -- a less fit, weaker foe.

After 14 rounds, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch concluded that his fighter, with bad left-eye vision and a swollen right eye, couldn’t see anymore.

In the opposite corner, an exhausted Ali, comfortably ahead on scorecards that differed from those kept in ringside reporters’ notebooks, had cornerman Angelo Dundee urging him on for three more minutes.

“Ali was going to give his life. He had to perform,” King said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Ali told me it was the closest to death he had ever came, but that the cause was more worthy than he. The cause of manhood.

“That fight was the epitome, showing man’s incredible will to withstand the withering battle of blow after blow. After a fight like that, there was no way you could be the fighter that you were.”

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Futch dramatically decided Frazier had had enough, waving the towel, stopping the fight against Frazier’s objections.

“It wasn’t Joe Frazier who stopped the fight,” King said. “It was Eddie Futch. He stopped his fighter from being hurt any worse, physically and psychologically. God bless Eddie Futch.”

Years later, an aged Frazier was shown hitting a heavy bag in an HBO documentary about the Thrilla in Manila, suggesting he’d gotten the best of Ali in the end, because his punishment contributed to Ali’s being ravaged by Parkinson’s.

King recalls a more uplifting review of the clash.

“It was so wonderful for Muhammad because [of] when they were making him the bad guy years earlier about not going to fight the Viet Cong. . . . People were finally able to see after this test of manhood that he was truly fighting for freedom of religion, against the system that allowed the horrific, barbaric things that were being done to our people,” King said.

“He is the people’s hero. For black and white. He always told me, ‘Never let ’em down.’”


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