The Thrilla in Manila remembered: 40 years later
Their first fight stopped the world. Their rematch suffered by comparison. But for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, their third confrontation was a pulsating, punishing war of attrition waged in triple-digit heat, hellish humidity and wrenching emotion. It pushed Ali to the edge of surrender but, moments before he pulled the trigger, Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, beat him to it. While the legendary chief second believed his man was ahead going into the 15th and final round, he also felt the beating Frazier had absorbed down the stretch posed a mortal threat to his fighter’s future well-being. By pulling his man out of the fire, Futch, in his mind, brokered a very favorable trade: Three more minutes of potentially life-ending punishment for what ultimately would be 36 more years among the living. Still, neither Ali nor Frazier were ever quite the same again, both as fighters and as men.
Forty years ago today, “The Greatest” and “Smokin’ Joe” poured out their skills and their souls to a degree seldom seen in sports. It was a fitting end to a rivalry that spanned four years, 41 rounds, countless barbs and even an in-studio brawl that Ali initially treated as stagecraft but Frazier viewed as fully justified. For Frazier, the bitterness toward Ali would continue until his dying day but, in athletic, in-ring terms, the argument between the two ring greats reached its raging conclusion.
The fight was announced in Malaysia the morning after Ali out-pointed Joe Bugner for the second time and, at the time, no one realized a potential epic was in their midst. Now in their early-30s, Ali and Frazier continued to win but they didn’t appear close to the forms that marked their primes.
Since beating Ali in their classic first fight in March 1971, Frazier notched two knockout wins over massive underdogs Terry Daniels and Ron Stander, then shockingly lost the world heavyweight championship to George Foreman, who not only stopped Frazier in two rounds but also scored six knockdowns. After decisioning Bugner over 12 rounds in London, Frazier was nearly knocked out in round two by Ali before losing the 12-round decision. After losing for the second time in three fights, Frazier righted the ship by stopping previous knockout victims Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis.
Meanwhile, Ali had gone 17-1 (9) since losing to Frazier with the only loss being a split decision against then-unheralded Ken Norton, who insulted and then injured Ali, quite literally, by breaking his jaw. As was his way, Ali fought often, met the best available opponents and racked up tens of thousands of frequent flier miles along the way. He scored victories in Switzerland (KO 7 Juergen Blin), Japan (UD 15 Mac Foster), Canada (UD 12 George Chuvalo II), Ireland (TKO 11 Alvin Blue Lewis), Indonesia (UD 12 Rudi Lubbers) and Malaysia (UD 15 Bugner II) while also mixing in plenty of wins on U.S. soil (Ellis and Buster Mathis Sr. in Texas, Quarry, Bugner and Ron Lyle in Las Vegas, Bob Foster in Stateline, Nev., Floyd Patterson and Frazier in New York, Chuck Wepner in Richfield, Ohio and Norton in Inglewood, Calif. in their rematch). But the most memorable victory of his run came against Foreman in Zaire, where he ended his long championship chase in most improbable fashion – by eighth-round knockout and by using the “rope-a-dope” to wear out the over-eager champion.
Ali, however, had not been at his best lately. After beating Foreman, Ali clowned for long stretches against Wepner, turning on the jets only after the challenger scored a humiliating ninth-round knockdown with a light right to the chest combined with a well-placed foot that tripped Ali. He also played with Lyle, who smartly avoided the “rope-a-dope” and fought the disinterested Ali well enough to be ahead on two scorecards entering the 11th round. Once Ali finally woke up, it took just 68 seconds to end the bout. He was more serious against Bugner, who had height and reach on Ali and had fought him reasonably well in their first meeting two years earlier. While Ali easily won the decision, he wasn’t stellar.
But while neither man was at his physical peak, the years had only heightened the tension between them. And Ali, ever the master psychologist, made sure he fired the first shots. After making fun of Frazier’s diction, Ali reached into his pocket and pulled out a black rubber gorilla.
“This here is Joe Frazier’s conscience. I keep it everywhere I go,” he told the assembled press. Then, as he repeatedly pounded the toy’s face with his fist, he said, “This is the way he looks when you hit him. All night long, this is what you’ll see. Come on, gorilla; we in Manila. Come on, gorilla; this is a thrilla.”
For everyone else in the room, it was a moment of levity. For Frazier, it was an outrage.
“It’s real hatred,” Frazier declared shortly before the fight. “I want to hurt him. I don’t want to knock him out. I want to take his heart out. If I knock him down, I’ll stand back, give him a chance to breathe, to get up.”
For most fighters, such talk was just part of the pre-fight build-up. But the proud and deeply emotional Frazier meant every acidic word. To him, Ali’s public mocking was a betrayal of the highest order. During Ali’s exile, Frazier floated money to the ex-champ and advocated for the return of his license. While part of his motivation was financial, his gestures also were fueled by his deeply-held Christian faith. Once Ali regained his license, Ali, in Frazier’s mind, forgot past favors and went far beyond the usual bounds of salesmanship. He didn’t just go after Frazier the fighter; he went after Frazier the man. Ali justified his actions by saying he was pumping up the gate but Frazier correctly replied that their purses were guaranteed, not based on a percentage of ticket sales.
Ali, however, was only following a pattern that has applied to most of his career; he usually saves his most intense taunting for the opponents he views as most threatening. Ali, then Cassius Clay, was fearful of the baleful Sonny Liston but his masterful, pre-fight psychological campaign helped the challenger in two ways. First, it helped him cope with his internal concerns and, second, it anesthetized him from Liston’s scare tactics. He used the same playbook with Foreman, who he saw as a bigger, stronger and harder-hitting version of Liston. Frazier, while not as physically imposing as Liston or Foreman, qualified as a top-tier danger to Ali because of his relentless aggression, his superhuman stamina, his extraordinary body punching and his ferocious left hook, arguably the best in the sport’s history.
Even if neither man was at his positive peak, the meaning of their rubber match was profound. In historical terms, the winner of their three-fight series would be perceived as the better fighter in pound-for-pound terms. But for the two men, another prize was paramount: Bragging rights for the rest of their lives.
“When it came down to in Manila, [it] wasn’t [just for] the heavyweight championship of the world,” writer Jerry Izenberg said in Thomas Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” “Ali and Frazier were fighting for something more important than that. They were fighting for the championship of each other.”
If the personal dynamic between the fighters wasn’t volatile enough, the cauldron in which Ali-Frazier III boiled was stoked by the controversy concerning the selection of the referee as well as the married Ali’s affair with model Veronica Porsche. The press had known about it for a while but the mores of the time dictated that it not be broached in print. But Ali gave them no choice, thanks to a pair of incidents. The first occurred during a meeting with president Ferdinand Marcos at his presidential palace. Seeing Porsche with Ali and assuming she was his wife, Marcos offered a complement. Ali didn’t correct Marcos’ case of mistaken identity. The second took place at Ali’s daily press conference when the champ, without prompting, started the session by trying to justify the affair. The resulting stories got back to Belinda Ali, who immediately flew to Manila, marched to Ali’s hotel room, “raised hell for about an hour” and went straight back home.
The issue of the third man prompted considerable political maneuvering. According to the account Futch gave to Dave Anderson in his book “In The Corner,” Ali’s promoter, Don King, wanted Zach Clayton and Clayton, who officiated Ali-Foreman, wanted the job. Futch said Clayton attempted to visit Frazier’s apartment in Philadelphia just after the fighter began training. Futch didn’t want Clayton due to past acts he felt weren’t “in the best interests of boxing” and was able to shoo Clayton away for the time being. When Futch called then-mayor Frank Rizzo to complain about Clayton’s persistence, Rizzo told Clayton, a firefighter for the city, that he wouldn’t give Clayton time off to work the fight. Clayton responded by quitting.
Not long after, the trainer read the signed contract and noticed a clause stating King had the right to choose the referee if the two camps reached an impasse. King removed the clause when Futch confronted him but, as the fight neared, the trainer found out King had flown three referees to Manila: Jay Edson, Harry Gibbs – and Clayton.
Though Futch had no quarrel with Edson and Gibbs’ work, he felt uncomfortable with the prospect of their feeling obligated to King. Thus, Futch suggested to King that a local official be named, a suggestion King rejected. Futch then brought up the idea to Luis Tabuena, the chairman of the Games and Amusement Board in Manila, who then approached Marcos. At a subsequent news conference, 41-year-old Carlos Padilla, the son of a movie actor who had appeared in several films himself, was named the third man. To this point. Padilla had never officiated a championship fight but any concerns over his inexperience melted away once the fight began.
In order to have the fight shown during prime-time hours in the US, the main event was scheduled to begin at 10:45 a.m. local time. Despite the relatively early hour, conditions inside the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City (a city within the Metro Manila area) were brutal. The aluminum roof and the lack of air conditioning intensified the already sticky conditions.
Ticket prices ranged from $330 for ringside to $4 in the gallery and the 224 1/2-pound Ali (48-2, 34) was installed as a narrow 6-to-5 favorite to beat the 215 1/2-pound Frazier (32-2, 27), who was seeking to join Patterson and Ali as the only men to regain the heavyweight title.
As Frazier was being gloved up, the ring announcer said that the four-foot-tall trophy donated by Marcos would be given to the winner. Even before the announcement was finished, the lighthearted Ali drew laughs by pointing at himself, then taking the trophy to his corner. The focused Frazier didn’t even crack a smile. Ali again tried to rattle Frazier during the final instructions but again, his words had no visible effect on the former champ.
Knowing Frazier was a notoriously slow starter – and knowing he had stunned Frazier badly in round two of their second bout – Ali planted his feet and looked to land combinations. Meanwhile, Frazier, wearing a smiling sneer, bobbed under Ali’s blows and sought to attack Ali’s body. With 20 seconds remaining in the opening round, Ali wobbled Frazier with a compact hook to the jaw. Seeing the chance for an early finish, he unleashed a torrent of blows but Frazier ducked under most of them and made it to the bell without further trouble. In fact, Frazier playfully tugged the bottom of Ali’s trunks before walking to his corner.
Unlike most recent fights, Ali was all business in round one as he threw 80 punches and out-landed Frazier 34-15. Encouraged by his early success, Ali maintained his flat-footed ways in round two. When Ali’s left glove briefly wrapped around Frazier’s neck, Padilla, keenly aware of Futch’s complaints, stopped the action and issued a caution, something neither Clayton or Tony Perez, who officiated the second Ali-Frazier fight, did. Frazier effectively worked the ribs whenever he trapped Ali on the ropes while Ali used his left to tee up Frazier for a smacking right that snapped back the challenger’s head. It was Ali’s flash against Frazier’s thunder and each was serving it in healthy portions. As the round closed, Frazier landed a hook to the jaw and a right to the body while Ali responded with a snappy right lead to the face that landed flush. The second was a much closer round than the first and a subsequent count confirmed it as Frazier out-landed Ali 22-17 overall and landed 69% of his power shots (20 of 29) to Ali’s 50% (14 of 28).
Despite fighting just six minutes, both men’s bodies were bathed in perspiration. Between rounds, a still jaunty Ali bowed and blew kisses to Marcos and his wife, Imelda, while also bantering with ringsiders as the single-minded Frazier sat on his stool and focused on his mission. Ali constantly stuck out his left glove to keep Frazier at bay but the challenger simply batted it away, banged his gloves together, skillfully weaved away from Ali’s blows and blasted the body at every opportunity. Midway through the round, Ali went into the “rope-a-dope” and Frazier responded with sticky body shots, right uppercuts and trademark hooks, many of which got through. Between assaults, Ali said something in Frazier’s ear but the imperturbable challenger ignored the barbs and continued his industrious – and effective – attack.
In the closing moments, Ali suddenly unleashed an explosive flurry punctuated by several lead rights to the face but Frazier held his own and eagerly traded with the champion until the bell. Just as he had in earlier rounds, Frazier turned his back to Ali and dismissed him with a wave of the arm.
The already frenetic action accelerated at the start of round four as they traded power shots with abandon. Now it was Frazier who was taunting Ali, even as the champion pelted him with pinpoint punches. Ali continued to rake Frazier’s face while on the retreat while “Smokin’ Joe” walked toward the champion as if brushing away branches in a thick forest. Whenever Ali sought rest on the ropes, Frazier offered no respite. As far as he was concerned, there would be no time for games, no time for horseplay and no time for illusions, magic tricks or verbal gymnastics. All Frazier had on his mind was destruction, mayhem and pain, even if he had to take his fair share of it in order to dish it out.
Between rounds four and five, Ali suddenly stood up and led the crowd in chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” Frazier didn’t care; he knew that the 25,000-plus who jammed into Araneta Coliseum were there to cheer for Ali, not fight for him.
The pace slowed somewhat in round five but only in comparison to the fantastic rate of the earlier rounds. Ali spent long portions propped in the corner, allowing Frazier free reign to hammer his body. After Padilla separated them, Ali stayed where he was and waved the challenger in with his glove. While others would have hesitated and wondered about Ali’s intentions, Frazier simply walked in and hammered him with a hook to the body. The final minute of the round featured the longest stretch of sustained action yet as they traded shot-for-shot and, in the midst of it, a loud chant of “Frazier! Frazier! Frazier!” thundered through the arena.
Although Frazier got his pound of flesh, Ali had the lead through five rounds. Numerically speaking, he out-landed Frazier 128-109 overall and 113-101 in power shots and the pace was much faster and more intense than anyone could have ever anticipated. Ali, who liked to ease into a fight, was forced to fight harder than usual and in the first five rounds, he averaged 61.6 punches per round. Frazier, though he fired the heavyweight average of 45.4, landed an impressive 51% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts.
Frazier instantly turned the fight seconds into round six when he landed a massive hook to the jaw that forced Ali to cover up, then landed a half-dozen more like it over the rest of the session. While Frazier’s body punches had extra zip, Ali’s punches were slower and his face betrayed his pain and weariness. While Ali covered, Frazier cranked – and to devastating effect. It was, by far, the most lopsided round of the bout for either man thus far, both inside the ring and statistically as Frazier landed more than twice the punches (32-15) and landed 57% of his power shots to Ali’s 36%.
One of Ali’s most impressive traits was his ability to find extra energy when he needed it and such was the case at the start of round seven when, for the first time in the bout, Ali became the butterfly and the bee. His legs allowed him to float about the ring and his combinations landed with a crispness that defied logic given what happened just three minutes earlier. Yes, Frazier still landed from time to time but Ali’s movement and quick hands largely quieted the threat – at least for the time being.
The eighth saw Ali stand his ground and trade with Frazier. Throughout the first half of the session, Ali’s lightning-quick flurries repeatedly laced Frazier’s grimacing and swelling face but, once Ali slowed, Frazier gathered himself and blasted the champion with meaty power shots that reverberated through his body. At the bell, Ali trudged toward his corner while Frazier strode toward his.
Ali did his best to hold off Frazier in the ninth but, as the round progressed, it became apparent that his gas tank was ebbing. Frazier’s steady, punishing work intensified in the final minute and, by round’s end, the momentum was his. Ali spent the majority of the 10th along the ropes, resting his legs, while Frazier continue to pound away at all available targets. Frazier’s ceaseless body punching left Ali’s upper body in a hunched position and only his fighting instincts and immense pride kept him standing. With five more rounds yet to fight, an exhausted Ali was forced to ponder his own mortality. As Ali struggled to catch his breath, he told chief second Angelo Dundee, “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.”
And yet, incredibly, sometime during those 60 seconds, Ali forged deep within himself and extracted a new source of energy, an energy that revitalized his arms, his legs and, most importantly, his spirit. Ali started the 11th dancing, snapping jabs and pounding Frazier with whistling combinations. The swellings around Frazier eyes soon were joined by ridges of welts on the forehead. The second minute of the round saw a resting Ali take some of Frazier’s bombs but they didn’t affect Ali quite as much as before because he bounced back to capture the final 60 seconds.
After Ali produced a strong start in the 12th, Frazier, though obviously worn down, still managed to trap Ali on the ropes and land blows that jarred Ali’s head and body. But Frazier’s body was breaking down too; his left eye was starting to close and his trademark bobbing and weaving was no longer there.
With the finish line in sight, both men sought to pick up the action in the 13th but Ali would be the one to produce a ferocious finishing kick. A sharp right hand to the face sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying out of the ring, a sight that seemed to ignite the champion. Suddenly Ali was hitting Frazier with almost everything he threw and, with a minute left, a straight right sent Frazier stumbling backward. Just as Frazier turned the fight in round six, Ali returned the favor in the 13th – and, this time, there would be no turning back.
The latter half of the 14th was even worse for Frazier; he could no longer see the punches coming and thus Ali struck cleanly, precisely and with force. Blood poured from Frazier’s mouth; the left side of his head was misshapen and he couldn’t raise his arms high enough to defend himself. It was target practice for Ali and he relished the opportunity to put an exclamation point on his dominance. At the bell, Padilla had to guide Frazier toward his corner. There, Futch waited for him – and his mind was already made up.
“I’m going to stop it,” he told Frazier. The proud warrior tried to protest but once Futch pushed down on his shoulder, he stayed put. Futch then turned to Padilla and waved off the match. Once the Ali corner got the word, the still-heavyweight champion only had the energy to raise his glove in triumph before slumping to his stool.
“Joe had two bad rounds in a row,” Futch explained. “Even with three minutes to go, he was going downhill. And that opened up the possibility in that situation that he could’ve been seriously hurt. Joe was taking some hard shots to the head and, in his condition, I thought he had no way to win the fight. I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
“I didn’t want to be stopped,” Frazier said. “I wanted it to go on. It was one heck of a fight. I thought I was ahead when they stopped it. Sure, I was disappointed but I never argue with what Eddie does.”
After all the insults he hurled at Frazier throughout the years, Ali had nothing but praise for his rival on this day.
“He is tough,” Ali said. “He is a great fighter. I’m so tired I don’t want to do nothing. I want to rest for one week. My arms are sore; my legs are sore; my sides are sore. He is the best there is – except [for] me.”
Perhaps motivated by the pain, Ali was eager to step away from boxing – forever.
“I want to retire. It’s too much work, too painful. I might have a heart attack,” he said. But in the next breath, the old Ali was back. “I want everyone to know that I’m the greatest fighter of all time.”
The last two rounds showed why. In rounds 13 and 14 he out-landed Frazier 90-27 overall and 68-25 in power shots. It was a withering assault that broke the body – but not the will – of Joe Frazier.
Years later, it was revealed in HBO’s documentary, “Thrilla in Manila,” that Ali was moments away from quitting on his stool.
Willie “The Worm” Monroe, who used to be in Frazier’s training camp, was seated near Ali’s corner and he overheard Ali telling Dundee to cut the gloves off, a story later confirmed by Ali cornerman Wali Muhammad, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and Ali himself to author Tom Hauser. Monroe frantically gestured toward the Frazier corner but his gesticulations went unseen. Had they been and had they been properly interpreted in time, the entire narrative surrounding the careers of both men would have been drastically different.
Ali and Frazier left large pieces of themselves inside that ring and their efforts didn’t go unrecognized. THE RING deemed the bout its “Fight of the Year” for 1975 and in 1996, the magazine rated it the number-one fight of all-time. Ali earned his third “Fighter of the Year” award in the last four years and his fourth such award overall and in 1999, ESPN’s SportsCentury ranked the fight as the fifth greatest sporting event in history. Nearly 35 years after his retirement, Ali remains among the most beloved people on Earth but Frazier, too, was honored and celebrated. Futch was true to his word when he told Frazier that “No one will forget what you did here today,” and the latest manifestation of that regard occurred Sept. 12, 2015 in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia when a 12-foot bronze statue in his likeness was unveiled.
It is somewhat fitting that their careers ended in Dec. 1981; Frazier after a dreary 10-round majority draw against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings and Ali dropping a 10-round unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick eight days later. But those sad conclusions are overshadowed by the magnificence they displayed on an unforgettable morning in a faraway land.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.