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The Thrilla in Manila: 14 rounds of pure hell

Photo by Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
Fighters Network

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the November 2015 edition of The Ring, which is available for purchase at The Ring Shop.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were never the same again as fighters, the ashes of their greatness seemingly scattered in the nearby South China Sea. Ali began a slow fade and Frazier, as a result of eye damage and a punishing career, had participated in his final title bout at the age of 31.

Such was the price for sustained brutality rarely witnessed in boxing, the ultimate heavyweight cockfight.

It has been 40 years since Ali and Frazier stepped into a ring at the Araneta Coliseum in the Philippine capital on Oct. 1, 1975, to face one another for the third and final time. When they staggered out, the world had “The Thrilla in Manila.”

Ali, making the 13th defense of the heavyweight championship, barely survived the fury of his rampaging nemesis. “Smokin” Joe took the best Ali had to offer and then sucked the air from his lungs with a devastating body attack mixed with deadly left hooks to the head. Only Ali’s vast reservoir of courage and renowned sharpshooting pulled him through. Frazier, operating on near-zero visibility due to grotesque eye swelling, was retired by legendary trainer Eddie Futch at the end of 14 sizzling rounds.

Their place in boxing history was sealed but their respective resources were seriously diminished.

Jerry Izenberg, a critically acclaimed sports journalist who has written for The Newark Star Ledger since 1951, befriended both principals during that golden era and covered the fight live.

“I’ve been working for 64 years and I’ve never seen anything like it before or since,” he said. “There was no air conditioning, only an opening around the arena wall, and with the lights it must have been 110 degrees in the ring. Never has there been a fight with so much decisive ebb and flow. One minute you knew Ali was going to win and the next you knew Frazier was going to win, then back again.

“I’ve seen great rounds. The first round of Marvelous Marvin Hagler versus Thomas Hearns was of a similar motif, or the 15th round between Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, but this was 14 rounds of pure hell.”

Holmes in action against Gerry Cooney. Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images

Holmes knows what it was like to fight that night. The future champ, who sparred with Ali and Frazier as a novice pro, stopped Rodney Bobick on the undercard in Manila.

“Looking back, the heat wasn’t really a factor for me because I was fighting Bobick at 8 in the morning (Manila time),” said Holmes, who defeated Norton in his own epic war to win the heavyweight title in 1978. “I did get a little tired after the first three rounds but I had plenty of stamina and I’d trained extra hard for that fight. It was hotter – a lot hotter – later on.

“You have to be in peak condition to go through what Ali and Joe experienced over there. After I fought Kenny Norton, I weighed myself in the dressing room and I’d lost five pounds in an hour. If you’re not perfectly conditioned for fighting at that level, then it’s impossible to survive because not only are you working hard, but someone is trying to take your head off.”

Frazier’s son, Marvis, was a 15-year-old amateur at the time of the third Ali bout. He accompanied his father to the Philippines, thereby witnessing first hand the brutality and its subsequent after effects.

The younger Frazier, now 54, said there was far more on the line than just a championship that day.

“My father and I thought he could have gone out for that 15th round but Mr. Futch was the trainer and he was in charge,” he said. “I guess he did what he thought was right for the athlete because he’d seen a couple of guys die in the ring and didn’t want to risk my father’s life. Recovery time was about a month or so. We stayed in Manila for a couple of days, went on vacation and then headed back to Philadelphia.

“It was just such a draining fight, particularly in that heat, and it took a long time for the heavy swelling around my father’s head and face to subside.”

The loser of a prizefight typically emerges in worse condition than the winner but Ali was at least as damaged as Frazier following the Thrilla.

Frazier proved his greatness by defeating Ali in March 1971. Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images

After gingerly lifting himself off the corner stool to acknowledge victory, Ali could barely walk. Huge hematomas on both hips, a product of Frazier’s “well-placed” body punching, hindered his maneuverability and the champion’s head was covered in bumps. He managed to carry out obligatory post-fight duties but was worn to a frazzle.

“Ali had taken a real beating and ultimately submitted to bedrest for a few weeks,” said Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, who was the champion’s personal physician from 1962 to 1977 and in the corner in Manila. “He did speak to Joe, who was barely responsive, the next day and that was probably the last thing Frazier needed. Ali immediately went into his mantra, ‘Joe Frazier, get ready, you deserve a rematch. You almost got me this time, so you got a chance.’ Joe smiled halfheartedly and the banter was one way, as usual.”

There would be no rematch.

Frazier, his eyesight failing and skills declining, would enter the ring only twice more. He was bludgeoned to defeat in five rounds by George Foreman in their 1976 rematch and drew with an undistinguished Jumbo Cummings after a five-year absence in 1981.

Ali remained champion for more than two years following Manila but hundreds of rounds of sparring and an almost suicidal tendency to employ the now legendary “Rope a Dope” strategy, made famous in his victory over Foreman, proved costly. Ali was rarely hit at his peak but he was now reduced to wearing down opposition with a shock-absorber approach. His own durability became his biggest liability.

Holmes, who fought professionally until he was 52, was unimpressed then and now.

“Ali was always against the ropes, letting Joe and other guys bang away at him,” he said. “You can’t do that because it catches up with you later on and that’s how fighters get hurt. I took a lot of punishment in the second half of my fight with Norton but I completely avoided punishment in the first half, so I recuperated quickly. I never let guys bang away on me.”

Ali stopped woefully overmatched Jean-Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn the following year but was deemed fortunate to win on points against elusive Philadelphian Jimmy Young. Then came a third bout against Ken Norton that September, which provided the most-stark evidence of his slide.

The ex-marine had broken Ali’s jaw and defeated him in 1973 and came very close to repeating the feat five months later, when he lost a razor-thin split decision.

Izenberg was present at the rubber match, which the champion won controversially on points.

“Ali was in decline and didn’t have the same desire anymore,” he said. “When he reached down into the well against Norton at Yankee Stadium, there was nothing there, but he did manage to keep it competitive. Kenny stopped throwing in the later rounds and although Ali didn’t look dynamic, he threw some punches and landed some. Kenny gave that fight away, Ali didn’t win it.

Ali absorbed a huge amount of punishment in the Earnie Shavers fight. Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images

“You saw in the Earnie Shavers fight (September 1977) how far gone Ali was. Shavers was the greatest one-punch hitter I’ve ever seen and Ali told me there were times where he was unconscious on his feet that night. Now, if you go back two or three years, Earnie couldn’t have hit him on the ass with a shovel.

“I spoke to Ali just prior to that fight and implored him to quit. I went over to see him with two video tapes. One was a TV show we did prior to the Foreman fight and Ali was in magnificent form, so funny and articulate. The other was a commercial he did for a bug spray called Raid (circa 1977) and I had to watch that over and over because I couldn’t make out the word ‘fog.’

“I played both of those tapes for Ali and asked him if he could see a difference. He said no and I knew I was wasting my time.”

The champion lost one of the most loyal members of his inner circle, Pacheco, after the Shavers fight. Pacheco had collected results from a battery of tests which served to increase his concerns over Ali’s failing health.

“The obvious physical determent was his diminishing reflexes and overall condition,” said Pacheco, now 87. “That was enough for me. I told Ali to stop but his entourage wanted him to keep going. Since I was a doctor, I had to leave. There was no discussion with Ali after I made my decision. I was gone, period.”

Pacheco’s exit was prophetic, as Ali would lose three of his next four fights. An embarrassing loss to seven-fight novice Leon Spinks that cost him his title in February 1978 was followed by a decision victory seven months later, making him the first three-time heavyweight champion. Ali retired as WBA titleholder the following year but was lured back into the ring after a two-year hiatus to face Holmes, who handed out a frightful beating and forced Ali’s corner to stop the fight in the 10th round. It was the only time Ali had been knocked out. His career finally came to an end in the Bahamas in December 1981, when Canadian slugger Trevor Berbick outpointed a shell of a once-great fighter over 10 rounds.

Meanwhile, Joe Frazier was training fighters in Philadelphia. The former champion ultimately worked with scores of prospects including his son, whom he took all the way to a shot at the heavyweight championship.

“In the gym my father always kept me motivated and he was a great trainer,” Marvis said. “He would often tell me that I didn’t have the desire and that made me more determined. I fought 21 times as a professional and only lost to two Hall of Fame fighters, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. When I fought Larry, I thought I was ready but clearly I wasn’t. I can’t blame that on my father and the result (a first-round knockout) was down to me.”

Frazier, whose final bout occurred eight days before Ali faced Berbick, was content in retirement.

“My father didn’t really miss the fight game because he was so popular and everybody loved him,” Marvis said. “There was one time when he was signing autographs and, because I was tired of waiting, I told a young boy he couldn’t have one. I was only a kid but my father made me bring the boy back and told me never to dismiss someone like that. He explained that people loved him and I should appreciate that he was a famous person. He was once the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and always conducted himself like a champion.”

“The Thrilla in Manila” will always be celebrated but it is worth remembering the sacrifices Ali and Frazier made that day. We might never see another fight like it and, when one considers the damage, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing.

Ali famously said it was “the closest thing to death” he ever experienced.

“Their lives were on the line and if ever a fight should have ended in a draw it was the one in Manila,” Izenberg said. “Until Joe’s eyesight began to go, that fight was dead-even on my card and neither guy deserved to lose. These were great warriors who would have fought each other on an ice floe with the ice melting around them.”


Tom Gray is managing editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing