Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Thrilla In Manila: A Fight of a Lifetime...40 Years Later

 A Thrilla In Manila: A Fight of a Lifetime...40 Years Later
By Peter Silkov

The history of boxing is colorfully littered with a multitude of rivalries between fighters who have fought each other numerous times. This is the lifeblood of boxing, the point where the hardest game reaches its boiling point. No other sport can match boxing for the intensity that is produced between two boxers who are about to fight.  Only boxing creates that unique mixture of soap opera and brutal theatre. It is the most brutal and real drama in sport. 40 years ago today saw the third and final installment of perhaps the most acidic and explosive rivalry that has ever graced the heavyweight division. The final clash between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier displayed boxing at both its most beautiful, and its most brutal.

Often called the sweet science, there was nothing sweet about the fights between Ali and Frazier, especially fights 1 and 3. The violence of the blows, which both men exchanged throughout their trilogy, echoed the depths to which their personal rivalry had reached. In the course of 5 years, Ali and Frazier had gone from having a respectful friendship, to one of the bitterest feuds ever seen in boxing. Ali was a master of taunting his opponents, but with Frazier it was different. Perhaps it was because Frazier had taken his world title while he had been banned for his refusal to go to Vietnam.  Perhaps it was because Frazier became the first man to beat Ali in their classic 1st fight on March 8, 1971. Whatever the reason, there’s little denying that Ali saved some of his sharpest and most hurtful insults for Joe Frazier. 

For his part, Frazier, after playing the game at first, began to simmer, stew, and build a genuine anger and hatred towards Ali for the things he had said about him. It was an anger that did not subside, even after he beat Ali in their 1st contest.  With that victory, after a fight that could rightly be declared as the greatest heavyweight contest of all time, Frazier had proved himself to be the rightful world champion. He had beaten the returning king. Yet it was not enough, for either Frazier or the fans. After his greatest career performance, and his greatest victory, Frazier could only watch, as Ali became even more popular with the public in defeat. The bitterness deepened when Ali won their rematch on January 28, 1974, in a fight that while very good, was almost mediocre compared to the two wars within which it was sandwiched on both sides. By their 2nd fight, Frazier was an ex-world champion himself, having lost his crown the previous year to George Foreman.  After he had lost to Ali in their second fight, many people wrote off Frazier as a fighting force.

Ali meanwhile regained the world title in late 1974, with his magical destruction of George Foreman in Zaire. Ali’s and Frazier’s careers seemed to be going in opposite directions now, with Ali enjoying a new lease of life, while Frazier was viewed as a mere shadow of the man who had beaten Ali in 1971.  But, the feud was still burning, and a third fight between the pair was a natural, if only to tie up the loose ends. A boxing rivalry, which ends with one victory for each man is always somehow unsatisfactory, with something unfinished, like a soap opera that had the plug pulled on it before the final episode.

With Ali and Frazier, the final episode of their joint drama would be the most hard-bitten, which is what boxing fans had hoped for, and even more.  It would reach heights of physical violence that would make fans feel both enraptured and disturbed, in equal measure.

The fight was set for October 1, 1975, in Manila, Philippines, before a crowd of 25,000, which would include the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. The build up to the fight found Ali firing up more jokes at Frazier’s expense.

“It’ll be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila” cried Ali numerous times during the build up. 

Frazier on the other hand, was quietly seething with his bitterness against Ali, saying in one interview prior to the fight:

“No question about it, it’s real hatred, I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I’ll stand back, give him breathing room.  I don’t want to knock him out in Manila; I want to take his heart out."

Behind all the ballyhoo and bluster, Ali and his team really believed that this time around Frazier would be an easy touch. Ali was enjoying the fruits of being world champion once again, and being the most recognized man in the world, and his focus on his training had unsurprisingly suffered. Some of the fruits that become available with success can be bittersweet.  Ali’s focus on the fight was further shaken when his estranged wife Belinda flew over from America to confront him about his mistress Veronica Porsche, whom he was staying with in Manila, and who would soon become his third wife. But, if Ali went into his third fight with Joe Frazier distracted, ‘Smokin’ Joe soon got his attention.

From the start of the 1st round, it was clear that both men meant business. Ali came out flat-footed, throwing bombs, and looking for an early stoppage victory. Both men were a little heavier and slower than in their first fight. As the fight progressed, all pretense of science and skill would be discarded. This was a fight, with each man throwing and landing as much and as often as they could, and each man unable and to a certain extent, unwilling to get out of the way of the other man’s punches.

Standing flat-footed, Ali won the early rounds by landing his bombs on Frazier at will. Frazier was being out-punched and was visibly shaken in the 1st and 2nd rounds.  As the fight wore on Joe kept on coming in, boring his way onto the inside of Ali, where he would realize punches of his own onto Ali’s body, and then switch quickly to his head. With a maniacal grin on his face, Frazier seemed to welcome the punches that Ali was landing upon him, almost as if they were giving him energy to build up his own assault.

By the middle rounds, Frazier was indeed ‘Smokin’, as Ali visibly tired, found himself pressed back against the ropes, and forced to exchange bombs toe-to-toe with a Frazier who was showing that on this night, he was by no means a washed up fighter.     

In the 7th round, Ali tried to get on his toes and fire his jab, but the heat of Manila, along with his 33 year old legs, made it difficult for ‘the Greatest’ to keep away from Frazier’s relentless assaults.

“Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up” declared Ali during the round.  To which Frazier replied, grimly between punches, “Somebody told you all wrong pretty boy.”

The middle rounds belonged to Frazier, now it was ‘Smoking’ Joe who was out- punching Ali, who was now spending too much of his time pinned onto the ropes, and trying to cover up against punches he couldn’t block or dodge. Frazier was still eating clean shots as he bored into Ali, firing his punches almost frantically at Ali’s body and head. In the 10th and 11th rounds, it looked as if Ali might be through, as he struggled to trade leather with Frazier, and seemed so leg-weary that he was just about to topple over to the canvas under the savagery of Frazier’s attacks. Then in the 12th round, Ali showed why he is very possibly the one and only ‘Greatest’ of all time, certainly at heavyweight. The ability to turn the tide of a fight through sheer guts and strength of spirit, the same kind of spirit that took him to his improbable victory over Foreman. 

In the 12th round, Ali opened up on Frazier with both hands. It was a brutal assault in which Frazier took punch after punch. By the end of the round, his mouth poured out blood and his left eye was closing. In rounds 13 and 14, it was Frazier who looked ready to topple over onto the canvas. Ali was out-punching Frazier once more, somehow finding the strength to fire blistering combinations upon ‘Smokin’ Joe, who despite his continued efforts to fight back, began to look more helpless and more gruesome a figure, with every passing minute.

The 14th round was especially brutal, as Ali landed, at will, upon an opponent who could no longer see the punches coming at him. When the bell rang ending the 14th round, the referee Carlos Padilla had to guide Joe to his corner. Then it was all over.  With just three minutes to go, Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch did what he knew Frazier would never do himself. Convinced that his fighter was on the point of being seriously hurt, or perhaps something worse, he threw in the towel, despite Frazier’s protests. Ali, who had at times been at the point of quitting himself during the brutal fight, was the winner, victorious in what must go down as probably the most grueling and savage contest ever waged for the World heavyweight championship. While their first fight featured more skill and speed, mixed with a thrilling violence of its own, their third fight took the gloved violence to a whole new height.

Later, at the post-fight press conference, a battered Ali said of his opponent,

“I have nothing bad to say about Joe Frazier. Without him I couldn’t be who I am and without me he couldn’t be who he is. We’ve been a pretty good team for four, five years.”

Frazier for his part said of his conqueror,

“I’ve seen walls tumble under shots like I gave him.  He’s a great champ.”

It was to be the last great night of both men’s careers, an explosion of superhuman effort from both boxers that afterwards left them both depleted. Frazier would fight just twice more, losing again to Foreman, in an almost surreal fight 8 months later. He then struggled to a draw with Jumbo Cummings in a one off comeback fight 5 years later. Ali would reign as World heavyweight champion for almost another 3 years, but his skills eroded with every fight. But, like his millions of fans around the world, Ali didn’t want the ride to end, and so he stuck around too long and came back too much.

Sadly, the feud with Frazier simmered on, long after both men had finally said goodbye to the ring. After all the punches that Ali landed upon Frazier in their three fights against each other, it was the words that he landed upon Joe that hurt the most. They had the deepest and most lasting effect. Despite efforts by Ali to apologize for some of the things that he said about Frazier and called Frazier, during the height of their rivalry, ‘Smoking’ Joe remained bitter towards Ali until his death in 2011.

It is an unfortunate postscript to a great fight. Sometimes life is not as forgiving as we would like it to be, and wounds collected in the ring can remain with a fighter for the rest of his lifetime. Ali and Frazier created something special with their trilogy, something that will endure perhaps even beyond the survival of the sport from which it emerged. They created something that will endure, but they also lost some parts of themselves along the way.  Perhaps that is the price of greatness.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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1 comment:

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