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Thrilla in Manila

Inside dope on one of the greatest, most compellingly brutal fights of all time.

Did Muhammad Ali ever give any compliments to his opponents?
Ali on Joe Frazier, the morning after their brutal third fight – the Thrilla in Manila, which brought down the curtain on a legendary trilogy

“I heard somethin’ once. When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doin’ this?’ You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ in here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”

Well, good for both of ‘em, then. Next question:

Did Muhammad Ali really consider himself the greatest?
Yes…with reason. He took the title from arguably the second greatest heavyweight ever, won it a second time against an all time top ten heavyweight champion and then defend(ed) the title in the golden era of the heavyweight.

He beat Sonny Liston…twice

He beat Joe Frazier…twice

He beat Ken Norton…twice

He beat Floyd Patterson…twice

He beat George Foreman

He beat Ernie Shavers

He beat Ron Lyle

He best Jimmy Young

He beat Jimmy Ellis

He beat Jimmy Quarry

He beat Bob Foster, the best light heavyweight of his day.

He beat Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Henry Cooper, Buster Mathis…he beat the great, he beat the damn near great, and he beat the very, very good.

He beat five world heavyweight champions (Liston, Patterson, Frazier, Foreman, and Norton) and he beat an undisputed light heavyweight champion (Bob Foster).

It was the Golden Era of the Heavyweights and he was King of the Hill.

Damn right he thought he was the best…so did they!!!

Just about any serious boxing fan would agree that if Ali wasn’t, as he loved to boast, “the greatess of all times,” then he was certainly well in the running. His balance, agility, and footwork; his ability to take punch after punch and still keep coming at you; the awesome power behind his own punches; his ability to intelligently strategize, to get inside the head of his opponents and manipulate their emotions to their own great detriment; there’s really never been anyone quite like him, with the arguable exception of Iron Mike Tyson—who, in addition to being an absolutely vicious, relentless opponent, was also a marvelously-talented boxer in his own right.

Ali also had a near-uncanny ability to get the spotlight focused tightly on him and keep it there, a star-quality that simply would not be denied, and is nowhere to be found in professional boxing today.

From the TiM Wiki entry:

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier lll, billed as the “Thrilla in Manila”, was the third and final boxing match between WBA and WBC heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier, for the heavyweight championship of the world. The bout was conceded after fourteen rounds on October 1, 1975, at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines, located in Metro Manila. The venue was temporarily renamed as the “Philippine Coliseum” for this match. Ali won by corner retirement (RTD) after Frazier’s chief second, Eddie Futch, asked the referee to stop the fight after the 14th round. The contest’s name is derived from Ali’s rhyming boast that the fight would be “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila.”

The bout is almost universally regarded as one of the best and most brutal fights in boxing history, and was the culmination of a three-bout rivalry between the two fighters that Ali won, 2–1. Some sources estimate the fight was watched by 1 billion viewers, including 100 million viewers watching the fight on closed-circuit theatre television, and 500,000 pay-per-view buys on HBO home cable television.

The first bout between Frazier and Ali–– promoted as the “Fight of the Century”–– took place on March 8, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Frazier was the undefeated champion and won by unanimous decision over the previously undefeated former champion Ali, who had been stripped of his titles for refusing to enter the draft for the Vietnam War.

Their showdown was a fast-paced, 15-round bout, with Frazier scoring the fight’s (and the trilogy’s) only knockdown, at the beginning of the final round.

When the rivals met in a January 1974 rematch, neither was champion; Frazier had suffered a stunning second-round knockout by George Foreman a year earlier,

Yeah, I just bet it was stunning at that. Anytime George Foreman landed one of those almighty bricks of his upside an opponent’s poor noggin, “stunning” would definitely have been the mot juste to describe the horrific experience. Onwards.

and Ali had two controversial split bouts with Ken Norton. In a promotional appearance before the second fight, the two had scuffled in an ABC studio during an interview segment with Howard Cosell.

There were controversial aspects to the fight. In the second round, Ali struck Frazier with a hard right hand, which backed him up. Referee Tony Perez stepped between the fighters, signifying the end of the round, even though there were about 25 seconds left. In so doing, he gave Frazier time to regain his bearings and continue fighting. Perez also failed to contain Ali’s tactic of illegally holding and pulling down his opponent’s neck in the clinches, which helped Ali to smother Frazier, and gain the 12-round decision. This became a major issue in selecting the referee for the Manila bout.

Ahh, those wonderful old verbal slugfests between Ali and Cosell—truly classic stuff, they were, and wildly entertaining, as Ali himself always was, both inside the squared circle and out of it.

When Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali were in a room together the two mega personalities produced countless magical television moments. The men constantly teased one another and often pretended to spar while wearing suits and ties, as The New York Times notes.

In one memorable moment, Ali threatened to pull off Cosell’s toupee. Another time, Ali was quoted as saying “Every time you open your mouth, you should be arrested for air pollution” to which Cosell responded “You would still be in impoverished anonymity in this country if I hadn’t made you.”

Still another time, Ali pretended to threaten Cosell. The sportscaster responded teasingly “Don’t touch me. I’ll beat your brains out,” via USA Today. The verbal sparring delighted audiences and boosted TV ratings. And, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant described their back and forth as symbiotic. He said the boxer wasn’t threatened by Cosell and that Cosell realized how Ali was a one-of-a-kind athlete.

Howard Cosell’s daughter Jill told USA Today that her father never imagined the back and forth between the two men would become a sort of comic routine. She described Ali as funny, charming, handsome, and with a “big mouth.” She said Ali trusted her dad and that over the years their relationship developed into friendship.

While good-natured back and forth was so much of the men’s public persona, below the surface grew a deeper bond. After Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, Cosell acknowledged the change while many others resisted. Cosell also defended Ali from critics when Ali refused to be inducted into the military over religious beliefs, via USA Today.

Cosell died in 1995 at the age of 77. His daughter Jill says Ali sat next to her at her father’s service with tears streaming down his face during the eulogy. And then, in June of 2016, Muhammad Ali died. The three-time heavyweight champion is considered by many to be one of the greatest boxers to ever enter the ring.

Another magical Ali moment came in 1996, when The Greatest sat down with Ed Bradley to be interviewed for 60 Minutes, a moment I well remember seeing when it originally aired.

Muhammad Ali’s tragic decline was already well underway by the time of the Bradley interview, as was heartbreakingly obvious in the unexpurgated broadcast version I watched back in ’96. When I found this the other day, it was the first time I’d seen it since then, but over lo, these many, many years I never have forgotten it. If you’ve never before seen the Thrilla in Manilla, the entire 14-round fight (an hour and twelve minutes) is available on YouTube. For any fan of the Sweet Science, it’s a must-see.


4 thoughts on “Thrilla in Manila

  1. Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of this or any era, but that’s only the part of the iceberg above water.

    He transcended his sport, and transcended all sports, and crossed over into the rarified air where sits the realm of cultural icons.

    In his youth, when everyone told him it would destroy him and his career, he told LBJ in no uncertain terms, “Hell no, I won’t go!“, took his lumps, did his jail time, and then came back and accomplished the greatest triumphs the sport had ever seen, and that was only the start.

    Even in his dotage, near the end of his days, the mind inside the man was razor sharp. When some journalist, after an interview, mock-squared off with the champ long after Parkinson’s had silenced the Mouth That Roared, as if a bell had been rung Ali’s guard came up bare-knuckled, he took a stance, and I watched him drop forty years in the span of a blink, and you knew in less than the twinkling of an eye he would still have put his man down, as ever was.

    I saw in person a gutted former city jail turned boxing gym he visited once, having paid for much of it to happen out of his own pocket, where kids not even born when he was in his prime had painted a mural montage of The Greatest, and saw where Ali had signed it himself:
    The good deeds we do on earth are the rent we pay on that mansion waiting for us in heaven.” His bill was paid in full, many times over.

    Muhammad Ali Funeral | Billy Crystal Imitates Ali – YouTube

  2. It’s rare that men choose a sport best suited to their individual physical and mental skill set. Ali is one of those. Jordan is another one.

  3. Many years ago, watching a documentary on the greatest. They showed that his jab was completed in three frames of video, and whoever the one he was comparing it to, I believe Sonny Liston, but I’m not sure, could only achieve it in four frames. That’s 25% faster and why he is the greatest of all time.

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