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A second look: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the brutality of “The Thrilla in Manila”

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By John J. Raspanti 


"I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him".

 

Muhammad Ali

 

"Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city."

 

Joe Frazier

 

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The third fight between Muhammad Ali and “Smokin” Joe Frazier, which took place a little over 40 years ago at the Araneta Coliseum in the Manila, 

 Philippines wasn’t expected to be what it ultimately was—a battle of incredible will, skill, and determination.

 

Their fight match on March 8, 1971 at the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City, was aptly called “The Fight of the Century.”


It lived up to its billing.

 

Both men were undefeated. Frazier was recognized by most as the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali had been stripped of his title and his boxing license suspended, after he had refused to be inducted into the United States Army in 1967.

 

The hype was huge. The world literally stopped when the two warriors stepped into the ring.

 

The quicker Ali got off to a fast start that night. His jab was clicking—as were his combinations. Frazier took the blows and handed out his own punishment. His constant pressure and vaunted left hook wore Ali down.  He punctuated his victory by flooring Ali in the last round. Somehow, Ali got up and finished the fight, but there was no doubt who won.

 

Ali wanted a rematch right away, but it took three years for the two combatants to meet again. The venue was once again Madison Square Garden, but some things had changed.

 

Frazier was no longer heavyweight champion, having been brutalized by George Foreman the year before. Ali had split two fights with Ken Norton. He desperately wanted a shot at Foreman. To get it, he needed to beat Frazier.

 

The rematch took place on January 28, 1974. Ali used the ring and boxed his way to a hard-fought 12-round unanimous decision. He came close to stopping Frazier in Round two, but referee Tony Perez and stopped the action after believing he heard the bell ending the round.  Six months later, Ali, a big underdog, met the invincible Foreman in Kinshasa, Africa. 

 

Ali fought on even turns with Foreman while absorbing tremendous punishment. But in Round eight, he bounced off the ropes and let fly with a combination that sent Foreman tumbling to the canvas.

 

Foreman struggled to get up, but couldn’t beat the count. Ali had done the impossible for the second time in his career. In 1964, he had shocked the world and Sonny Liston; ten years later it was Foreman.  

 

While Ali was once again the world champion, Frazier was considered by many to be a shot fighter.  Seven months before his third fight with Ali, Frazier stopped Jimmy Ellis. His performance was called spotty. Ali was having fun being champion again. He successfully defended his title three times in 1975.

 

Many figured that Act III in the Ali and Frazier series might be a one-sided affair, but there were factors lurking under the surface.

 

Ali was 33 years old while Frazier was a year younger. Ali couldn’t move like he once had. It didn’t help that he weighed in at 224 ½ pounds, by far the heaviest of his career. There were rumors that marital strife had affected his training.   

 

Still, as October 1, 1975 drew near, Ali was favored to beat Frazier for the second time. Reports indicated that he bought into the speculation that Frazier was finished.    

 

Frazier had other ideas. Ali’s constant taunting ("It will be a killa’ and a thrilla’ and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila") had created a fighter driven by bitterness and hatred. Frazier had something to prove. He’d take it out on Ali’s hide.

 

Ali’s plan was to go for an early knockout. Frazier’s strategy was work the body. The temperature inside the arena was estimated to be over 100 degrees. That’s not counting the heavy-duty lights bearing down on the ring. The heat was stifling.    

 

Both fighters jawed at each other before the opening bell.  

 

Ali, as he had done in the first two fights, opened fast. He pumped annoying jabs in Frazier’s face—while moving slightly to his left.  Frazier chased after his nemesis with a smile on his face, but his “smoke hadn’t caught fire yet.  A minute into the stanza, Ali began to open up. A number of combinations connected. Near the end of the round, Ali caught Frazier with a double-left hook to the head. The former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world wobbled. Ali’s eyes widened.  He pounced on Frazier and let fly with combinations. Frazier tried to duck and roll with the blows, but many landed.  Both fighters connected with right hands. Frazier dinged Ali’s hip with a wicked left hook, before patting Ali on the rump when the round ended.

 

Being hurt in a fight was nothing new to Frazier. Ali had buzzed him in their rematch. On September 21, 1967, Oscar Bonavena floored Frazier twice in the second round, but Frazier got up and won the match. One could never underestimate “Smokin Joe.”

 

 If you hurt him, you better get him out of there.

 

Ali tried but couldn’t.

 

He continued to be the busier fighter in round two. Frazier found some success with body shots. Ali jumped in and landed a wicked one-two to the chin. Frazier grinned and pumped two hard hooks to the ribs while Ali countered with a lead right hand.  A few seconds later, a short jolting hook found Frazier.  Ali connected with a right as Frazier, undeterred, worked his way under the champion’s arms. Leaning into Ali, Frazier went to the body like an ax man trying to fell a tree. He also connected with his patented left hook to Ali’s chin. Ali landed two right hands to the head as the round ended.

 

Ali used his left hand as a range finder in Round three.  He was trying to time Frazier’s bobbing with right hands down the pipe.  Ali tapped Frazier on the side of head and clobbered him with a sweeping left. He repeated the move a few seconds later. Frazier found Ali with another hook to the head. Ali fought back.

 

Frazier wasn’t smiling anymore, but he seemed to be warming up. Ali still wasn’t moving much. He was beating Frazier to the punch, but taking a battering to the ribs and midsection. Frazier probably figured he had Ali right where he wanted him.

 

Ali tried the “Rope--a-dope” in the last minute of the round. He had improvised the maneuver against Foreman the year before, leaning against the ropes with his gloves protecting his chin.  

 

Frazier unleashed a solid uppercut and more blows to Ali’s side. Ali, likely feeling some of Frazier body punches, suddenly opened up with short uppercuts and right hands.  He clobbered Frazier who fought back with a long left hook. Ali ignored the shot and let his hands go at the bell.

 

Frazier forced Ali into the ropes and did some good work in round four. Ali got off the ropes and stung Frazier with sharp blows. If he could stay off the ropes the fight could be his. Frazier needed him to stay still, but Ali was constantly beating him to the punch. He was sharpshooting like a gunfighter. Frazier, constantly in motion, walked after him.

 

Ali connected with another sneaky right hand. Frazier absorbed the blow.  After the round ended, Ali slumped on his stool. He was breathing heavily, but stood up and pumped his right glove as the crowd chanted, "Ali, Ali. Ali”

 

In Round five, Frazier picked up the pace.  He dug a left to the gut. Ali countered with a right, but Frazier fought back.  Ali couldn’t miss with his lead right. Frazier connected with a left to the body and a right to the side of the head. Ali leaned against the ropes, and after referee Carlos Padilla broke the fighters, he motioned to Frazier to come back and fight. Frazier happily obliged.  Ali opened with up with short jolting bows, but Frazier whacked him with a hard left hook. Seconds later another Frazier hook brought the crowd to their feet.  Ali stepped in with a combination, pushing Frazier away.

 

It was obvious that Frazier was no rope-a-dope.

 

Ali started fast in round six. He connected with a combination, but Frazier bent down and let fly with his artful left hook. It landed squarely on Ali’s chin. The punch would have knocked out most heavyweights.  Ali leaned forward for a few seconds and was soon firing his own blows, but Frazier had found his rhythm. All the hate and anger he had built against Ali was coming out in his blows, especially his left hand. Ali had used the ring and boxed in the rematch the year before. This night, he was standing right in front of Frazier and trading blows. Not the smartest strategy when your opponent can punch as hard as Frazier. Ali also missed a lot of shots in the previous round. He finally got up on his toes with a minute to go in the stanza. Frazier grunted as he fired wicked shots to Ali’s kidneys.  A right hand surprised Ali.

 

Frazier popped up to begin round seven. Ali started to dance, but a good right hand stopped him in his tracks.

 

"Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up," Ali reportedly said to Frazier.

 

"Somebody told you all wrong, pretty boy,” replied Frazier.

 

Ali got back up onhis toes and popped his jab—followed by a right hand. Both punches connected. Ali moved to his left and slashed Frazier with blows, landing two lead rights. The defending champion was coming back. Frazier bobbed and weaved, working his way inside.

 

Ali grabbed Frazier behind the head and waited for Padilla to separate them. The move was effective, but basically illegal. The tactic helped Ali slow Frazier down. Ali jabbed and moved—as Frazier pursued him.  His quicker hands paid dividends in the round. Frazier was eating three punches to land one. Ali landed a jarring uppercut just before the bell.

 

Ali connected with a good right on Frazier in Round 8. He has back to standing his ground and pot-shotting. A three-punch combo connected. Frazier fired back. With his back to the ropes, Ali opened up with his own left—strafing Frazier. His right hand followed.

 

Frazier missed a wild punch—which seemed to inspire Ali to unload on his off-balance opponent. Frazier wobbled—but punched back. Ali looked tired and Frazier, though taking some heavy blows, clocked the champion with shots to the noggin.

 

In Round 9, Ali went back to boxing. He bounced and jabbed—while Frazier bobbed and weaved. Frazier continued to rip to the body.  Ali snapped off the old one-two. Frazier doubled up his hook.   

 

Ali met Frazier in the center of the ring in Round 10 and set his feet.  No “floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee." Just flat out punching.

 

The fight was like a rollercoaster ride.

 

Ali landed two jolting left hooks that sent Frazier slightly sideways. 

 

Frazier forced Ali into the ropes. This was where he did his best work. Frazier’s closest friends knew the former champion was virtually blind in his left eye. Keeping Ali close was his best chance to inflict more damage. Ali pushed him away and fired combinations. Many landed. Frazier went back to the body. Both fighters landed good shots, though Frazier’s punches were harder.  

 

Ali found some energy to bounce out of his corner in Round 11. He snapped Frazier’s head back with a left-right. Frazier made him pay for his insolence by connecting with a hook. Ali stuck out his left and then snapped off a right—followed by a short left hand.

 

Frazier stuck close, eating more punches.  When Ali stopped punching, Frazier began to tee off.  He did fine until Ali suddenly started punching back. It was if Ali had a bottomless well of energy. Punch after punch landed. Frazier, unbowed, fought on.

 

The defending champion resumed punching in Round 12. He landed heavy shots to Frazier’s head. For the first time, Frazier looked tired, but still found the strength to dig shots to his opponent’s midsection. Ali spent most of the round with his back to the ropes. Frazier was bleeding from a cut inside his mouth.

Round 13 proved unlucky for Frazier. Ali continued to tag Frazier’s face with stinging combinations. He had taken over the fight by the sheer volume of punches. Ali punched and moved away. His lead right couldn’t miss. With a minute and fifty-six seconds to go in the round, one of those slashing Ali right hands knocked Frazier’s mouthpiece into the crowd. 

 

Ali followed up with a jarring left that turned Frazier. The former champ looked hurt. Ali snapped his head back with more blows.  A combination staggered Frazier.  Two left hands and a right soon followed as Frazier bled from the mouth and both of his eyes drew shut.

 

Still there was no quit in the proud former champion.

 

The match had turned into a war of attrition. Both fighters had absorbed an incredible amount of punishment. Supporters for both men were worried that someone could die.

 

Ali remarked after the fight that it was the closest thing to death he’d ever known.

 

Neither man would quit. Round 14 started slowly. A little over a minute in, Ali fired his right. It connected. Frazier’s punches had lost their snap.  

 

Ali took advantage-- uncorking a wicked combination.  Frazier wobbled back against the ropes. He looked ready to go. Ali stunned him again with deadly shots, but Frazier wouldn’t go down.   A four-punch combo connected on Frazier’s bloodied face. Still he absorbed the onslaught, but trainer Eddie Futch had seen enough. He looked into Frazier’s eyes and told him he couldn’t go on. Frazier protested, but Futch wouldn’t budge. One more round was too risky.

 

On the other side of the ring, Ali raised his right arm in victory. Then he collapsed on his stool, spent.   

 

Both fighters had taken each to places neither had ever been. The physical damage they inflicted was deep--and lasting.

 

Frazier fought two more times before finally retiring in 1981.

 

Ali marched on, though it was obvious to most he was only a shadow of his former self.

 

Their battle in Manila is universally recognized as one of the greatest fights in boxing history.



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