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The Thrilla in Manila

Ben Blackmore
November 10, 2011
The Thrilla in Manila

On Monday November 7, 2011 the life of a fantastic boxer and hugely respected man came to an end when Joe Frazier lost his battle with cancer. However, his memory will forever be immortalised in the legacy that he left on the sport of boxing, most notably in two fights with the widely acclaimed "Greatest", Muhammad Ali. The "Fight of the Century" in 1971 was arguably Frazier's favourite, due to the fact it went in his favour, but the "Thrilla in Manila" - in the eyes of many - defined his impact on a sport that has never had it so good.

In one corner sat Frazier, almost blind in both eyes, pleading with trainer Eddie Futch not to throw in the towel. In the other was Angelo Dundee, reaching for his own piece of cotton to end Ali's misery in the face of what surely qualified as human torture. Futch was the man to get the referee's attention ahead of Dundee, retiring Frazier just a handful of seconds too early to unwittingly give victory to Ali who, as a wrecked shell of a human being, could barely acknowledge his triumph.

Every part of it sounds like the script from a Rocky movie, but to give credence to the comparison would be to stain the incredible memory of the "Thrilla in Manila".

For 14 brutal but utterly enthralling rounds Ali and Frazier used their bodies as props to entertain a global audience, absorbing such punishment that it left Ali to question why either man kept coming forward. "It takes so much out of you mentally," said the man known as the Louisville Lip. "It changes you. It makes you a little insane. I was thinking, 'What am I doing here with this beast of a man?' I must be crazy."

Perhaps then it was fitting that, given the fact both men were pain-saturated pawns for public titillation, even the decision to end the fight did not belong to them.

The "Thrilla in Manila" acted as the final chapter of a hate-fuelled trilogy. Frazier won the first in 1971, landing one of the all-time great left hooks to break Ali's jaw in a bout dubbed the "Fight of the Century". Ali then gained revenge in a less-enthralling contest in 1974, so this was the decider.

The hatred was grounded in politics and race, but undoubtedly sparked by Ali who "betrayed" a friend in the eyes of Frazier. Ali had seen his heavyweight title and boxing licence stripped after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, a decision Frazier publicly supported on several occasions - even petitioning for the return of Ali's licence. However, when Ali was allowed back into the boxing fraternity three years later, he turned on Frazier who was backed by a group of white businessmen. Frazier had betrayed the black community according to Ali, words that acted as an overdose of anger applied to the Frazier veins, and so the trilogy began.

Muhammad Ali spent plenty of time forced against the ropes by the relentless pressure of Joe Frazier in Manila © PA Photos
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Ali was confident, but then Ali was always confident. This time, though, he was largely understood to be on dangerous grounds of self-assured arrogance. Ali's theory was that, after his initial loss to Frazier, Smokin' Joe was now on the decline after a bad loss to George Foreman - followed by a subsequent defeat to Ali in their rematch. Training, it was reported, came a distant second to the wining and dining of Ali's female interest, Veronica Porsche, ahead of the showdown in Quazon City, just outside the capital of the Philippines.

Always the charmer, it seemed on this occasion Ali's charisma was being directed in the wrong direction.

The first signs of trouble were witnessed by Ali's physician and cornerman Ferdie Pacheco, who quickly established that Frazier was not the washed-up boxer that Foreman had made him look. Far from being a man looking for a payday, he was turning his punchbag into the raggedy carcass that Ali would later resemble.

Those same punches would later prompt Ali to describe his clash with Frazier as "the closest thing to dying I know of". The irony of those words, given Ali's refusal to enter the war, was lost on very few.

Even the time of the fight, 10.45am to suit international audiences, should have acted as a warning to both men that they were about to take part in a contest that was for everybody's benefit other than their own. The next 42 minutes would change Ali and Frazier as individuals, it would change their relationship, and it would leave a lasting impact on boxing - setting a standard to which the sport still strives to reach to this very day.

Ali's swagger from the opening bell was mesmeric, snapping back the head of his foe with left-right combinations before rocking him against the ropes. It seemed Ali knew better than Pacheco; Frazier appeared a yard off the pace and there for the taking.

However, if one round encapsulated the entire spirit of the fight and acted as the synopsis for its 13 counterparts, it was the third. That was the round Ali knew he was in a fight. Having pressured the champion in the second, Frazier pounded away at Ali's body in the third, eating a series of combinations for his troubles before - in a rare show of abandon from two such elite fighters - the pair swung for the rafters for a 20-second period that almost brought the Coliseum to its foundations.

Had the momentum swung Frazier's way? Rounds four, five and six all saw Ali backed into the ropes - the single place he could not afford to be as Frazier attacked the ribs like a meat grinder. Even the mouthpiece of Ali could not contain itself as it flew from his mouth. "I hit him with punches that would have knocked a building down," recalled Frazier. "He took them and came back."

Frazier took some brutal punishment from the champion © PA Photos
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Ali needed to react, and his answer was to slow the pace of the fight, picking his foe off as Frazier came forward. Now it was Frazier covering up for the first time since the first round, and by the 10th it was becoming a real clash of styles. Ali danced, pounced and toyed with angles, while Frazier acted as the human version of sinking sand, continuously attempting to drag his opponent into trench warfare.

With Frazier unable to see out of one eye due to heavy swelling and rapidly losing vision out of the other, even the neutral - for all the drama - began to wonder if the fight should be stopped. One can only imagine how the respective corners tortured themselves with the idea of protecting their gladiators, at the risk of lifelong disdain from fighter and public alike.

Ali began to pour it on, finding a home for the right hand - aided by the fact Frazier could barely see it coming. The battle-weary duo returned to their stools one final time, anticipating the 15th and final round, but Futch and Dundee had seen enough. Futch was quicker to the draw, but in this shootout that meant defeat.

Fortunately for Futch, he was far more auspicious with his sense of occasion than with his timing. Consoling a devastated Frazier, the trainer uttered the legendary words: "Sit down son, it's all over but no one will ever forget what you did here today."

Having hammered his rival with 440 punches, Frazier had gained the respect of Ali, who recognised that he could not possibly have gone on to be considered the greatest of all time without an accomplice. "I couldn't have done what I did without him and what he did without me," acknowledged Ali, who also took time out to put an arm around Frazier's 14-year-old son, Marvis, saying: "Stop crying - your father is a great man.

"Joe Frazier is the greatest fighter of all time next to me. That's one hell of a man."

One hell of a man indeed.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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