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Thrilla in Manila

 

“It was like death,” the champ said. “Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”

There was a lot going on in the lead-up — racial tensions, politics, religious underpinnings and bitter mutual hatred. Ali, who a year before had upset George Foreman in Zaire, was as bombastic as ever, concerningly dismissive of the man who had humbled him four years earlier at Madison Square Garden. Ali had avenged his loss against Frazier in 1974. And by the third fight, everything that Frazier represented personally offended him — his manner of dress, his style of fighting, the way he carried himself as a black man. There was defiance in the air, too. Acknowledging Frazier as a rival meant to assign himself an equal.

 

With Ali, there were no equals.

And for everything that Ali was in style and grace, Frazier was the opposite. He was smoldering determination, antagonistic in his focus. Ali, forever wild-eyed and possessed of his own power, had made Frazier turn inward. For Smokin’ Joe, it was personal. He was determined to stop Ali — whom he called by his birth name, Cassius Clay, refusing to use the Islamic name — or die trying. To Frazier Ali wasn’t a god among men, but the bane of his existence. He was a thing to be destroyed.

When they arrived in Manila, it was hard to tell who had the upper hand psychologically.

Part of Ali’s greatness was his ability — and his willingness — to get the best out of his opponents. It was Ali’s way of making the fight a literal moment of truth. With Frazier in the Philippines, he’d see the best version of Smokin’ Joe that ever stepped in the ring. In turn, Ali would rise to the occasion.

The fight was contested at the sweltering Philippine Coliseum in Quezon City, with ringside temperatures under the lights said to be well over 100 degrees. It was a three-part masterpiece spread over 14 rounds, a story complete with a beginning, a middle and an end. Millions of people shared in the final act of a rivalry that was so bitterly personal that 40 years later it’s hard to quantify just how much was left there in the ring out in Manila.

Today the fight remains of a thing of tragic beauty.

Ali, using his range, slashed the crouching Frazier early with jabs. Frazier, coiled and ready to spring, only smiled. He always started slow. He started slow in the first fight in 1971, yet came on in the middle rounds to win. Ali wasn’t giving him a point on entrance, though — not this time. He was lighting Frazier up, and controlling the fight, despite the Smokin’ Joe’s bullish aggression.

In the third round, Ali backed to the ropes and egged Frazier forward. The “Rope-a-Dope” tactic from the Foreman fight. And just as Frazier got settled into a rhythm of hacking into his sides, Ali returned fire, smooth as music notes coming off the page. It was going to be a fight.

But it was Ali. It was Ali’s fight.

Until the sixth.

Ali hadn’t nearly gotten to the bottom of the man in front of him. Frazier slammed Ali with a left, and later on the ropes hacked away at his body with ferocious blows that left Ali’s wincing. Through Frazier’s own unbendable will, the tide was turning.

It was Frazier, now, as Frazier hadn’t yet begun. Frazier continued to work the body of Ali with heavy shots. He walked through Ali’s return fire, and hewed away at his sides, pressing forward. Inside of Ali’s range it was an intruder at the controls of destiny. Here was Frazier coming to life. He wailed away, round by round, in close, in the middle of Ali, rocking his core. Between the eighth and ninth, Ali looked around like a man who’d just stumbled out of hell. Frazier was relentless. By the tenth, the cruelty of five more rounds gave way to the certainty that something truly historic was about to happen therein. It was Frazier, though. Ali kept dancing, but Frazier was single-minded. He wouldn’t stop. It was Frazier.

Then came the 13th round.

Say what you will about legends, but what Ali did in the 13th round at the “Thrilla in Manila” is why he stands as “The Greatest.” What was it that made Ali great? That there was always more to him; that you could never know his true depths. He could dig deeper, even when it appeared he’d hit bottom. His flare for the dramatic was backed up these supernatural reserves. Ali always had more. He would go too far. He often went too far. Vicariously, people waved their gratitude from the other side of the threshold.

Ali was landing his right in the 13th. Frazier, who dictated the inside just minutes earlier, now ebbed off of his bearings. He was set adrift, as Ali wobbled him time and again. As Frazier dropped his hands, Ali attacked with punches to Frazier’s head. Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut. Frazier couldn’t see, but Frazier wouldn’t stop. Ali connected with a right that sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying out of the ring. A round later, in the 14th, Ali landed a series of unanswered right hands. Frazier would not stand down. He could not see. He swung and missed, his instinct was to headhunt. To obliterate the blur. Ali continued to hammer him.

Between rounds, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, couldn’t stand by any longer and watch his man take the punishment. Frazier pleaded to let him finish, but Futch called the fight. Ali, seeing the referee wave it off, stood unsmiling with his arm in the air. Then he collapsed. He lay on his back. The lights above him shone on his last great moment in the ring.

The “Thrilla in Manila,” an iconic fight between rivals in the golden era of heavyweights, was in the books.

“Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city,” Frazier told the writer Mark Kram in the days afterwards, still unable to see even when the lights were turned on in his hotel room. “Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion.”

Ali, sitting in a suite the morning after the bout, wondered why he put himself through that kind of war. In thinking of his old foe Joe Frazier, he answered his own question.

“What am I doin’ here in against this beast of a man?” he said. “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 you, that’s one hell of a man, and God bless him.”

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