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The Thrilla in Manila – Did anybody really win?

By John F. McKenna (McJack): With the recent passing of Philadelphia’s great former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier it brought back the classic 3rd fight in the Trilogy between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

The fight reopens the raw emotions that prevailed during that famous fight which occurred in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975 in Manila. As today’s boxing fans can attest, very few fights live up to the hype. “The Thrilla in Manila” was the exception.

Very few boxing fans thought that Frazier had enough left in the tank to pose any major problems for Ali. He had been easily KO’d by the ponderous George Foreman who was possibly the most powerful of all heavyweight champions. Ali believed himself that Frazer was not the fighter he had been in their first encounter in March 1971 and planned to go for an early knockout.

In the lead up to what became perhaps the greatest fight of the modern era Ali continued to bait and taunt Frazier and he introduced race into the contest when he referred to Frazier as an Uncle Tom. In a further effort to humiliate and embarrass his foe Ali used the prop of a little toy gorilla comparing Joe to the gorilla.

Joe was nowhere near as glib as the loquacious Ali and made no effort to retaliate verbally to Ali’s taunts. Instead he seethed with an inner rage determined to do all his talking in the ring where it counted. Compounding Frazier’s rage, was the fact that he had championed Ali’s cause, when he was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the army during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967. Joe in fact fought hard for Ali to get his boxing license back so that he could resume his career claiming Ali had been deprived of his livelihood for standing up for what he believed in. In addition Frazier assisted Ali financially when he had no other money coming in.

It would be an underestimation to say that Smokin’ Joe wanted to hurt Ali in the ring. He wanted to cause Ali the maximum amount of physical pain and inflict bodily damage to him.

Frazier was a notoriously slow starter and the opening rounds of “The Thrilla in Manila” proved to be no exception with Ali doing most of the scoring with his lightning quick combinations and his thudding right hand. Joe however fought with a dogged determination never seen before by his handlers. For the most part Frazier walked through the phalanx of punches being rained on him by Ali. Like Rocky Marciano long before him Joe hit his opponent wherever he could, shoulders, arms deadly shots to the body and an occasional hook to the jaw.

In the 5th round things started going Joe’s way. He lived up to his namesake of Smokin’ Joe, picking up the intensity of his attack with each passing round. Ali could not fend off his attacker as Joe landed body shots that seemingly could knock walls down. Many ringside observers were of the opinion that Ali would not be able to sustain the punishment that was being meted out by Frazier. Smokin’ Joe’s attack continued unabated throughout the middle rounds.

Around the 10th round the ringside heat began to affect both fighters with Frazier’s attack slowly down markedly. Gradually the tide of this epic battle turned again in favor of Ali.
In the 11th and 12th rounds Ali took retook command of the fight as Frazier’s eyes began to close from the effects of the bombardment.

I remember wondering then as I watched this great battle between two titans of the ring what long term effect the punches both fighters were enduring would have on them. Frazier and Ali however were oblivious to that. Seeming at this point of the fight both warriors seemed to be focusing on their fistic legacy. Personal injury was not even part of the equation.

The 13th and 14th rounds were more of the same with Ali maximizing his advantage over Frazier who was now fighting almost blind. When the 14th round ended Frazier’s great trainer Eddie Futch analyzed the situation and did the most painful but necessary thing he had ever done. Much to the chagrin of his charge Joe Frazier, Futch courageously stopped the fight. Futch in an effort to console Joe said: “Son, no one will ever forget what they witnessed hear tonight.”

In the record book Ali went down as the victor, but in reality no one really won on that hot steamy night in Manila. True Frazier’s corner chose to stop the fight at the end of the 14th round. But when Ali stood up to see what was going on he collapsed in the center of the ring. It was rumored at the time that ringsiders heard the great champion imploring Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off. Ali’s body was covered with numerous welts and abrasions.

In the years to follow it became increasingly clear that both fighters had suffered long term repercussions from the effects of “The Thrilla in Manila”.

As a big time fan of Muhammad Ali at the time and to this day it was difficult to watch Smokin’ Joe Frazier as he sat in his corner blind and unable to continue. My heart and the hearts of the friends who witnessed the fight with me went out to Joe. All of us were young at the time and they like me were clearly pulling for Ali to win. But something happened that night. I remember at the time remarking to a friend that nobody really lost that fight. I have been a boxing fan for a very long time, but no fight ever quite measured up to “The Thrilla in Manila” in sheer drama and intensity.

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