Fight of the year 1975 (40 years ago) – Part 2
By Gav Duthie: “It’ll be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manilla.” In 1975 Muhammad Ali 48-2 (35) was back on top of the world after dethroning (in his words) “A big ugly monster that nobody else could beat” in reference to George Foreman. At 32 years of age Ali was the undisputed champion and heavyweight king almost exactly 10 years after he shocked the world beating Sonny Liston.
The only thing left to supplement his legacy was the rubber matches against the only two men to have beaten him in Ken Norton and his bitter rival ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier 32-2 (27). Enter ‘The thriller in Manilla’ the third and final fight between Ali and Frazier, one of the most brutal contests in the history of boxing and Ring Magazines fight of the year in 1975.
It is also one of my all time favorites. It was a fight with such intensity and quality which took both men to the brink. Both men really left as winners, in hindsight both were losers also as there careers and lives thereafter were never the same.
A heated rivalry
“Joe is so ugly…..every time he cried, the tears would stop, turn around and go down the back of his head.” This was Ali’s way, he pioneered psychological warfare in boxing with his poems, slurs and disrespect. He did it with everybody but with Joe it was a bit different. He said Frazier was everything that was wrong in boxing. An Uncle Tom meaning just going along with the establishment and white supremacy. Ali said Frazier was worse than the white man, he did nothing for black boxers. Joe took the criticism to heart and some say even to his grave. Ali said he loved Joe but there were a lot of wounds there for Frazier.
Before their first fight it was different. Joe was coming through the ranks and got himself to #1 contender when Ali 31-0 (25) was banned from boxing for three years in his prime aged 25 for not accepting his draft into the war against Vietnam. In Ali’s absence Frazier cleaned up the division. He took Ali’s vacant WBC title and the WBA when he destroyed Jimmy Ellis. Frazier once said of Ellis, who was an Ali stable mate “Ellis is a great thinking fighter, and when he’s thinking I’m hitting him.” Frazier was 26-0 (23) but few saw him as the real champ with Ali being away. Frazier was an active campaigner in the battle to reinstate Ali and helped out the former champ anyway he could during his hiatus.
Barring the Uncle Tom jibes the pre-fight banter for the first fight was relatively lighthearted. It was dubbed ‘The fight of the century’ but in reality Ali took it too early. Frazier was all over him from round 1 and Ali did little to discourage him. Joe scored a knockdown in the 15th to cap off a fine performance. The bout was competitive but we were in no doubt of the winner, Frazier.
By the time of their second bout both were on the comeback trail. Ali had lost to Norton and Frazier was destroyed by Foreman. They were on the floor grappling during a talk show and the animosity had intensified. This fight is by far the poorest of the three with Ali leveling via 12 round unanimous decision. The only fight controversy was when Ali had Frazier hurt in round 2 the bell rang 25 seconds before the end of the round.
As aforementioned Ali then went on to beat Foreman in Zaire which set up the rubber match with ‘Smokin Joe’.
Ali clearly felt getting under Joe’s skin was the best policy. This is exactly what he did with Foreman. Muhammad felt an angry fighter doesn’t think straight and makes mistakes. Frazier’s stamina was much greater than Foreman’s however and he knew not to look for just one punch against Ali. Frazier trained away from Manilla and the spotlight and was 100% focused in putting Ali in his place. Frazier’s determination was unwavering so the aging Ali was never going to get away with the rope-a-dope like he did with George Foreman.
Ali took every opportunity to belittle Joe taking a small gorilla toy to a press conference and punching a bigger one during a press sparring session. This obviously referred to Joe’s appearance and had racial connotations. Many were bewildered by Ali’s comments as they should have both been seen as similar success stories. Breaking away from their supposed limitations as black fighters, Olympic and World champions. All Ali achieved was to make Joe the most focused than he had ever been.
The in ring temperature was 49 degrees celcius which makes what these two did in the ring even more amazing. The fight took place at 10am local time in Manilla, Philippines to accommodate American TV. This contributed to the debilitating early morning weather but it made little difference to the fighting intensity. Much like the start of the Foreman fight Ali was on his toes the first couple of rounds, using combinations and holding the centre of the ring. Again as in the Foreman fight by the third Ali began to rope-a-dope to save his older legs. Frazier had arthritic problems in his elbow so needed Ali to stop moving so he could get in close. Frazier was much more adept to hunting Ali than Foreman was and for the first time in the three fights was landing good right hand punches. With Ali needing to concentrate on defending right hands and body shots it allowed Frazier to land his signature punch his left hook to the head in the 5th. Ali was throwing hurtful shots when he could but he was irregular with his work. The strategy clearly wasn’t working this time with Frazier landing a huge left in the sixth. Angelo Dundee implored Ali to get off the ropes and he did to win the seventh and much of the 8th. Frazier had backed Ali up again by the end of the 8th though.
At the end of the ninth Ali told his corner “This is the closest I’ve ever been to dying”. Frazier was also struggling but mostly with his vision. Frazier was nearly blind in his left eye from a training incident many years before. Today one might find their license revoked with such an injury but Ali was causing damage to Fraziers right eye also. Frazier admitted the reason he was taking so many shots was because he couldn’t see them coming. In the 14th round an Ali shot knocked out Fraziers gum shield giving him adrenaline not seen before in the entire fight. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at Frazier but Joe finished the round on his feet. It was too much for his trainer Eddie Futch though and he pulled his man out at the end of the round. Frazier didn’t want to stop but was told “It’s all over. But no one will forget what you did here today.” (Eddie Futch). What the Frazier corner didn’t know was that Ali had expended so much energy in the attack that he also wanted to pull out. He instructed the corner to cut his gloves, a command which they ignored. Frazier landed 440 punches during the fight and still didn’t get the win. He gave everything he could. After a brief celebration Ali slumped to his corner as he was finished.
Frazier only fought twice more after the Ali bout. He was again knocked out by Foreman in 5 rounds and had a comeback draw 5 years later against Floyd Cummings. Ali fought another 10 times but he was never the same. Before he lost his title to Leon Spinks many felt he had a gift decision against Jimmy Young and few could believe he got the nod over Ken Norton in their rubber match. Towards the end he was just fighting for the money. Frazier blamed Ali for tarnishing his image and as a result didn’t get the same opportunities for endorsements like Foreman (Grill) Ali (Adidas). Ali on the other hand had a lot of love for Frazier after their rivalry reflecting “Joe Frazier is a good man, and I couldn’t have done what I did without him, and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. And if god ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”
In Joe’s life after boxing he lived in a modest apartment above a boxing gym which he opened for the rest of his days. Frazier died on November 7, 2011 after being diagnosed with liver cancer only two months earlier. Despite his own ill health Ali did appear at the funeral. Ali has had another couple of health scares recently but continues to fight his Parkinsons disease which has taken so much from him.
Ali and Frazier is still considered one of the biggest rivalries of all time and their third fight will show you everything you need to know about them. True boxing legends.
Part 3 will be available soon – The greatest 3 rounds in boxing history in the 1985 fight of the year between ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler and Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns.
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