Forty years ago today in the Philippines, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier took part in the greatest heavyweight title fight of all time, the famed “Thrilla in Manila.” I sometimes refer to this bout as the perfect archetypal heavyweight clash. When a boxing movie tries to present a great, dramatic heavyweight war, this is their blue print.
It was the third meeting between the two legendary rivals, and the build-up for this one lacked the kind of all-consuming attention their first clash received. In 1971, they had met for the first time, both undefeated, heavyweight champions. Ali was recently returned from his three-year exile for resisting the draft. Frazier had emerged in his place to claim the vacated belts. When they met in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, the fights was seen as a stand-in for the great social upheavals that were transforming the nation. Ali was the hero of the anti-war and civil rights movements. However unfairly, Frazier was cast as the establishment’s champion. In the fight itself, Frazier turned in the greatest single performance of his career, dropping Ali with a crushing lead hook at the start of Round 15, to lock up the unanimous decision.
But Frazier had lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman in Jamaica in 1973. Big George had walked through Frazier, dropping him six times in the first two rounds, before winning by TKO.
Foreman had appeared invincible. But after Ali beat Frazier in a January 1974 rematch, he shocked the world by traveling to Zaire and defeating Foreman via Round 8 KO. The stage was set for a rubber match with Frazier.
In order to accommodate international audiences, the fight was held at 10 a.m. local time in Manila. This caused absolutely brutal conditions in the ring. The mid-morning sun combined with the damp moisture still hanging in the air from the night before, creating a steam room inside the squared circle. The stadium had an aluminum roof and the television lights only added to the heat. Estimates for ringside temperature were as high as 120 degree.
It might have been less than ideal conditions for a prize fight, but it’s not for nothing that Ali and Frazier are legends. Ali won the early rounds, boxing at a distance behind his jab, hammering Frazier’s eyes. But by the middle rounds, Frazier had managed to find the rhythm for his bob-and-weave style, allowing him to explode into range and hammer at Ali’s body with brutal hooks. The rope-a-dope technique that had allowed Ali to roll and slip punches from Foreman merely provided Frazier for the ideal conditions to maul Ali on the inside with hooks, uppercuts and short overhand rights.
The fight turned into an all-out war of attrition, with both men throwing everything they had at each other and taking it all in return. Prior to David Tua vs. Ike Ibeabuchi, it was the busiest heavyweight fight of all time. The decisive moment was Round 13, when Ali managed to knock Frazier’s gum shield flying from his mouth, then follow up with a barrage of straight right hands.
Frazier was fighting blind by Round 14, with both eyes swollen nearly shut from the hundreds of punches he had absorbed. He made one last, valiant stand and then his trainer, Eddie Futch, forced him to quit in his corner before the 15th and final round, rather than stumble out for a final three minutes of cruel punishment.
When the stoppage was announced, Ali was still sitting on his stool in his corner. He exploded to his feet, arms held high, then immediately collapsed back onto his stool and had to be helped from the ring and back to his dressing room. He later said it was the closest to death he had ever come.