The Myth of “The Thrilla in Manila”
Would we still be lauding this fight in such glowing terms if it was Ali who was not allowed to come out for the 15th round and Frazier was the victor?
“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”—John F. Kennedy
Today is the 37th anniversary of the famous “Thrilla in Manila”—the third and final fight between arch rivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It was on this day in 1975 that Ali retained his heavyweight title with a 14th round TKO of Frazier in Manila, the Philippines.
The platitudes for that fight continue to be repeated so often and with such conviction, in print, television, and on the internet, that people who’ve never seen even one round believe it to be the greatest heavyweight championship match of the twentieth century.
Some have gone so far as to say it was the greatest fight of any weight division in the entire history of the sport! In 1997 The Ring magazine awarded it “Fight of the Century” honors in its all-time ratings. In 1999 ESPN’s Sports Century Series ranked the fight as the fifth greatest sports event of all time! The bandwagon was getting way too crowded. But there was still room for the resident boxing historian of a popular cable TV boxing program (no, not the fellow with hat and cigar) to jump on board. When asked “what fight would you show to a new fan to demonstrate boxing at its very best?” he unhesitatingly answered, “The third Ali vs. Frazier fight….it had everything.”
These extreme statements and honorifics take in a lot of territory, especially when one considers all of the great prizefights that have taken place since the Marquis of Queensberry rules were introduced to boxing over 100 years ago.
I believe there are several reasons why Ali vs. Frazier III continues to maintain its lofty status, while other more deserving fights do not enjoy the same degree of notoriety. We can start with the words “The Thrilla in Manila”. The catchy phrase originated with Ali and appeared on every poster and program, eventually becoming the fight’s permanent identifying label. More than three decades after the fact, even people with absolutely no interest in the sport have a vague recollection that “The Thrilla in Manila” refers to an exciting boxing match that involved Muhammad Ali.
They might also remember that it was a particularly brutal match. But, if you have been around boxing long enough, you know it was no more brutal than countless other professional prizefights.
Now ask yourself this question: What if the fighters involved were not named Ali and Frazier but instead were two heavyweight contenders named “Smith” and “Jones”? Same fight, just different names. Would “The Thrilla” still be remembered today as a great fight?
I believe that anyone who witnessed the first Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott title fight would call it great even if they did not know the names of the fighters. A great fight has to be recognized on its merits alone.
Here is a second point to ponder: Do you think we would still be lauding this fight in such glowing terms if it was Ali who was not allowed to come out for the 15th round and Frazier was the victor?
A Good, Tough Club Fight
To accurately evaluate “The Thrilla in Manila”—based strictly on its merits as a prizefight—is to come to the conclusion that it was no better or worse than a good, tough, club fight. Even from a historical perspective it lacked gravitas. For example, the Johnson vs. Jeffries “White Hope” fight and the second Dempsey vs. Tunney “Long Count” fight were not great but their historical significance to the sport raised them to another level.
I can hear the cries of outrage emanating from the army of Ali loyalists who consider what I have just written as something akin to sacrilege, especially by those fans that came of age during his reign. That is understandable. Strong emotions coupled with blind hero worship and a follow-the-crowd mentality often cloud rational judgments.
But how does one justify naming “The Thrilla in Manila” as one of the greatest fights of the century when it was not even the best fight of the 1970s!
There were at least seven outstanding prizefights in the 1970s that, in my opinion, were better and more interesting than “The Thrilla”. Topping the list is the first Ali vs. Frazier bout that took place four and a half years earlier and was superior in every way. The others were Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Wilfredo Benitez (Welterweight); Carlos Monzon vs. Rodrigo Valdez I (Middleweight); Roberto Duran vs. Esteban De Jesus II (Lightweight); Matthew Franklin vs. Yacqui Lopez I (Light heavyweight); Alexis Arguello vs. Alfredo Escalera I (Junior Lightweight); Carlos Zarate vs. Alfonso Zamora (Bantamweight).
My purpose is not to diminish the greatness of Ali—that is beyond question—but to set the record straight about a fight that has been distorted and misrepresented for decades mainly because it conveniently feeds into the legend and lore of the most famous boxer who ever lived.
A Reliable Litmus Test
My friend and fellow IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) historian Bobby Franklin uses a simple litmus test to determine the quality quotient of a professional boxing match. “There are certain favorite movies I may come across when I’m channel surfing, such as the first Godfather movie, Casablanca, or The Shawshank Redemption,” says Bobby.
“Even though I’ve seen these movies a hundred times, no matter what part of the movie is being shown at the moment I just have to stop and watch it because I’m going to see something new in it and I’m going to enjoy it. And it’s the same when I’m watching boxing.
“If I go to the Classic Sports channel and they’re showing fights, there are certain ones I’ll stop at, but the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ is not one of them. That’s a fight you’ve seen it once and you know it. The lines are boring. It if were a movie it would be very boring. It’s just two guys hitting each other so I don’t go there again.”
I agree with Bobby. I never tire of watching a great movie…or a great prizefight.
Revisiting “The Thrilla in Manila”
For those of you who may not have seen the fight, and to refresh the memory of those who have, let us time travel back to October 1, 1975 and take a ringside seat at the Areneta Coliseum in Quezon City, just a stone’s throw from Manila, capital of the Philippines.
As the 27,000 fans in the sold out indoor stadium cheered, and millions of people throughout the world watched via closed circuit television, the two gladiators entered the arena amid much pomp and ceremony courtesy of the fighters’ hosts, President Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe happy wife Imelda.
The betting odds favored Ali at 8 to 5.
Weighing a solid 215½ lbs. the 5’11” Frazier was, as always, in excellent condition. Ali, at 6’3” and 224½ lbs., was a bit overweight.
One year earlier Ali had regained the heavyweight championship from George Foreman weighing a trim 216 lbs. While the extra eight pounds Ali carried was intended to add power to his punches, it could also mean that he was not trained to the very peak of condition. If the latter was the case—as it proved to be—Muhammad would be in for a rough night unless he could take out Frazier in an early round.
Ali was quite confident that Joe Frazier was a spent fighter who was ripe for the taking. His assessment was not totally inaccurate. Frazier had definitely seen better days. He looked ragged and shopworn in his previous outing seven months earlier while scoring an eighth round TKO against washed up Jimmy Ellis. Five years earlier a prime Frazier had overwhelmed Ellis in just four rounds.
Although Ali didn’t know it, Joe’s vision in his left eye was impaired by a cataract. Years later his personal physician would admit that going into this fight Joe’s vision in his left eye had deteriorated to 20/400, which is legally blind. Joe also had an arthritic left shoulder that had to be treated with cortisone before each fight. This information was kept quiet by Joe and his management team and only came to light when Frazier documented it in his 1996 autobiography.
A Little Less Smoke—A Little Less Float
But Ali himself was no longer the elusive “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” speed demon of years past. He could only float and sting in spurts. In between these brief interludes of activity he will go into his “rope-a-dope” routine made famous in his title winning fight against George Foreman a year earlier.
Both fighters had deteriorated since their first classic battle in 1971, but Frazier more so than Ali. In this fight the playing field was leveled as each man’s weaknesses would be exploited by the other man’s strengths.
To the untrained eye “Smokin’ Joe” looks as he always had, moving ever forward in that perpetual jiggle and bob style of his. Yet there were subtle differences. When he moves within punching range his hands do not fire off with the old piston like rapidity. And his attempts to slip or weave under Ali’s jab, which in the past was accomplished with rapid fluid movements of his head and upper body, now, appear stiff and ill-timed. Most alarming of all is the fact that his bread and butter punch, the left hook, appears to have lost some of its explosive power and accuracy.
The fight started as expected with Ali using his speed and mobility to avoid Frazier’s rushes. But when Ali stops to punch he plants his feet firmly on the canvas, putting the full weight of his body into his power shots. He is attempting to end the bout quickly and avoid a war of attrition. Ali appears very confident in these early rounds as he freely trades punches with Joe, taking liberties that he would not have dared four years earlier.
Ali knows he can score effectively if he stays away from the ropes and corners. But he cannot sustain an attack for more than a few seconds. The heat in the poorly air-conditioned arena is affecting both fighters but it is Ali who tires first. It is only when Ali retreats to the ropes and goes into his defensive shell that Frazier begins to score with some degree of consistency. Yet even when he is able to break through the “rope-a-dope” defense, his punches, although damaging and hurtful, do not carry enough steam to stagger or knock down the champion.
The anticipation of a knockout is not always essential to establish a great fight, but the lack of it, particularly in a heavyweight championship, robs the event of an essential dramatic element.
Beginning in the 4th round the tempo of the fight changes and a repetitive pattern begins to develop. Ali, as he fatigues, either grabs Frazier in a clinch or does his “rope-a-dope” thing with ever increasing frequency. Over the course of the fight he initiates no less than ninety-five clinches to Frazier’s one. This behavior on Ali’s part seriously detracts from the overall quality of the fight.
In total, Ali spends nearly one-third of the fight (14 minutes out of 45) passively covering up in “rope-a-dope” mode. It is Frazier who does all the work during those 14 minutes as he pounds on Ali’s arms and torso. This is about as interesting as watching a boxer pound a heavy sandbag in the gym.
In his effort to conserve energy Ali’s stalling tactics become incessant, predictable and eventually tiresome. It is not the type of activity one expects to see in a great fight.
“A Somber Brutality”
Despite these imperfections one aspect of the bout that is often lauded by the pundits is its brutality. The sight of Frazier relentlessly punching his stationary target while Ali, head down, gloves up, braces himself against the ropes, is indeed brutal to watch. It reminds one of the meat locker scene in the first Rocky movie. Except that Ali is only slightly more animated than a side of beef.
It is obvious Joe wants to inflict as much damage as he is capable of dishing out. His punches, especially the persistent attack on Ali’s kidney’s, midsection and ribs cause many ringsiders to wince. But the effort has about as much artistry as a day laborer slugging a concrete sidewalk with a sledgehammer. There is a crude and imprecise quality to Joe’s attack, the aesthetics of which are further downgraded by Ali’s submissive defensive posture. Where is the drama in this?
Brutality, by itself, is not enough to quantify a superior prizefight even though, in the right hands, it can have a singular, spellbinding artistry. Joe Louis’s swift and precise one round annihilation of Max Schmeling in 1938 is a perfect example. The same is true of Sugar Ray Robinson’s studied demolition of Jake LaMotta in the final rounds of their sixth bout.
Not so for the “Thrilla in Manila”.
Several years ago, while doing research for my first book, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, I came across a newspaper report of a particularly brutal fight that took place in Yankee Stadium in 1951 between Jake La Motta and light heavyweight contender Bob Murphy. “The Bronx Bull” spent most of the fight up against the ropes absorbing a savage beating. The article was written by the late Jimmy Cannon, perhaps the greatest sportswriter of the twentieth century. The same words he used to describe that fight could have been used to describe “The Thrilla in Manila”:
“They fought with a somber brutality but their ferocity turned monotonous and became unexciting. It was as though the multitude in Yankee Stadium last night watched a man being slugged into a bloody daze by a thug using a salami as a blackjack.
“The fight racket was reduced to its bleakly savage essentials…It was a graceless fight but a harmful one.”
Today hardly anyone remembers that fight because other than its “somber brutality” there was not much else to distinguish it from many other brutal prizefights.
Unlike his less discerning modern-day counterparts, Jimmy Cannon would not have been caught up in the exaggerated hyperbole of Ali vs. Frazier III. He had an exacting eye for the truth and x-ray vision for seeing past the layers of baloney and insipid commentary that too often attend this once great sport. He also had been watching and analyzing fights since the 1930s so his frame of reference and perception reflected that experience.
Ali the Illusionist
Ali realizes he will lose the decision unless he can interrupt Frazier’s attack with brief offensive displays. When the action moves away from the ropes he easily scores with quick combinations that excite the crowd. Joe’s decline, as compared to his prime, is most apparent at these times. But the punches do not stop him or even slow him down.
After round three Ali abandons the attempt to knock out Joe and, except for his occasional flurry, reverts to survival mode. He no longer puts the full weight of his body into his blows. That would cause him to expend too much energy. More often than not he will fling out his arms, slapping with a half open glove or, when he attempts an uppercut, hitting Joe with the underside (wrist) section of the glove. But no matter what he attempts he cannot hold Joe back for more than a few seconds.
From rounds four to twelve Ali seems less concerned with the accuracy and strength of his punches than he is with impressing the judges by conveying the illusion that he is in control when he opens up with a flurry of punches. He dances about the ring for a few seconds to arouse the crowd and to remind the judges of who he is, hoping this will negate his all too frequent rest stops.
Ali is a shrewd manipulator. It is a formula he knows well and it comes in handy in other fights as his athletic skills deteriorate. His success in this regard is reflected by the official scoring. In a close contest that most observers (including the Associated Press) had dead even at the end of the 14th round, all three Filipino judges had Ali leading by a wide margin (8-5-1, 8-2-4, 9-3-2). The two New York Times sportswriters assigned to cover the fight had it just the opposite, with Frazier winning eight of the first 13 rounds.
Predictable Ebb and Flow
Irrespective of the off base scoring by the officials, there was a sloppy quality to the efforts of both men as they took their turns meting out punishment. It was this give and take aspect of the bout that many fans, still enthralled by the myth of the “Thrilla in Manila”, love to refer to as the “ebb and flow” of a great fight.
“Ebb and flow” is indeed one of the hallmarks of a great prizefight. However, that sterling quality must contain a sense of uncertainty. In this fight the “ebb and flow” becomes all too predictable.
When a tiring Ali decides to “ebb” against the ropes he allows Frazier to “flow” for up to a full minute without returning a meaningful counterpunch. When Ali is rested enough to come off the ropes and go on the offensive he will “flow” back for ten or fifteen seconds with a few swift arm punches before returning to the relative safety of the “rope-a-dope”. Ali is ever mindful of the pace and his own dwindling energy reserves. He appears stymied by Frazier’s seemingly limitless reserves of stamina, so he either clinches or retreats back to the ropes where the routine will start all over again. His efforts are never sustained enough to turn the tide of battle and swing the momentum back to him.
Ali has underestimated Frazier and overestimated his own ability to hurt this madman who seems intent on making him suffer. He is now paying the price for not coming into the ring in the best possible condition. The rope-a-dope strategy that worked so well against the stamina challenged George Foreman is not having the same effect on Frazier.
Hot Dog or Beer Anyone?
A great fight demands one’s attention every second. By the middle rounds, with the pattern of the fight firmly established, and the possibility of a sudden ending very remote, a fan who understood what was really going on could have walked out to the concession stand for a hot dog and beer, return to his seat several minutes later, and be unconcerned about having missed anything important.
After aggressively pursuing Ali throughout most of the fight Frazier finally begins to slow down in the 12th round. He has dished out a lot of punishment but he has also been pummeled. The oppressive heat and his relentless pace have used up most of his energy reserves. Joe’s fuel tank is running low. His punches, especially the hook, are now being thrown in a wide arc—a sure sign of serious fatigue.
Ali senses an opportunity and knows he must come on strong—it’s now or never. In the 13th round he digs deep into his own last resources of stamina and will power. The tide of battle turns as Ali lands several sharp punches that close Joe’s already damaged left eye (the one with the cataract). Making matters worse, Joe also sustains a cut over his right eye.
Now unable to see at all out of his left eye Joe’s posture changes. In attempting to locate the target for his hooks he turns his body towards the left (trying to see out of his rapidly swelling right eye) and straightens up. This is a recipe for disaster because Frazier cannot abandon his crouch and weave or he will be unable to get under and away from the taller man’s punches and then counter with his left hook. The exhausted half blind challenger becomes a sitting duck for Ali’s accurate right crosses.
Ali, aware that less than three rounds remain if the fight goes the full distance, musters every last ounce of strength to come off the ropes and try to end the fight. He moves to center ring and plants his feet to put maximum leverage into his punches.
There now appears to be, finally, a decisive and dramatic turning point in the fight. Yet, even at this juncture, considering what has happened over the past dozen rounds (not to mention in their two previous fights) the excitement generated by Ali’s sudden and sustained aggression is tinged, at least in this witness’s eyes, with an emotion bordering on sadness.
As I watched these two former giants of the ring struggle and suffer I could not help but compare what they once were to what they had now become.
Unless you were hopelessly enthralled by the Ali mystique it was not difficult to feel empathy for Joe Frazier at this point in the battle. He is so much the honest workman, always giving 120% effort, always trying his best with whatever weapons remain in his diminished arsenal. To slack off would have been so out of character.
In the entire fight, except for one brief moment in the 14th round, Joe never sought the refuge of a clinch, although no one would have faulted him if he had. The once durable fighting machine with the murderous left hook has, in this fight—even as he wins rounds—revealed himself to be a tarnished facsimile of the original. All this damaged warrior has left to battle with is his unconquerable fighting spirit. Beating up a tired old version of Joe Frazier was not the great accomplishment it’s made out to be by Ali’s army of frenzied sycophants.
The bell ending the 13th round is a welcome respite for both fighters.
Nothing much happens in the first two minutes of the 14th round as Frazier blindly charges and Ali clinches or retreats to the ropes as he gathers his resources for one last push.
With only one minute left in the round Ali comes off the ropes and lands seven straight punches to Frazier’s jaw without a return, but Ali cannot put him down. Frazier awkwardly lunges with a left hook that misses. Their mutual exhaustion is apparent to the wildly cheering audience.
About 20 seconds before the bell sounds ending the round Ali lands two perfect right crosses to Frazier’s jaw but stubborn old Joe still will not go down! He is like a battered car in a demolition derby after the doors, fender and frame have been smashed to bits but whose motor simply will not quit.
Rounds 13 and 14 contained the only dramatic moments for this sad and unnecessary fight, during which time Ali took target practice on Joe’s head.
At the bell ending the 14th round both depleted warriors walk slowly back to their corners, battered but unbowed.
Joe’s trainer, Eddie Futch (who took over from the late Yank Durham two years earlier), realizes his fighter is virtually blind and cannot see the punches aimed at him. Three more minutes of repeated punishment to Joe’s unprotected head could have dire consequences. Over Joe’s fervent protests Futch decides it is in the best interest of his fighter to call a halt. Muhammad Ali, slumped in his corner in a state of near collapse, is awarded the technical knockout victory.
Bottom Line: A Seriously Flawed Fight
To their everlasting credit both men displayed the fighting spirit and never surrender attitude that is the inner core of every great champion. No matter if you rooted for Ali or Frazier it was this epic battle of wills that many impassioned fans focused on almost exclusively to the point of not knowing or caring about what else was taking place. But to say it was a great fight because of this battle of wills is to see only one aspect of a fight that, when viewed in its totality, was seriously flawed.
The “Thrilla in Manila” was damaged goods from the outset. It should never have happened. Until Ali began braying to the press that he wanted Joe one more time the public was not clamoring to see them fight a third time. Why dishonor the memory of that first magnificent classic with another fight staged four and a half years later between two over-the-hill legends? There was nothing left to prove. Mike Casey, one of boxing’s most astute and insightful historians, accurately described the fight as “a meeting of two decaying talents who were already treading a dangerous path when they clashed for the final time to beat the remaining resistance out of each other.”
Some scribes, trying I suppose to see some purpose in all of this, wrote that no one could question Ali’s courage in a boxing ring after this fight. But why even ask the question? Ali had already proven his courage against the likes of Ken Norton, George Foreman, and in that unforgettable first bruising contest with “Smokin’ Joe”.
In or out of shape Ali took on all comers throughout his career, fearlessly welcoming the challenge of every major heavyweight contender and champion of the 1960s and ‘70s. Very few heavyweights of any era could make the same boast.
Joe Frazier’s courage in a boxing ring had never been in doubt. He did not need this fight to prove anything, certainly not at this stage of his career. In fact, in many people’s eyes he had already beaten Ali twice. (Their forgettable second bout in January 1974, when both were ex-champs, was a weak imitation of the first, minus the controversy and drama. Ali was gifted with a 12-round decision that many fans and sportswriters thought he lost).
Joe would have done well to heed the advice of his friends and family who urged him to retire after his poor showing against Jimmy Ellis seven months earlier.
As for the most obvious excuse for staging this fight, that it provided a huge payday for both men, the price paid in exchange, in terms of physical damage, was far too great. Although it was an exhausted and drained Ali who famously said he felt “close to death” in the fight, it was really Joe Frazier who came out the worse for wear because he was already damaged and sick going into it.
The fight took plenty out of Ali too but not as much as people think. One year later he still had enough of the old skills, speed and reflex to eke out a close 15-round decision over top contender Ken Norton. (Most observers thought Norton won). Ali was in shape for that one. At 34 years old it would have been the ideal time for him to retire and never take another punch to the head.
What really finished off Ali as an effective fighter was a bout that took place two years after the “Thrilla”, in September 1977. Ali made the awful mistake of going into a fight with power punching Earnie Shavers overconfident and out of shape. In a fight he could have easily won if in proper condition (his belly fat hung over his trunks) Ali allowed the stamina challenged Shavers to control the pace of the fight. Ali’s timing and conditioning were atrocious. He was tagged numerous times by Shavers’s humongous brain jarring right hand punches.
Mesmerized boxing judges once again gifted “The Greatest” with another questionable 15-round decision. But the bout had taken a terrible toll on Ali’s health. He was subjected to the worst and most sustained head beating of his career by the hardest punching heavyweight in the world. That one fight caused more head trauma than all three Frazier bouts put together. Yet he continued to fight and train for another two years.
Separating Fact from Fiction
In the entire history of modern professional sports no athlete has generated as much controversy and has aroused as much partisan zeal as Muhammad Ali. The highly charged circumstances of the first Ali vs. Frazier fight in 1971 created a colossal drama that went far beyond the confines of a boxing ring as the divergent personalities and beliefs of each man became identified with different sides of the contentious political and social controversies of their era. Sides were taken and lines were drawn.
Four and a half years after that first and best Ali vs. Frazier bout many of those same fans were still passionate about Muhammad Ali, strongly identifying with his struggles and triumphs both inside and outside of the ring. To these devoted fans, many whose interest in boxing began with the rise of Ali, the man was nothing short of a demigod.
The media, never a trustworthy source, was also enamored of the colorful champion and loved the story of his comeback from the brink of defeat in “The Thrilla”. They helped to solidify the myth that it was the greatest heavyweight championship fight of all time.
Ali’s win resulted in another ancillary benefit for the champ and his fans. The 1971 classic was pushed into the background even though “The Thrilla” did not come close to matching it in terms of quality, drama or historical significance. What put “The Thrilla” over the top—and this is key—was that Ali had finally beaten his most persistent nemesis in a decisive manner. Thus “The Thrilla in Manila” became the most overrated boxing match in the history of the sport.
Boxing At Its Best
If I were to show a new boxing enthusiast a videotape of boxing at its best I would not choose “The Thrilla in Manila”. I would show a match that genuinely conveys the excitement and quality of a truly great prizefight. I might start with the aforementioned Marciano vs. Walcott title bout, or perhaps the amazing Archie Moore’s light heavyweight title defense against Yvonne Durelle in 1958, or one of my personal favorites, Tony Canzoneri’s 1933 defense of his featherweight crown against the fabulous Cuban, Kid Chocolate.
As an appetizer I might show Joe Louis’s knockout at the hands of Max Schmeling in 1936 and then follow it up with the incredible rematch two years later. Of course I would add Conn vs. Louis I to the list as well. Of more recent vintage is the first Alexis Arguello vs. Aaron Pryor war.
I would also have to include a performance by the greatest of the great—the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson. His stunning and dramatic come-from-behind victory over England’s Randy Turpin in 1951 speaks for itself. Want to see a great brawl minus the clinches? Check out both Carmen Basilio vs. Tony DeMarco fights of 1955. I could list many more. A new fan would not even have to be familiar with their names to appreciate the greatness of these fights.
Hopefully, in years to come, all of the above will still command the respect and attention they so justly deserve. The first Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight of 1971 belongs in this elite company. The “Thrilla in Manila” does not.
(Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”.)