Once their names were almost inseparable — Ali and Frazier.
Now, they are two men who couldn’t be any further apart, by any means you might measure. One is a hero to millions, remembered as a legend and one of the greatest his sport had to offer, wealthy and famous wherever he goes — even if he’s now only a shadow of the man he once was. The other has faded into relative obscurity, now living in near poverty in an inner-city neighborhood far removed from the glamour of the spotlight, a figure still angry and bitter over his treatment by his rival many years after the fact.
And well he should be.
When I was a kid and was first introduced to boxing, the one fighter I got to know immediately was Muhammad Ali. And why not? At the time — 1976 to be exact — he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World back when that title still meant something, and he was arguably the most famous athlete of his time. It was impossible not to know who Ali was, even if you didn’t follow boxing. No athlete of modern times — exact possibly Michael Jordan — was more well known in the United States, and it’s not a stretch to say that no athlete in history has been more recognized around the entire world than Ali was. He wasn’t just a sports figure — he was a celebrity with greater recognition than many a world leader or famous actor.
So why wouldn’t he become my favorite boxer as I took my tentative first steps into becoming a fan of the sport? Everyone seemed to love Ali, and I would be no different, quickly becoming a fan. Being too young to know better, I was almost hostile to my father’s suggestions that Ali was “washed up” when we sat down to watch his fight on network television (remember those days?) against a complete unknown — well, at least to me — Leon Spinks.
As you would expect, I was devastated at the time when a old, slow, and out-of-shape Ali was out-hustled by the raw, inexperienced Spinks, who captured the champion’s crown in a 15-round unanimous decision. I was giddy with excitement when I heard the news that Ali had recaptured his title in New Orleans seven months later against Spinks, still too young to realize that this would be his last hurrah. I was devastated again when Ali retired, then when he lost to Larry Holmes in an ill-advised comeback, then yet again when he lost to Trevor Berbick before he finally hung it up once and for all.
At the time, I would have told you without fail that Ali was “The Greatest”, as he had always proclaimed. But I grew older and wiser, and as I became a huge fan of the sport of boxing — and in turn, studied its history — I realized that my view had been a myopic one. While I would always acknowledge Ali as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and one of the greatest boxers as well, I would eventually replace him at the top of both my all-time list of heavyweight champions (with the immortal Joe Louis) and the list of all-time pound-for-pound greats (with the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson).
But that re-ranking aside, I still knew everything I could about Ali, didn’t I? I knew about his dramatic emergence onto the boxing scene in the early 1960’s, about his conversion to Islam, about the unjust suspension of his boxing license and the inspirational comeback he’d made to the ring. I knew all there was to know about his underdog victory against George Foreman to regain his title, and all you could know about his battles with his epic adversary, Joe Frazier. Right?
It turns out I didn’t — and I’d harbor a guess that I’m not alone.
Now showing on HBO this month is an outstanding sports documentary Thrilla In Manila. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see it, and you know or care anything about either boxing or Muhammad Ali, you owe it to yourself to check it out. In addition, I highly recommend also checking out the outstanding book Ghosts of Manila by author Mark Kram — I’m not sure if the the documentary was based off of or inspired by the book, but much of the material found in the former is in the latter and in even greater detail. Both documentary and book take a look back at the bitter Ali-Frazier rivalry — one that hasn’t let up, even now, some thirty years plus later — that would culminate in a ring on a brutally hot morning in the Philippines. Both tell not only the story of the fight itself, but the mostly untold story of the callous and cruel verbal attacks made by Ali against a man in Frazier who never deserved it, the bitter personal war that it would cause between two men that had started as friends, and the damage that it would lead to for both men — with its effects still felt today.
Everyone by now knows the background behind Ali unjustly losing his boxing license due to his refusal to be inducted into military service during the Vietnam War — but far fewer people know of Joe Frazier’s lobbying on Ali’s behalf behind the scenes to have that same restriction lifted. And while it would be easy to claim that Frazier’s actions were more self-serving than noble — after all, without Ali there could never have been the money Joe would make in their megafights together — it’s hard to feel that Frazier’s actions were anything but noble when it’s revealed that the then-champion helped Ali financially when the latter was in need during his exile, a selfless act that was done entirely in private and away from the prying eyes of the media and world-at-large.
And how were Frazier’s actions repaid by Ali when his suspension was finally lifted, and the dream fight between the two warriors — and tentative friends at the time — made? Whether it was an attempt at psychological warfare or simply just an act to help sell the fight to the world, Ali turned on Frazier with vicious intent, savaging Frazier to the media and anyone who would listen, labeling the champion as a “Uncle Tom” and an ignorant buffoon who was only a tool for the white man and a traitor to his race. It was an inaccurate and unfair depiction of a proud man in Frazier who had been born in the poorest part of South Carolina, who had worked hard while growing up in the toughest part of inner-city Philadelphia (a far cry from Ali, who had come up in more prosperous surroundings in Louisville), and who had seen as much racism first-hand as had Ali — even if he wasn’t the type to publicly decry it.
The enmity between the two men, which had simmered through the loss of the title by Frazier to George Foreman in Jamaica, the letdown of their second fight (a 12-round decision win for Ali), and Ali’s shocking triumph over Foreman in Zaire, grew to a crescendo by the time their rubber match in Manila arrived. Ali took his insults of Frazier to a new level, referring to his challenger as a “gorilla”, mocking his physical features (Ali would take to pushing his own nose flat in an attempt to mimic Joe’s), and even taking to punching a toy monkey meant to depict Frazier while at his press conferences or meeting with the media. It was an ugly side to Ali that those in his camp have excused as simply another act of showmanship — just a way to sell tickets; however, those in that corner ignore the reality of how deep an insult the term was to Frazier, and how troubling the usage was in referring to an African-American. Coming from another black man, it was doubly so.
The book and the documentary touch on all of this and much more. If you’ve looked at Ali through rose-colored glasses over the years, both of these looks back will be a stark wake-up call and a disappointing reminder that our heroes are as flawed, even more so in some cases, then those who idolize them.
The culmination of the blood feud between Ali and Frazier would be their epic struggle in Manila, and both the documentary and the book give great insights into one of the greatest heavyweight struggles ever. Everything that is good — and bad — about boxing was in display on that morning in the Philippines. While Ali had taken the fight largely due to believing that Frazier was washed up following the beating he took at the hands of Foreman, Frazier trained for the contest as if he was going to war for his life — and in many ways, he was. The fight would be more of a contest of survival than a sporting event — Ali himself would say afterward that this had been “the closest to dying he had ever been” — and it can be said that while two men went into the ring that day, neither came out whole. Both Ali and Frazier left part of themselves behind, and neither man would be the same again physically — or mentally.
The fight itself was a war; Ali dominated the early rounds, nearly knocking Frazier out while showing an aggressive tact he rarely had exhibited since his return to the ring in 1970. But in the middle rounds, the former champion would rally, muscling Ali at every opportunity while pounding the now-stationary fighter in the ribs, kidneys, liver, and hips at every opportunity with his brutal left hooks, each thrown with the intent of knocking Ali out. Frazier surged ahead on the scorecards, but as the fight entered the last rounds, Ali had begun to rally again. Constant punching to Frazier’s face had swollen his right eye almost shut. Unbeknown to anyone other than Frazier and his trainer, the great Eddie Futch, cataracts had rendered the fighter unable to see with his left eye, and with his vision impaired in his right eye from the pounding he’d received, Frazier was now fighting essentially blind. Ali would rain punishment on a tiring Frazier, who despite the beating, refused to give up.
After a beating in the 14th, Futch — against the protests of Frazier — would signal to stop the fight. Ironically, in the corner opposite of theirs, Ali was begging his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut his own gloves off, seemingly unwilling to answer the bell himself. The shocking juxtaposition of the two — the eventual loser wanting to continue while his corner fought to protect him from risking his own life in his quest for victory, while the eventual winner was looking at the abyss and hesitating, while his corner urged him onward — poses the question: How would the lives of these two men — and our remembrances of them both — have been forever changed if Frazier had answered the bell for the 15th round — and Ali had not?
The aftermath for both is well documented. Ali would go on to fight again, but never be the same. Frazier also would fight on, but his career was essentially finished that day in Manila. Over time, the wars each fought in the ring would take their physical toll on both men. Ali today is a shadow of his former, glib self — the effects of his years in the ring and his battle with Parkinson’s Disease well evident. Frazier also wears the effects of the punishment he took. But while so much has faded over time with both of these men, one thing is as strong today as it was then — and that’s an utter disdain of Ali by Frazier, the latter still embittered by his treatment so many years ago.
The documentary and the book tell us a lot about both of these men, whose stories are forever intertwined with one another. What I took out of it was that Ali wasn’t quite the hero I once thought he was, and Frazier was never the villain he was often portrayed to be. Both were proud men and proud fighters. There is a great deal about both to admire — and a great deal about both that neither should be proud of. Which, I guess, makes them both human — like the rest of us. No more — no less.
The lasting image I take from the HBO Special, though, is that of Frazier watching the tape of his fight with Ali. There’s a haunted, troubling look on his face as he watches his younger self attacking and stalking Ali in the ring, an almost wry smile coming up from the corners of his mouth as you can see him reliving every blow being struck. You can sense that, for Frazier, a part of him is still in Manila, still chasing after the elusive Ali. In some ways, he’s a ghost of a man chasing down another spectre — even after all these years — a spectre he’ll never be able to catch, no matter how badly he wants to.