Detail of Evening Express cover page. Image courtesy of Simon Santos of Video 48.
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43 years later, 'Thrilla in Manila' remains etched in the Filipino psyche

We revisit the epic match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on the occasion of its 43rd anniversary
Nissi Icasiano | Oct 01 2018

Today, the 1st of October, is the 43rd anniversary of “Thrilla In Manila,” that historic event held at the Araneta Coliseum in 1975 where Muhammad Ali shared the squared circle with boxing nemesis Joe Frazier for the very last time.  

We have witnessed countless scintillating boxing matches since, but pundits and fans alike still recognize the heart-stopping third encounter between Ali and Frazier as an epic match, affirming its place as one of the most notable bouts in the sport’s history. The Philippines was under Martial Law at that time, but no matter the opposing views held by Pinoys politics-wise, those were put aside for a moment, and the country tuned in to the Thrilla-related events in and outside the ring. 

What got Pinoys and the rest of the world hooked to the much-hyped match between the two boxing gladiators was the interesting backstory of two heavyweight fighters whose only desire was to be the best boxers of their generation.

The Expressweek cover of '75 featuring the bout. Image courtesy of Isidra Reyes.

It all began with Ali’s almost four-year suspension from boxing, having refused to render military services in Vietnam. In his absence from the boxing scene, a new heavyweight kingpin was crowned in the person of Frazier, who scored a fourth-round stoppage victory over Jimmy Ellis to capture the WBA, WBC and lineal titles.

Ali resented the reign of Frazier as undisputed heavyweight champion, which led to the two men duking it out in a bout dubbed “The Fight Of The Century” in March 1971.

Frazier was able to walk out of the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City with his hand raised in triumph, defeating Ali by way of unanimous decision after 15 rounds. But Frazier’s reign wouldn’t last for very long. In a fight against hard-hitting heavyweight George Foreman in January of 1973, Frazier lost the crown after a second-round technical knockout.

Eager to re-enter the world-title picture, Frazier had no other choice but to have a rematch with Ali, who won 12 of his last 13 outings since yielding to his arch-nemesis. Ali came out on top of Frazier in the second meeting by a 12-round unanimous decision in January 1974, but it was marred by controversy for Ali’s tactic of holding Frazier behind the neck with his left hand while keeping his opponent’s vaunted left hook tied up with the other throughout the bout.

Frazier's camp strongly complained to referee Tony Perez about Ali’s frequent use of said tactic, but the latter got away with it in the second fight. By the time of their third date inside the ring, it became really personal for both men, especially after Ali did the impossible by knocking out Foreman in Zaire to reclaim the heavyweight straps in October 1974.

In the lead-up to the Manila fight, Ali verbally abused Frazier and nicknamed his infuriated opponent "The Gorilla." This villainous name-calling and needling was the springboard for the rhyme, "It will be a killa, and a thrilla, and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila”—which Ali spewed while punching an action-figure-sized gorilla toy.

Frazier, naturally, did not find this funny and later recounted how his children were taunted by the nickname at school. When he took his eyes off Ali at the pre-fight press conference for the Manila battle royale, it was a clear indication that Frazier's mind was merely wired to one thought: "Kill or be killed."

 

Nearly 15 rounds of agony

To suit the demands of an American audience, the highly-anticipated heavyweight collision between Ali and Frazier was held at 10 o'clock in the morning. The showground carried a seating capacity of 16,000 to 20,000, but the organizers managed to squeeze in 27,000 ticket-paying fans, including Marcos and his wife Imelda.

Although the venue was fully air-conditioned, it was no match for the large crowd gathered inside the coliseum (outside, according to reports, the heat was up at 49 degrees). Fernando "Ferdie" Pacheco, who served as Ali’s physician at ringside, was quoted as saying: “I had a hard time breathing. Not only were all the seats filled, but all the aisles were also filled and the people crammed in the rafters. I don’t know if you could squeeze in one more person. It was body to body.”

The heat from outside seeped thru the aluminum roofing of the Araneta Coliseum. In the humid, sauna-like arena, the two boxers traded heavy blows that could shatter concrete walls. Living up to the hype, “Thrilla in Manila” turned to be the most brutal hand-to-hand combat that has ever been seen in the ring since the Marquess of Queensberry introduced the basic rules in 1867. Ali ruled the first five rounds, clobbering Frazier with precise and quick punches that had his opponent reeling.

Image courtesy of Isidra Reyes.

Sensing the urgency that he was down on the scorecards, Frazier rallied impressively in the next five rounds, bulldozing his adversary’s guard with his signature left hooks that snapped Ali’s head back on numerous occasions. In the sixth round of the nail-biting tussle, Frazier hit Ali with one of the greatest left hooks ever thrown in boxing history.

After regaining his senses while somehow staying on his feet, Ali was believed to have muttered through a bloodied mouth: “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up.” Before launching another stinging left hook, Frazier gallantly responded: “They lied.”

At the end of the ninth period, Ali looked like he was on the verge from keeling over on his seat in the corner, telling his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee: “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” Exhibiting his patented toughness that gave Ali a series of fits, there seemed to be no quitting on Frazier’s part as he absorbed a tremendous amount of headshots from his opponent.

The last four stanzas of the heavyweight title tilt were the deciding rounds, and Ali and Frazier hammered each other like there was no tomorrow.

The fight on the cover of Evening Express. Image courtesy of Video 48.

Both men were gasping for air in the late championship rounds, but Ali was able to land solid blows on Frazier, swelling the former champion's eyes and then blasting him with hard rights to the head in the 14th round that might have impaired an ordinary boxer.

Frazier's head coach Eddie Futch was compelled to throw in the towel before the start of the 15th and final round as his valued pupil could no longer see due to a bad left-eye vision and a swollen right eye. An exasperated Frazier protested his trainer’s choice to stop the bout and tried to get Futch’s attention to change his mind.

"I want him, boss,” Frazier told Futch. “No, Eddie, no. Don’t do this to me.“

Futch, however, remained firm, and signaled to Filipino referee Carlos Padilla Jr. to end the match.

"Sit down, son. It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today," a reply given by Futch to Frazier.

In the opposite corner, Ali rejoiced when he saw Frazier’s corner waving the white flag and then collapsed off his stool due to exhaustion. What Frazier and his team did not know was that Ali was about to quit when he returned to his corner at the end of the 14th round, instructing Dundee to cut his gloves off.

Both men were never the same after they left Manila.

After the pre-fight tirades and the personal issues that added color to what was a memorable occasion, Ali and Frazier finally let bygones be bygones—at least as fighters. Going a total of 41 rounds with Frazier in their three-match saga, Ali brimmed with respect and admiration for his dauntless rival. "If God ever calls me to a holy war,” Ali stated, “I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”