‘You don’t have it!’ Muhammad Ali bellowed at Joe Frazier as his rival clambered into the ring and made his way over to the blue corner. ‘I’m gonna put you away!’ Frazier, already a river of sweat from a pre-match workout while he was back in the locker room, curled his lip. ‘We’ll see,’ he grunted.
For fourteen agonising rounds — fists flashing as they came before the screen from inside the Araneta Coliseum in the Philippines — an estimated billion television viewers most certainly did see. I vividly recall it as a young kid in Wellington. The only thing I don’t remember from that 40 minutes is drawing breath,
Quite a few more will be watching it again as the event’s forty-fifth anniversary looms next week in the midst of a time when the brutal poetry of the event remains in the cultural air.
Boxing as a metaphor for life is one of the most overworked of journalistic clichés, but right now perhaps more than ever if you scan the headlines. Covid-19 deals a ‘knockout blow’ to Melbourne. Auckland is not ‘out for the count’ despite lockdown measures. Australia’s vaccine researchers are ‘punching above their weight’ in this pandemic fight of the century.
But there’s a cliché about clichés, too: they only become clichés because they’re true in the first place, which in this case happens to be that far off morning in 1975.
The Thrilla in Manila was the greatest boxing fight of all time, the greatest personal grievance case, too; a final hurrah for the a golden decade of heavyweight boxing that began with Ali as well, in 1964, when he first decked the previously unassailable Sonny Liston. The end was more memorable than the start. Ali not only emerged as victor but also, against all odds, a kind of existential folk hero, as became evident a few years later when he arrived in Australia and New Zealand for a wildly popular speaking tour.
Although mine may be a minority opinion, I think the fight belonged to Frazier. You may disagree. No matter. A bit of quiet appreciation either way still seems fitting.
For the combatants, it would be their third and final clash. Their career-capping encounter was the closing chapter of a feud that began in the ring four years earlier at Madison Square Garden when Frazier ended his taller opponent’s unmolested record of straight victories, sugar-coating it with a knockdown by way of one of his bouncing left hooks. Three years on, the ledger was evened after Ali clinched victory (as in the clinching tactic, not simply the general expression) at the same New York venue. The second fight was a non-title match to see who would take on the champ, George Foreman, for the belt, but by this point Frazier and Ali weren’t fighting each other for a title. They fought because they hated each other.
The two of them had once been close. By the time of Manila they were the best of enemies. They were separated by the civil rights movement. They were separated by the Muslim thing. They were separated by the space between Ali’s overheated verbal theatrics and Frazier’s frozen calm.
Ali could also be a bit separated from reality. Because he went on to achieve the impossible by dumping George Foreman in the eighth round of their fight in Zaire only eleven months earlier, and because Foreman had demolished Frazier not too long before that, he figured Frazier ought to be a pushover. Verily, he predicted, ‘It’s gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thrilla, when I fight the gorilla in Manila.’
Some pushover. Ali and Frazier were 33 and 31 respectively when they entered the ring and several decades older by the time the closing bell sounded on what was essentially a three-act play — the first few rounds belonging to Ali, the second few to Frazier, and the remainder to the ages.
Ali started out without his trademark float-like-a-butterfly style, instead keeping his hands characteristically low but moving flat-footed on his more economically packaged opponent with a welter of disdainful jabs.
Frazier, however, was also complex from the start, full of surprises, ominously laconic in the exchanges grunted back and forth during the early stages while each of them still had spare energy for them. One of those surprises was the verbal presence of the man sometimes dismissed as twice as black and half as smart as his more popular foe, but now giving as good as he got. As for instance with Ali early on in the third round: ‘They told me you was through, Joe, they told me you was finished.’ Frazier: ‘They lied.’
And Joe, as they say in the biz, had a cold motor. He always took a while to warm up. Ali should have remembered that.
By the fifth, the engine was revving. Frazier’s erratic rhythms — pitter-pattering, crouching, snorting, weaving, slinging lefts and rights to the taller man’s body and the occasional bomb to his head — had him as a kind of baggy propeller, arms whirring faster and faster. Peekaboo. Honestly, how could anyone punch a hole through that?
The minutes ticked by along with the mounting physical traces from Frazier’s various calling cards. For a long time, at least until the end of the tenth, Ali simply seemed unable to escape the jarring assault. The champion staggered to his corner in obvious trouble.
Bundini Brown, his flamboyant cornerman, jumped up on to the apron, tears streaming down his face. ‘Go down to the well one more time,’ he yelled, ‘the world needs ya!’
Ali’s in the eleventh didn’t quite plumb that reservoir, at least not initially. Many of his better jabs found only air. But then, as the years slipped from his face and the belt moved further from his grasp, something clicked. Six blazing shots to Frazier’s head actually connected. Another eight followed in barely a second. Now Frazier’s legs seemed to be searching for the canvas.
By the time the bell rung for the end of the fourteenth it was all over. Never again. Four hundred and forty punches had been thrown and almost any one of them could have killed you or me.
The greatest fight of all time had been ‘the closest thing to death,’ Ali later admitted. Yes, we saw. But forty-five years on, in a weirdly relevant way, the Thrilla in Manila still looks like the closest thing to life, too.
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