The master of the Ali shuffle, possessor of heavyweight boxing's fastest feet, had rapturous rhythm in the ring but he couldn't quickstep out of it. Imelda's invitation was politely declined.
A couple of days later, at a time of the morning when Regency gentlemen used to fight their duels, Ali and Frazier went to war. In an atmosphere more resembling a bear pit, before a full house of screaming Filipinos, Manila was about to have its "Thrilla", an encounter which surely ranks as the greatest heavyweight title fight of all time. The date: 30 September 1975.
Thirty years on, that morning glory remains etched indelibly in the mind. The previous year, Ali had rumbled in the jungle, demoralising George Foreman in what was arguably his defining performance and the most bizarre occasion in heavyweight boxing. Norman Mailer wrote an entire book about it, called The Fight, but in essence what happened in Manila was the fight. The fight of a lifetime.
Actually it wasn't in Manila, but at Quezon City, a dusty suburb six miles from the capital, where we witnessed a bout that transcended anything the sport had seen before. Neither man would ever be the same again; for both it was to prove a fight too far. Ali was to describe it later as "the closest thing to dyin'."
The word "epic" is a label all too casually applied, whether it is films or fights, but not in this case. This was boxing's Gone With The Wind. Ali had launched it with a poem: "It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila."
Frazier was incensed, gritting, "I want his heart". A decent, simple man, brought up in cotton-picking country, Frazier was never able to comprehend that Ali's "insults" were designed just to psych him out and sell more tickets, as they had been on the two previous occasions the pair had met, Frazier memorably winning "The Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden in 1971 and Ali their return three years later.
To this day Frazier, now 61, has little pity for the 63-year-old Ali's condition, though he himself walks with a limp as a result of a car accident and his own speech is slurred.
Both had reigned in an age when world boxing crowns were not bits of bling. Ali fought, and beat, everyone of note as well as many others of little consequence. No challenge was shirked, though some proved more difficult than others, notably those against two men he met three times. One was Ken Norton; in the first encounter Ali's jaw was broken, and all ended in controversial points decisions. The other was Frazier.
Ali's people thought before the last act in their trilogy that Smokin' Joe was a dying ember. They should have known he would be fired up to face the one man who was in his head, and in his blood.
On the assumption that this would be a fairly easy encounter, Ali spent much of the time before the bout canoodling with his new girlfriend, Veronica Porsche, a stunning model whom he was later to marry. However, at the time he was still married to his second wife, Belinda, who followed him to Manila and gave him almost as hard a time out of the ring as he was later to have inside it with Frazier. Belinda, a black belt in karate, wrecked the hotel room where he and Veronica were staying, and facial scratch marks were testimony to the fury vented on her husband.
In the fight itself, Ali was in control in the early rounds, but Frazier refused to wilt, pounding hooks into the champion's body and forcing him on to the ropes. Ali was unmoved though impressed. In a clinch, he muttered to Frazier: "Joe, they told me you was washed up." Frazier fired back: "They lied!"
The exchanges then proceeded with such brutal intensity that one almost had to shield eyes already damp with the sweat running into them because of lack of air conditioning in the sauna-like arena.
Ali was to say later: "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of the city. Lordy, he's great! Joe Frazier is one hell of a man. If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me."
The tributes were not returned by Frazier. But the punches were, both men belabouring each other with relentless savagery. By the end of the 14th round, Ali was exhausted and Frazier's features so grotesquely swollen he could hardly see. It was then that Frazier's great trainer, Eddie Futch, acted with foresight and compassion, refusing to let his man come out for the final three minutes.
In the opposite corner, Ali was visibly relieved, momentarily slumping to the canvas. He had told his own cornerman, Angelo Dundee, to cut off his gloves. Dundee ignored him, sponging his face down for the last hurrah that wasn't to be. "Frazier quit just before I did," Ali was to confide some years later. Even if the truth was that Futch made Frazier quit.
Later, in a darkened dressing-room, Frazier's then 14-year-old son Marvis sat sobbing alongside his father as Ali entered to offer his commiserations to the grotesquely bruised and bleeding Smokin' Joe. "What you cryin' for, boy?" Ali demanded of young Frazier. "I'm crying 'cos my daddy got beat," came the reply.
Ali looked at him: "You stop that, you hear. Your daddy lost nuthin'. He's a winner. Just you remember that for the rest of your life." It was one of the many things about that day that all of us there will remember for the rest of our lives, too.Reuse content