“Son, no-one will forget what you did here today.” The words of Eddie Futch to Joe Frazier echoed around the globe 40 years ago after the trainer brought a premature end to one of the greatest heavyweight duels in the history of gloved combat.
The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ added another layer of meaning to what constituted bravery in a boxing ring. The winner, Muhammad Ali, gave arguably his greatest display, and claimed afterwards that the effort in defeating his arch rival left him feeling close to death.
It was the final encounter of a trilogy that held the sporting public in thrall in a golden decade for the sport. Frazier, an Olympic champion in 1964, four years after Ali lifted gold in Rome, assumed the mantle of heavyweight champion of the world during Ali’s three-year ban from boxing for refusing the Vietnam draft. Three bouts into his return to the sport Ali challenged Frazier for his old title in 1971, losing for the first time and breaking his jaw in the process.
Their second meeting three years later, again at Madison Square Garden, saw Ali square the series. Frazier had by then lost the crown in a devastating loss to George Foreman and Ali suffered a second career defeat to Kenny Norton. Only pride was at stake. Not so in the Philippines, where Ali was defending the crown he won so heroically against Foreman in Kinshasa the year previously.
An undercurrent of ill feeling fuelled by insults and politically incorrect barbs from Ali towards Frazier that today would be deemed outrageous added a visceral edge to the contest. This had been a running sore since their first meeting, when Ali labelled Frazier as an ‘Uncle Tom’. In Manila Frazier became the ‘gorilla’ filler in a rhyme penned by Ali to wind up his foe. “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila,” he said.
Ali subsequently apologised but without ever erasing the stain left by the episode. As an event the bout redefined the global sporting spectacle. Ali kept Frazier on the end of his long jab in the early stages. Frazier had to wait until the sixth round to land his calling card, a vicious left hook, for the first time.
Thereafter the bout became a bloody, attritional affair, Ali resurrecting the rope-a-dope technique he used to overcome Foreman, which allowed Frazier in close and dangerous. As the bout wore on Frazier suffered grotesque swelling to the head and could barely see in the championship rounds. Ali took advantage unleashing a fearsome barrage almost without reply.
By the end of the 14th and penultimate round Futch decided, against the wishes of Frazier, that with limited vision there was no point taking further punishment. The Ali legend deepened, and after a show of courage as profound as anything witnessed in boxing, Frazier grew in stature, too.
Champions are made great by the quality of their opponents. Thus Ali and Frazier carved their place in the boxing pantheon each from the stone of the other. Forty years on their final meeting is still a reference point for the sport they served with distinction.
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