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Boxing: Ali v Frazier - 'It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of'

Manila, 1 October 1975. Muhammad Ali was a broken man at the end of the 'Thriller in Manila' with Joe Frazier. And he had just won. The greatest heavyweight bout of all time took place 30 years ago tomorrow. Ken Jones was there

Friday 30 September 2005 00:00 BST

It was enough for the compassionate Futch. "Joe, sit down, I'm going to stop it," he said. "No one will ever forget what you did here today." "No, no, you can't do that," Frazier protested. Deaf to the plea, Futch began to remove Frazier's gloves. In the opposite corner, an exhausted Muhammad Ali momentarily dropped to his knees in relief when it became clear that the contest was over. "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of," he would say.

The date: 1 October 1975; the place: Quezon City, a dusty suburb six miles outside Manila, the Philippines. The fight, dubbed "The Thriller in Manila", took place there for one reason. Money. It was the promotional creation of Don King, who had found another country in need of a divertissement. He would provide it in the form of a sports event that would attract world-wide interest while distracting the Filipino people's attention from insurgent political activity and a sagging economy. In return for the glory of presiding over a bout featuring the charismatic Ali, the country's President Ferdinand Marcos would see to it that the necessary funds were made available.

What turned out to be the greatest heavyweight fight of all time was not considered much of a fight when it was announced. Both men were in decline, Frazier's stock having fallen to a low point since prevailing over Ali in their first encounter - "The Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden in 1971, after which Frazier spent three weeks in hospital. In 1973, Frazier took a fearful pounding from George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, losing his title in two rounds. In a return match with Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1973 - a more muted affair both inside and outside of the ring - Ali evened the score, clearly outpointing Frazier over 12 rounds. Frazier was on the skids.

Nevertheless, Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee advised caution. He says now, "Joe Frazier wasn't a safe opponent for anybody. Even at that stage of his career, Frazier on any given night could lick any given opponent because he was for real. A warrior."

As soon as Don King announced the fight, Ali launched it with a poem: " It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila." Then Ali produced a black rubber gorilla, and declared, " This is the way Joe Frazier looks when you hit him."

Ali began pummelling the gorilla. "Come on, gorilla," he taunted, as Frazier glowered and the assembled media laughed. "We're in Manila. Come on, gorilla; this is a thrilla."

Frazier seethed. "I don't want to knock him out," he said afterwards. "I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I'll stand back, give him a chance to breathe. It's his heart I want."

A decent, simple man from a rural background, Frazier had learnt his boxing in the rough gyms of Philadelphia. His road to the top had been hard; typically, his fights were brutal slugging matches. Physically, he was the antithesis of Ali: short - a shade under six feet - and heavily muscled; his style was essentially percussive and in the ring a scowl seldom left his face.

Frazier had a deep, glowing pride in who he was and what he'd become and felt that he hadn't been given due credit for defeating Ali in 1971. And Ali had demeaned him. So for Frazier, this fight wasn't about money. He took what was offered, even without any meaningful negotiation. Ali was guaranteed $4m against 43 per cent of all fight-generated income. Frazier would end up with half of Ali's eventual take of $6m.

Ali's cornerman and ring physician Ferdie Pacheco recalled: "The Ali circus, which had seriously begun to gather steam in Zaire, reached its zenith - or nadir, depending upon your perspective - in Manila. The increasingly bloated size of the circus was not the result of Ali's generosity, although that was legendary. What made these sideshows possible was the governments of the countries hosting the fights, which provided flights and accommodation at no cost. At that price Ali invited the world, and his world came to consist of an eclectic group of ex-fighters, boxing managers, agents, pimps, movie stars between pictures, beauty queens, rock stars, writers, painters, politicians, gangsters and garden-variety con men.

"All we lacked was a priest, but we had an entire colony of cardinals in the form of the Muslim hierarchy led by Herbert Muhammad, who was Ali's manager and the son of the Right Honourable Elijah Muhammad. We didn't lack for spiritual help."

The presence of such a glut of parasites might be expected to have an adverse effect on a boxing champion who was preparing to defend his title. In this case there were other serious distractions for the fighter. Ali was on a secret honeymoon, he seriously underestimated his challenger, and he viewed his visit to Manila as an all-expenses paid, four-week vacation. Put these together and you have a recipe for disaster.

The previous year, Ali had rumbled in the jungle, sensationally demoralising George Foreman in what was the defining fight of his career and the most bizarre occasion in boxing history. In Zaire he had been introduced to a stunning model named Veronica Porsche, with whom he began an affair.

On the assumption that this would be a fairly easy encounter, Ali spent much of his time in Manila with his new girlfriend, whom he later married. He made a big mistake, however, when he took her to a reception at the presidential palace to meet Marcos and his wife, Imelda. "Your wife is quite beautiful," Marcos said. Ali did not correct him.

An article in Newsweek soon described the incident to the world, Ali's womanising at last exposed. Her suspicions confirmed, Belinda Ali flew into a rage and left immediately for Manila. Tall, with a black belt in karate, she stormed into the hotel room where Ali and Veronica were staying, tore down drapes, smashed mirrors, and left scratches on her errant husband's face. A British sports columnist described it all as another Ali stunt. Some stunt. The divorce settlement would cost Ali $4m.

Thirty years on, what occurred in the ring is an indelible memory. In order to accommodate closed-circuit television viewers in the United States, the fight was scheduled for 10:45 in the morning. It seemed pointless to announce an attendance figure, since by the time the contestants reached their corners people filled every inch of floor space. There was no aisle space, just a wall-to-wall sweep of sweating bodies. More daring spectators had even crawled out on to rafters.

There was no air conditioning. The high humidity in surrounding Manila and the temperature in the arena made breathing nearly impossible. Under the ring lights it was even hotter. "In all my years in boxing I'd never known such heat," Dundee recalled.

Before the opening bell, Frazier stared hard at Ali. He looked like he wanted to hit Ali during the introductions. He was ready to go. Ali looked serene. This, he thought, was going to be fun. It would be anything but. It would be a battle nearly to the death, an epic struggle beyond the experience of any of those watching.

Ali was in control in the early rounds, but Frazier refused to yield ground, coming on through the champion's punches, bullying him back to the ropes. Ali was impressed. In a clinch, he muttered to Frazier: "Joe, they told me you was all washed up." Frazier growled back: "They lied."

By the fourth round Ali's punches had lost zip. He was tiring. The heat, the bright lights, the muggy, oxygen-deprived atmosphere and Frazier's toughness were wearing him down. The exchanges proceeded with such brutal intensity that questions hung in the air. How much more could Frazier take? How much more did Ali have left? Frazier had trained to go 15 hard rounds if necessary. Ali had expected an early finish. But round six passed and Frazier was still there in front of him and, worse, now coming at him, unleashing damaging hooks to the body.

Ali was to say later: "Man, I hit him with punches that would bring down the walls of a 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."

Both men continued to batter each other with such relentless savagery that you began to fear for their lives, marvel at their courage, the extent of their will to win. In round 12 Ali regained the initiative, staggering Frazier again. In round 13, a jolting left hand sent Frazier's gumshield spinning into the crowd. He was spitting blood. His left eye was completely closed and his right eye was closing. He could no longer block or evade Ali's blows.

After the end of round 14, Futch stopped the fight. "I was thinking about Joe's family, how much they loved him," Futch told me shortly before his death three years ago. "People still ask me why I pulled Joe out when there were only three minutes left. My answer has never changed. I tell them that I'm not a timekeeper. I'm a handler of fighters."

Ken Jones picks his 5 most memorable fights of all time

1: MUHAMMAD ALI v JOE FRAZIER Manila, 1 October 1975 (see above)

2: CASSIUS CLAY v SONNY LISTON Miami, 25 February 1964

Having emerged as the leading heavyweight contender, Clay faced the formidable Sonny Liston for the world title in 1964. Few gave him a chance but he dominated the fight and won when Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round, claiming a shoulder injury. After the victory Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

3: MUHAMMAD ALI v GEORGE FOREMAN Kinshasa, Zaire, 30 October 1974

Ali reclaimed the heavyweight championship when he knocked out the previously unbeaten George Foreman. Dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle", it was the defining triumph of Ali's career and the most bizarre occasion in heavyweight boxing. No longer in possession of his leg speed, Ali dropped back on to loosened ropes and Fletoreman to punch himself out. Demoralised by this courage and daring, Foreman was knocked out in the eighth round.

4: JOE LOUIS v MAX SCHMELING New York, 22 June 1938

Although never a member of the Nazi party, Max Schmeling was touted by Goebbels as Hitler's champion. Two years earlier he had beaten up the young Joe Louis over 12 rounds. Revenge came when Schmeling challenged him for the heavyweight title. In one round of controlled fury, Louis (right) delivered for his country. When someone called Louis "a credit to his race", sportswriter Jimmy Cannon remarked: "Yes, the human race."

5: JACK JOHNSON v JAMES J JEFFRIES Reno, Nevada, 4 July 1910

There was only one reason why James J Jeffries was dragged out of a five-year retirement to challenge Jack Johnson for the title. Indisputably the best heavyweight of his time, the flash Johnson was black. White America wanted to see him beaten. But Jeffries was too old and Johnson was too good. Johnson tormented Jeffries before knocking him out in the 15th round.

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