Looking Back With Anger

By Tom Donelson
Updated: April 12, 2009

IOWA CITY— The HBO special ” Thrilla in Manila”

tells the story of the Ali-Frazier rivalry from Joe Frazier’s point of view. “Smokin’ Joe” was an underappreciated heavyweight, who never got the credit he deserved and was overshadowed by Muhammad Ali.

The special lays out the uglier side of Ali and demonstrating what author Thomas Hauser once noted, “Ali and Frazier bought the best of each other in the ring and the worse outside the ring.”

Joe Frazier would have dominated in most eras of boxing. He was the Mike Tyson of his era, a man whose left hook crushed anything human it came in contact with.

He was a perpetual machine, always moving, always punching, and never stopping. Frazier would attack and keep pecking away at his opponent and he was the foil that made Ali great.

Many of opponents would start boxing and moving before succumbing to Frazier’s pressure. When Buster Mathis fought Frazier, Mathis gained the advantage in the early rounds.

Mathis was five inches taller and considerably heavier. As the fight progressed, Mathis was no longer effective. Moments on the rope became longer and the movement that was present at the beginning of the fight ceased to exist.

Frazier finished Mathis off in the 11th, but the fight was decided long ago.

His high point was his demolition over Jimmy Ellis followed by his victory over Ali in the fight of the century.

Against Ellis, he lost the first two rounds but in the fourth, Jimmy Ellis dream of uniting the championship ended as he went down twice. As Ellis staggered back to his corner, his trainer Angelo Dundee threw in the towel.

What the special brought out, Frazier was in Ali’s corner when Ali fought the United States government and not allowed to fight during his exile.

Frazier not only supported Ali but he even lent him money.

When Frazier was set to fight Ali, he found himself a victim of the Ali treatment. Ali viewed Frazier as the symbol of his own plight and his criticism of Frazier crossed racial lines including calling the his rival an Uncle Tom and before the Manila fight.

Ali called Frazier an gorilla as he declared that in the “Thrilla in Manila, come see me defeat the gorilla in Manila.”

For Frazier this was the last insult to endure.

The HBO special makes the case that Ali considered himself superior to Frazier and nothing more than tool of White America as Frazier career was financed by many white business out of Philadelphia (even though the special forgot to mention that Ali’s career had a similar start and when Ali was in exile from the ring; at least one of those white businessman aided Ali as well.)

After Ali joined the Nation of Islam, The Nation of Islam took over his management and as one Ali corner man; Freddie Pacheco, admitted that Nation of Islam manipulated Ali’s career and even his political opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft.

Frazier’s victory over Ali in their first fight had its price. After a week of hospitalization, Frazier was never the same. After defending his title against non-descript fighters, he faced George Foreman.

In one of the most one-sided fights, George Foreman knocked Frazier down six times in less than two rounds.

As Cosell uttered his famous, “Down goes Frazier, Down goes Frazier,” Frazier reign as champion ended.

Frazier would bounce back with a victory over Joe Bugner but he lost his second bout with Ali in a fast pace battle that was lost in the shadow of his two other fights of Ali.

The second fight was an elimination fight between Ali and Frazier for the right to face Foreman. In contrast to the other two fights, this fight lacked the brutality of the Ali-Frazier Super fight I or the thrilla in Manila.

This fight, however, was as good as fight as any in the 70’s but rarely remembered since the stake appeared not as high. However, for both fighters, this fight meant one more chance at the heavyweight crown and Ali pulled out the victory in a close decision.

In the build up to the second fight, Ali was just as brutal as in the first fight.

One of the most interesting ironies of Ali’s career was that he dissed his black opponents far more than his white opponents.

He tortured and taunted Floyd Patterson in their first fight, literally beating the life out of Ernie Terrell in their match in 1966. In Ali’s defense, these opponents were dismissive of his conversion to Black Muslims, and his battles against them were as much a holy war as a boxing match.

But his worst treatment was reserved for Frazier.

While Frazier originally supported Ali’s cause after Ali was stripped of his title, their relationship would soon switch to outright hatred, especially from Frazier’s point of view.

Ali, in gearing up for the first match, used racial epithets in describing Frazier, declaring him an Uncle Tom. As Freddie Pacheco would say later, Frazier was raging black.

When he was not calling Frazier an Uncle Tom, he was calling Frazier stupid and ugly. Later, Ali would claim this was to draw attendance, but Joe Frazier viewed this attack personally.

His children would feel the brunt of Ali’s attacks with attacks from their schoolmates. For Frazier, defeating Ali was about more than keeping his championship; it was about restoring his honor.

Their third bout was not just about the championship of the world but each other. Ali gave Frazier a third shot simply because he viewed Frazier as a shot fighter and considered this a good pay day.

What boxing fans witnessed one of the brutal championship fights in boxing history. Over a period of 14 rounds, both men essentially beat the last ounce of greatness out of each other.

In the early round, Ali dominated and even buckled Frazier knees a couple of times with sharp rights. Starting in the fifth round, Frazier hit Ali in the body and from this point, it become a fight fought in the trenches with Frazier gaining the upper hand.

As Frazier noted,” When you hit the organs, you can’t move.” His attacks forced Ali to stand and fight. It became a fight to the death.

In the 10th round, Ali told his corner that this was what death must be like.

The key factor going into the stretch run of the fight was that Ali’s punches closed Frazier’s right eye and unknown to the public, Frazier was partially blind in his left eye.

Frazier could not see the Ali lethal right hand and starting in the twelve round, Ali right hand found its mark routinely. In the 13th round, an Ali sent Frazier mouthpiece into the front row and Ali continued pounding Frazier in the 14th round.

Frazier had to be shown the direction to his corner but what would happen over the next minute proved to be a surreal theatre. Despite nearly flooring Frazier, Ali wanted his corner to cut the gloves and surrender.

In Frazier’s corner, Eddie Futch stopped the fight over Frazier’s protest.

Futch knew that in a 15th round, one of those two fighters could be carried out in a body bag and his fighter could no longer see Ali’s punches coming.

After the fight, Ali apologized to Frazier son for his past treatment of his dad and to pass this apology on to his father. Frazier refused to accept the apology and even to this day, Frazier remains bitter toward his rival.

As for Ali, this fight marked a turning point as Ali began to relinquish his own anger toward Frazier and America as well. He turned away from the separatist vision of the Nation of Islam toward a more universal view of racial relations.

He accepted an integrationist view of race.

Yet in the movie, Freddie Pacheco declared Frazier stupid. Stupid for fighting Ali in the 14th round when he should have conceded and stupid for fighting all those years with a partially blind eye; Pacheco symbolized the arrogance of the Ali’s camp toward Ali.

In fairness to Pacheco, he noted in an interview on another program that Frazier was all raging black and much of the criticism toward Frazier was unfair.

It is hard to say what the producer of the documentary cut out in the editing process. There is no doubt that Pacheco respected Frazier based on past interviews and Pacheco place in this documentary was to represent the Ali’s position toward Frazier.

Pacheco also left Ali after the Frazier fight since he felt that Ali needed to retire based on his health after the fight. Pacheco saw the damage that this fight did to both fighters.

Ali-Frazier symbolized the divide between America in the late 60’s and early 70’s; but Frazier never asked to part of the battle. Instead he was forced in a role that he didn’t seek.

By the third fight, it ceased to be a battle that transcended politics but a battle between two men who disliked each other with a passion. Ali would make the first move toward reconciliation and today Ali is no longer the angry fighter who consistently insulted Frazier.

Ali moved toward America and America moved toward Ali but Frazier still feels the pain of Ali’s barbs. Frazier was denied proper recognition as a great fighter of his era.

Today, we recognize Frazier greatness and that he was part of an era that giant of the sports fought within the ring of the Heavyweight division.

There was never a greater period for Heavyweight division than the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s.

What we remembered about this era was not just what happened in the ring but the political winds that blew outside the ring. The sadness of the documentary is that Frazier still feels the sting of Ali’s barb and has yet to make peace with his own accomplishments.

I contrast Frazier with Foreman, who not only made peace with his own past failures in the Ali’s era but has moved on to become an America icon in his own right.

Maybe, Foreman peace came from winning back the title in the 90’s twenty one years later but even before his fight with Michael Moorer; Foreman had obtained his own inner peace.

Hopefully, Frazier will garner a similar peace before he dies for he accomplished much in his career to be proud of.