Setting the record straight

Thriller in Manila

on January 17, 2009 by Cathleen Rountree

“That’s the closest thing to death you will ever see,” an uncharacteristically humbled Muhammad Ali guaranteed listeners on more than one occasion. The infamous “That” refers to the third and final boxing match between the World Heavyweight Champion at the time, Ali, and his nemesis, the former World Heavyweight Champion, Joe Frazier, that took place on October 1, 1975, in the embattled city of Manila. The bout proved a near-death experience for them both, and for once in his life, Ali’s claim lacked inflation and embellishment.

This superbly produced British Channel 4 documentary combines firsthand accounts from Frazier himself (who watches the fight on camera for the very first time), journalists, the acting referee and various members of each entourage, with edge-of-your-seat archival fight footage. Thriller in Manila provides a needed bookend to the Rumble in the Jungle accounting in the popular Oscar-winning When We Were Kings. It may take a while to find its audience (more likely on DVD), but Thriller could very well (and should) gain equal cult status.

To a life-long Ali fan, like myself, who knew next to nothing about Joe Frazier, this informative doc introduced me to a socio/cultural event that is now considered the greatest boxing match in history. The film--sympathetic to Frazier--tells the story of “the most intense and bitter sporting rivalry ever seen.” The lead up to Manila goes something like this: In 1967, because he refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War (based on his Muslim religion), Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title; in addition to the moral solidarity and friendship Frazier offered Ali during his outcast period, he also contributed financially to Ali’s livelihood, and promised to help Ali get his license returned. But when Frazier won the title in a match with a lesser-known fighter, Buster Mathis, Ali turned on his former friend with a shocking nasty bitterness. Subsequently, Frazier won a first fight with Ali and lost a second.

During this period, Ali’s provocative remarks increasingly demeaned Frazier’s looks, his darker skin color and his “inferior” intelligence. The final blow came when Ali repeatedly called him “an ugly black gorilla” and “an Uncle Tom.” The acrimony and deep hatred that developed between the pair culminated in the perfect storm of their third and final rematch in the 125-degree Manila. Frazier pummeled Ali and, as Thomas Hauser, Ali’s biographer put it: “He wasn’t just beating Ali; he was beating Ali up.” But the tide turned during the 14th round when Frazier’s battered eyes began to swell and he lost sight in one of them. Frazier insisted on continuing with the match but his trainer ended it. The moment he heard, Ali dropped to the floor in utter exhaustion. In a twist of fate, his trainer later revealed that before he heard the pronouncement, Ali had begged them to “cut the gloves” (end the bout), in which case the decision would have gone in favor of Frazier.

It’s heartbreaking to think that in Philadelphia the greatest tribute to a prize-fighter (a statue at the foot of the art museum steps) belongs to the fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa. In fact, it was Frazier who worked in a Philly slaughterhouse, pounding huge sides of beef as practice, and trained by running up the museum steps. Perhaps Thriller in Manila will set the record straight. The 63-year-old Frazier still owns a training gym there and, like the Morgan Freeman character in Million Dollar Baby, lives in a single room upstairs. Asked about his current feelings toward Ali, Frazier responded: “Whatever you do as a young man comes back to bite you in the butt when you’re old.” To him, Ali’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease is plain and simple justice. Another interviewee speaks of the blood feud in mythic proportions: “Both men were Ahab and each was the black whale, but neither could catch the other.”

Distributor: HBO Documentary Films and HBO Sports
Cast: Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Live Schreiber (narrator)
Director/Screenwriter: John Dower
Producer: John Dower
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: Unset

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