Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ali - Part V...The Thrilla in Manilla.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manilla, October, 1975.

The most brutal, back-and-forth, kill-or-be-killed, non-stop action, nail-biting fight I've ever seen is the 'Thrilla' in Manilla' between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Phillipines on October first, 1975, exactly 35 years ago today.  It was Ali's last great fight, his final miracle and marked the end of Joe Frazier's fine, noble and heroic career as well.  Frazier went on to fight a few more times, but this was really his last hurrah.  And Ali had a number of challenges in front of him, too, most notably the rematch with Kenny Norton in Yankee Stadium, the loss and comeback victory to Leon Spinks and one of his finest hours, a 15th round slugfest with Ernie Shavers.

But it is the fight in Manilla that both men gave their last ounce of courage.  And, oddly, at the time no one expected it.  Both men were past their prime.  Ali, while still the fastest heavyweight in the division, was not nearly as lightning quick as he was a few years earlier.  And Frazier had taken a savage beating from George Foreman a couple of years before and hadn't quite gotten over it.

But the world wanted to see one more Ali-Frazier contest.  They wanted, one last time, to see these two men battle for heavyweight supremecy.  They wanted the rubber match. 

Frazier, as I outlined in Part II of this series, had beaten Ali fair and square in their first encounter in Madison Square Garden in 1971.  He'd ended the night and the fight with a left hook from the ninth circle of Dante's Hell and deposited Ali flat on his back.  He'd taken the fight to the old poet-warrior as no one before.  And he'd done it without doubt, without second-guessing.  He'd won that fight.  Yes, Ali had gotten up, but the moment had passed.  He'd lost the fight to a better fighter that night.

In the second fight, both men were contenders.  Mighty George Foreman was the champion and both were scrambling for a title fight.  But Ali had learned his lessons well in the first battle and fought a fight specifically designed to beat Frazier.  Hold, clinch, move, circle, long range jabs, quick, end-of-round combinations.  He refused to fight Frazier's fight.  He adapted to Frazier's tank-like style and won the unanimous decision.

Following that he'd beaten the unbeatable George Foreman (See Part IV) in one of the most unusual and exciting fights of the century, The Rumble in the Jungle.  So here it is, 1975, and Ali is once again at the top of the pile, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  And the truth is, as Ali later admitted, he didn't want the third fight with Frazier.  He'd already had 27 brutal rounds with him and didn't relish the idea of 15 more.  Frazier had the perfect style to confound Ali.  Head down, no retreat, get in close, hammer the body, stay low.  That's why I think the oft-asked question about Tyson in his prime and Ali in his prime is so interesting to me.  Tyson was essentially a bigger, stronger, faster, more savage version of Joe Frazier.  He would have given Ali fits.  I still think Ali would have found a way to beat him, that was Ali's remarkable gift as a fighter - much more so than his speed - but it would not have been easy.  It would have been a war.  But I think the deciding factor would have been psychological.  Tyson never took pre-fight banter very well.  His temper nearly always got the best of him.  And having said that, can you IMAGINE what Ali would have said to and about Tyson leading up to the fight?  Tyson would have been too enraged to fight a smart fight by that point and I truly believe Ali would have picked him apart because of it.

But back to Frazier and Ali.  The final battle.  The Armegeddon of boxing.  The Holy War of pugilism.  The last and final measure of these men.

In the pre-fight build-up Ali was even more caustic than the first time.  He called Frazier every name in the book, 'gorilla' being the one that stuck in Frazier's craw the most.  He called his children ugly.  He berated his wife.  Ali had an impish, almost evil side to him and it came out now.  As Red Smith, the great sports writer wrote, "Frazier didn't want to just win the fight, he didn't just want the title back, he wanted Ali's heart."

As I said, no one really expected the fight to be great.  Ali was 33 and Frazier was 31, ancient by boxing standards.  Ali had clearly lost his god-like speed and Frazier was not the juggernaut he once was...Foreman had taken that out of him.  It didn't figure to be too exciting.

From the opening bell, Ali took the fight to Joe Frazier.  He knew from experience that Joe was a slow starter.  History indicated that if Frazier could be caught early, before he had a chance to really get warmed up, he could be stopped.  And Ali, contrary to his usual style, tried to end it at the outset.  He went out and tried to knock Frazier out before he could find his range. 

So, not surprisingly, the first five rounds belong overwhelmingly to Ali.  He sets his feet, comes down off his toes, plants his 6'3", 218 lbs, and throws every shot in his arsenal.  In those first five rounds he hit Frazier with shots that would take a barn down.  He hammered Frazier's head and eyes relentlessly.  And in the third and fourth rounds it looks like a mismatch.  It is a startling display of organized fury.  Frazier can't find his pace, he is off guard, he can't get to Ali, and he takes bomb after bomb straight on the chin.  Ali seems to be channeling his younger self at times.  He throws some of the most perfect, pin point accurate shots of his career.  In short, he seems to be pummeling the hapless Frazier.  It is frightening to watch.

But in the sixth, Frazier finally finds his rhythm.  And all of a sudden, we have a real fight.  He begins to cut the ring off (the only way to fight Ali when he's on his game), to land crushing left hooks to the body, to set the pace.  He starts making Ali fight his fight, trading shots without fear or quarter. 

And it is then that the two men dig inside themselves and refuse to lay down.  At that moment, the sixth round, both fighters make a silent pledge to themselves to either die or win.  The next 8 rounds are magnificent, the finest display of boxing I've ever seen.  At one moment Ali appears to be in trouble as Frazier bludgeons him all around the ring.  A minute passes and Ali tees off at long range, stinging and cutting Frazier with impossible combinations.  I have never seen anything like it before or since.

But in the 13th round things begin to change.  And the reason is simple: Ali is blinding Frazier.  Literally.  Joe's eyes are shutting from the ceaseless pounding around them.  He's having trouble seeing Ali.  And if he can't see Ali he can't get away from the punches.  Both men are beyond exhaustion.  Ali later said, "It's the closest to dying I've ever come."  Even Frazier, after the fight, says uncharacteristically, "Lawdy, Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion."

As the 13th wears on, Ali begins to punch with impunity.  Nearly every shot lands.  Frazier has had to stand up and fight, a posture he's not familiar with, because he can't see from his usual crouch.  He thus becomes a perfect target for Ali's style. 

The 14th round is almost painful to watch.  Ali is picking Frazier apart.  The blinded Frazier keeps coming forward, never retreating, never backing up, and Ali treats him like a training bag.  Blood is flowing freely from cuts around Frazier's eyes.  His left eye is completely shut and his right is a mere slit.  And he keeps coming.  He keeps walking straight into Ali's sniper fire.  It's beautiful and tragic and ugly and perfect and inhuman. I have never seen more 'heart' from a fighter than Joe Frazier exhibited that night in the 14th round in Manilla 35 years ago this month.

Between rounds 14 and 15 will go down in boxing lore.  In the films of the fight, one can clearly see Ali holding his gloves out to Angelo Dundee, his trainer, and mouthing the words, "Cut them off." Dundee refuses to do so.  Later, Ali says he told Dundee, "I can't go back out there.  I can't fight that man anymore."

In the other corner, Frazier's corner, Eddie Futch, Frazier's long-time close friend and trainer, is moving his index finger around in front of Joe's face.  Frazier can't see it.  He tries to get up, to rise off his stool and move toward Ali.  Futch stops him.  Physically pushes him back on the stool.  He says, "This is over.  No one will ever forget what you did here tonight.  But it's over."

Literally moments before Ali can quit, Frazier's handlers toss a small, white towel into the middle of the ring signalling the end of the fight.  Frazier is blind and Ali is spent.  But the contest was over.  Frazier had lost by TKO.  And that's what's listed in the record books: Ali - W - TKO - 15.  But it doesn't begin to tell the story.  It doesn't begin to tell the story of 42 minutes of the most astounding boxing ever witnessed.  Ali had regained his title.  The two men never fought again.  That was the last sound of the cannons.

Ali said, later that night, "If I ever have to fight a Holy War, I want Joe Frazier at my side."

Frazier said, "I hit him with shots that would take down the walls of Jericho.  He just wouldn't fall.  He's the greatest fighter I've ever seen."  Frazier, who still today hates Ali, would later deny he said that.  But cameras recorded it minutes after the fight in his dressing room.  He said it and he meant it.

Joe Frazier spent ten days in the hospital.  Muhammad Ali spent six days in the hospital.  Ali couldn't walk for two weeks, actually used a wheelchair privately, because of the massive and damaging blows he took to his hips and kidneys.  Frazier wore two eyepatches for four days.  His vision never fully recovered.   Ali's hands were so swollen he couldn't even feed himself for days.  Frazier was officially diagnosed with a concussion.

A terrible and awesome night.

The best fight I've ever seen.

See you tomorrow.