Ali and Frazier fought for the first time on March 8, 1971. The fight that was billed as the fight of the century and lived up to that billing. It was quite possibly the greatest sports spectacle of the century. It featured the first meeting of undefeated heavyweight champions. Ali was coming back from a three year layoff after having his title stripped and being prohibited from boxing due to his refusal to enter the armed services. Frazier had stepped into the void created by Ali's absence and had won the title in the heavyweight championship tournament. Ali had a couple of tune up fights and declared himself ready to reclaim his rightful place atop the heavyweight division. Ali and Frazier were friendly during Ali's boxing exile, with Frazier even giving Ali money during a particularly rough stretch. Once the contracts were signed however, Ali began to taunt Frazier in public. He called him ugly and an Uncle Tom. He painted Frazier as the "white man's champion". He claimed to be the people's champion. He turned the fight into a battle between the status quo and the voices for change, between the old and young, between black and white, between rich and poor. Frazier didn't want any of it and he grew to hate Ali because of the taunting. The fight itself was an epic battle. Ali dominated the early rounds with his speed and his jab. Frazier, a notoriously slow starter came back in the middle rounds. The fight was fairly even as they entered the last five rounds of the fight. The years away from boxing had robbed Ali of his ability to dance around the ring for 15 rounds. As the latter rounds became more of a flat footed slugfest, the fight swung in Frazier's direction. Frazier knocked Ali to the canvas in the 15th and final round with a thunderous trademark left hook. Ali somehow managed to pull himself up at that count of 4, but the decision was never in doubt. Frazier had defeated him and could now lay rightful claim to the true undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
The second fight in the trilogy took place in January of 1974. Neither man was champion at that point. Frazier had been knocked senseless by George Foreman in Jamaica a year earlier and Ali had lost to a previously unknown boxer named Ken Norton. Both were at the crossroads of their careers. The fight was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, which was the same venue as their first fight, it had none of the majesty of that fight however. Ali continued to taunt Frazier and Frazier continued to build animosity toward Ali. They even tussled on Wide World of Sports while doing an interview with Howard Cosell. Ali was probably just acting, but Frazier was dead serious. The fight in the ring was neither as interesting nor as close as their first fight had been. Ali won easily, although Frazier did score with a number of punches. The fight was really the beginning of the end for Frazier. He would fight only four more times before retiring. Ali went on to fight 15 more times after the second Frazier fight.
The third fight was supposed to be easy for Ali. He had just recently regained the heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire and Frazier was perceived to be at the end of the line. Ali didn't train heavily for the fight but Frazier threw everything he had into preparation. He wanted to shut Ali up once and for all. The fight took place at an indoor arena that had no air conditioning. Under the TV lights the temperature soared well above 100 degrees in the ring. The humidity was stifling. The only ventilation in the building was in the form of fans that were ineffective in battling the heat and only served to circulate the already searing air. Ali was confident as he entered the ring. He felt that he would be able to take Joe out in the early rounds. Joe had another thought in mind. The fight started in the familiar pattern of Ali - Frazier fights. Ali dominated the early rounds. He peppered Frazier with jabs and power punches that Frazier seemed unable to stop or dodge. The fight began to turn once again in the middle rounds. Frazier pinned Ali to the ropes and began to pound at Ali's midsection and score left hooks to the head. Ali tried his rope-a-dope technique which had been so successful against Foreman, but Frazier proved too smart an opponent to simply punch himself out. He was much more economical and precise in his attack than the outclassed Foreman had been. As the fight wore on Ali knew that he was in for a battle. In one of the clinches he said, "Joe, they said you were done", "They lied to you champ" was Joe's only response.
The later rounds saw Ali's punches begin to take a toll on Frazier's face. His head became a misshapen lump of bruises. His eye were swollen and his vision became compromised. Ali seized the advantage. He produced pinpoint power shots to Frazier's head and started to build a lead. Frazier did not stop punching however. He hurt Ali on numerous occasions as the fight wore on. Ali was later quoted as saying that those later rounds were as close to death as he as ever felt. The heat and Frazier's relentless attack pushed him to the brink of quitting. His corner pushed him out for each round and he continued his attack on Frazier's face. A series of shots in the 13th round sent Frazier's mouthpiece flying into the crowd, but he never stopped coming forward, absorbing punishment, but also dishing it out. Frazier's corner wanted to stop the fight after the 13th round but he convinced them to give him one more round. In the 14th round a nearly blinded Frazier absorbed a vicious beating from Ali and his corner did indeed call it quits before the start of the 15th. In the tape from the fight, you can see Frazier arguing with his corner about stopping the fight, but in the end his trainer, Eddie Futch, had the final say. Frazier was so upset by that decision that he never spoke to Futch again. Ali, upon seeing that the fight was being stopped, got off his stool, raised his hand and then collapsed onto the canvas.
Both men had absorbed a tremendous amount of damage in the fight. And while Frazier's face looked the worse for wear, it was Ali's body that had suffered the most in the fight. Ali always gave up his body in order to protect his face and Frazier exacted an enormous toll during the fight. Ali was under a doctors care for several days after the fight, while Frazier was able to walk away in generally good condition. Joe Frazier would once again lose by knockout to George Foreman in his next fight after which he retired. Frazier had a short lived comeback a few years later in which he fought only once, but basically his career ended that night in Manila. Ali said after the fight that he was going to quit and most people believe that he should have. Of course he wouldn't. He would go on to lose and then win the title one more time and he would suffer ignominious defeat at the hands of Larry Holmes in an ill advised comeback. Ali is now afflicted with Parkinson's Syndrome, which means that although he doesn't have Parkinson's he has all the symptoms of a sufferer of the disease. It's a more scientific term for what used to labeled "punch drunk". His speech has been affected to the point that he doesn't speak in public anymore. His limbs shake uncontrollably and his movement is limited. His continued boxing activity after that night in Manila is probably the main reason for his condition today.
The thrilla in Manila was an epic struggle between two extraordinary fighters. Both men were past their primes, both had already secured their places in boxing history, both had nothing left to prove, but on that night they showed the world something more than just a championship bout. They were no longer fighting for the heavyweight championship, they were fighting for the championship of each other. They had split the first two fights and the winner of this fight could forever claim victory over the other. Neither of them was willing to give up that fight. They both fought to the edge of death to prove something, not to the world, but to each other. Ali won that night, but paid a heavy cost by continuing his boxing career. The effects of his decision to continue to fight have made him a shadow of the person he used to be. Frazier is still relatively healthy today and while he says that he harbors no ill will toward Ali today, there has to be a lingering thought in his head that perhaps by losing, he was the ultimate victor that October night in Manila. +