By John Mehaffey
LONDON (Reuters) – Every element illustrating the heroism,
fascination and moral ambiguity of prize fighting fused in the
incandescent world title clash between Muhammad Ali and Joe
Frazier in the punishing humidity of Manila 30 years ago.
After 14 rounds of unremitting brutality and with the two
heavyweights on the verge of collapse, Frazier’s corner told
their man it was time to quit.
Frazier’s left eye was closed, he could barely see out of
his right and nothing he was likely to produce in the final
round was going to change the result.
Ali, slumped in his corner and drenched in sweat, had won
the third and most brutal fight against an opponent who forced
him to draw on resources his detractors believed he did not
A year after he astonished the world by vanquishing the
fearsome George Foreman, Ali was again king, indisputably the
greatest of his era and possibly of all time.
Victory in the ‘Thriller in Manila’ came with a literally
“He’s still beautiful outside,” said one of Ali’s medical
team at the time. “But what has it done to him inside?.”
The answer is chillingly apparent today as the man whose
wit and repartee matched the speed of his fists is imprisoned
in the mask of Parkinson’s syndrome, the mind still active but
the body irrevocably slowed after the impact of too many
Ali’s win over Foreman in Zaire, the famed ‘Rumble in the
Jungle’, still astounds after repeat viewings.
Resisting the urgent entreaties of his corner, Ali rested
on the ropes absorbing the punches of his increasingly
frustrated opponent on his arms and shoulders before a sudden,
savage assault floored the startled Foreman.
At 33, Ali had already passed the age when any boxer should
Driven by the twin imperatives of financial demands from
his expanding entourage and a healthy ego he agreed to a third
fight with Frazier, the man who beat him in 1971 after Ali had
lost his best years to a ban following his refusal to be
drafted into the army during the Vietnam war.
Frazier, a proud and decent man who became world champion
by default when Ali was forced into exile, had won the Madison
Square Garden contest on merit.
Maybe something still rankled with Ali four years later
when he taunted Frazier before their Manila fight by comparing
him to a gorilla, a slur resented not only by his opponent but
also by many of Ali’s supporters.
When the pair finally stepped into the ring on October 1,
1975, the tension was palpable and the atmosphere electric in
one of the last great heavyweight fights of the 20th century.
Ali dominated the early rounds before Frazier hit him with
a left hook in the sixth which would have floored anybody else
on the planet.
Any lingering doubts among the onlookers about Ali’s
caliber as a boxer were extinguished when the fastest and
classiest heavyweight of any era showed he could take as well
as give a punch.
Frazier dominated the middle section of the bout as the two
men traded a lightning series of punches in the suffocating
humidity which made even breathing an effort.
But he could not land a decisive blow and in the 12th round
the incredibly resilient Ali counter-attacked, closing
Frazier’s left eye.
At the end of the penultimate round, Frazier’s corner had
“Joe, the fight’s over, I’m stopping it,” said his chief
cornerman Eddie Futch. “You’re taking too much punishment and I
don’t want you to take any more.”
Ali later paid a gracious tribute to the man who had forced
him to the limit.
“Of all the men I fought in boxing, Sonny Liston was the
scariest, George Foreman was the most powerful, Floyd Patterson
the most skilled.
“But the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier. He brought
out the best in me and the best fight we fought was in Manila.”