Illustration for article titled When Boxing Was King

The three boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were the most galvanizing sporting events of the 1970s. They took on a cultural significance that readily transcended the world of sports. Each man became an icon with contrasting images. Ali—brash, articulate and handsome, easily won the war for the hearts and minds over the pug-nosed Frazier—a country boy who spoke slowly with a South Carolina accent. And Ali was, to many, a hero for resisting the draft and the Vietnam War, actions which cost him his title. In the public relations part of the game, Frazier was no match for Ali.


But what took place outside the ring wasn’t nearly as dramatic as what took place inside. The two fighters battled in three epic matches; Ali won two, Frazier one, and they left each other scarred. Ali won the third match in Manila in 1975 and went on an astonishing late-career run as a champion. Frazier all but disappeared from view.

Until now. On Saturday, HBO will air Thrilla in Manila, a look at Joe Frazier’s perspective of the legendary rivalry. It’s a side of the story that has been largely ignored, and the film functions nicely as a balancing agent. “After spending some time with him, it seemed to me that Joe Frazier is an old-fashioned American hero,” said director John Dower at a post-screening press conference in New York.


His film captures Frazier at his gym in Philadelphia teaching aspiring boxers before backtracking to the late ‘60s. Ali was the champion who was stripped of his crown and banned from boxing after he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. The two men were collegial, if not outright friendly. Frazier, who won the vacated title, lent Ali money and dined with President Richard Nixon in lobbying attempts to get the ban lifted.

At the press conference, Frazier was asked about his meeting with Nixon at the White House, and he was characteristically laconic. “He had me over to dinner at the house with his wife and daughters,” he said. When pressed for more detail, Frazier allowed, “He asked if I could beat Ali, and I told him, ‘yeah, I got him right here,’” patting his pocket.

The ban lasted three years, but once Ali was cleared to fight and a championship match was set, the tone changed considerably. Ali lit into Frazier with an unprecedented fury calling him an “Uncle Tom,” “animal” and “ignorant.” In the first fight on March 8, 1971, Frazier handed Ali his first loss, with a unanimous decision. By the time they fought again on Jan. 28, 1974, Frazier had lost his title to George Foreman, and the battle was to decide who the leading challenger would be. Ali won, though Frazier and several leading sportswriters disputed the decision. Ali went on to beat Foreman in October 1974 setting the stage for the Thrilla in Manila on Oct. 1, 1975 in the Philippines. It was one of the most grueling and celebrated boxing events ever.

Thrilla in Manila tells the story with alarming detail and hilarious commentary. The film is much less observational than Leon Gast’s superb When We Were Kings which captured the scene in Kinshasa for the Ali-Foreman fight in 1974. Instead, Dower arrays a cast of talking heads between them so that a dialogue emerges from the commentary. Ali’s cornerman, Ferdie Pacheco, is almost as brash and outspoken as his fighter was. Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, is a charming curiosity. Frazier’s son, Marvis, is calm and insightful. “I like to have a Robert Altmanesque ensemble,” said Dower of his motley crew of commentators.


The film will rub hard-core fans of Ali the wrong way, but Dower says it wasn’t his intent to tear down the great heavyweight. “I came to this with no agenda about Muhammad Ali at all,” he said at a post-screening press conference in New York this week. “It’s just that in telling this story you keep butting into the myth of Ali.”

Ali takes a few on the chin, but he has only himself to blame for some of it. Dower and his crew unearthed footage of Ali boasting about his agreements with the Ku Klux Klan on camera from the early ‘70s. And during his stay in Manila, he is caught womanizing.


However, Thrilla in Manila is far more effective as a portrait than a rebuttal or a diatribe. Frazier is the quiet focus of the film. He is shown in his gym, and he’s coaxed into watching the third fight for the first time. “I lost the fight. What would I have learned from watching it again?” he asked without the slightest hint of wistfulness.

Frazier, both in the movie and in person, seems like a man stuck in the wrong era. His humility and background were easily confused in the ‘70s for subservience, a time when outspokenness was the norm. He wasn’t media savvy in a moment when his opponent was charismatic and savagely sarcastic.


Joe Frazier is 65. Ali is 67 and physically diminished by Parkinson’s disease. But it is the distressed state of boxing today that lingers most potently after the film. “Forget Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier,” said Smokin’ Joe at the press conference. “We did our job. We need people to do that job today.”

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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