Although most of the circumstances surrounding the third Ali-Frazier fight have been told in books, Thrilla in Manilla (narrated by Liev Schreiber and produced and directed by John Dower) puts all the pieces together in a clearer and more dramatic narrative than any previous account. It also puts the hatred — there’s no other word for it — between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier into better perspective.
Frazier, who had befriended Ali when the U.S. government stripped Ali of his heavyweight title in the 1960s — even loaning him money — was turned into a villain during the promotion for their first fight in 1971. Joe, who grew up in rural South Carolina chopping cotton, had lived a life far more representative of the average American black male than Ali, who was raised in a relatively middle class environment in Louisville, Kentucky. Spurred on by the Black Muslims, Ali, perhaps reluctantly at first, mercilessly berated Frazier as “The White Man’s Champion” and “Uncle Tom” to build up the box office.
The fight hardly needed it; it was the only match of unbeaten fighters both claiming the heavyweight title in boxing history. It might be hyperbole to call it, as several people do in Tower’s documentary “The Most Anticipated Fight in Boxing History” — the second Joe Louis-Max Scheming match, with the world poised on the brink of war, really deserves that billing — but Al-Frazier 1, taken by Frazier in a unanimous decision, was the first genuine superfight the sport had ever seen.
Ali won a controversial decision in a rematch, and by the time the two met for the rubber match in the Philippines, the animosity between the two men was embarrassing even to their closest supporters.
Thrilla in Manila takes a brave position: Muhammad Ali was wrong. The Champ has pretty much gotten a free ride from much of the press in regards to his derision of opponents, and this film settles an account long due to Frazier. It’s hard to look at Ali punching a rubber gorilla, telling reporters “It’s gonna be a thrilla’ when we get the gorilla in Manila!” without winching. It’s even harder to watch Frazier 33 years later, his bitterness undiminished, relive his pain. It’s even more painful yet to watch the phony “fight doctor,” Ferdie Pacheco, arrogant as ever as he fades into senility, call Frazier “dumb” for allowing himself to be distracted by Ali’s antics. (Come back, Al Campanis – all is forgiven.)
If you’ve never seen the third Ali-Frazier match and wondered why many boxing historians call it the best heavyweight bout ever, you’ll be
awed, as well, as perhaps sickened a bit by its brutality. You’ll also understand what motivated both men that night. If you miss Saturday
night’s broadcast, it runs through April on both HBO and HBO 2.