Muhammad Ali: Great Or Goat, a New HBO Film Decides For You

Mark MedersonCorrespondent IApril 22, 2009

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24:  Muhammad Ali attends the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) September 24, 2008 in New York City. President Clinton is hosting the fourth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a gathering of politicians celebrities, philanthropists and business leaders grouped together to discuss pressing global issues.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In fiction, the hero is almost always all good and the villain, all bad. Real life doesn't work that way.

The HBO documentary film, Thrilla' in Manilla, takes viewers back to the day when Ali versus Frazier was not just the biggest match in boxing, but the biggest battle in all of sports, and quite possibly the most closely followed cultural event in all the world.

Like any great sports film, Thrilla' in Manilla is about much more than just boxing.  Director John Dower uses the story of the fight as metaphor for "good vs. evil."

Unfortunately, Dower makes the mistake of making his bias painfully obvious: Frazier is "good" and Ali is "evil."

The director spends a great deal of time highlighting the fact that Ali, who was married at the time, conspicuously brought his girlfriend with him to the Phillipines. Scandalous. 

At the same time, Dower includes several present-day comments from a woman named Denise Menz in the film. Ms. Menz is listed as "Joe's traveling companion." 

Joe also happened to be married at the time, but the director fails to mention that.  Both fighters were married and traveling with their mistresses, but only Ali's tryst is worthy of mentioning.


In my opinion, documentary filmmakers should do their best to layout both sides of a story and then let the viewer decide for themselves which side to align with.

Instead, Thrilla' in Manilla takes every opportunity available to portray Frazier as "good" and Ali as "bad."

Having said that, I still believe that this is a documentary film that is worth watching. 

For non-boxing fans, this is an excellent look back at one of pop cultures most intriguing and captivating moments.

For fans of the sport, especially those who were not around in 1971, this is an inside look at one of the greatest spectacles in boxing history, a time when boxing was "king."

Of special interest to fight fans is witnessing Frazier watch the fight and make comments. He claims that this is the first time he ever watched the fight.

This film may open the eyes of younger Ali fans to the dark side of a man they know as one of the greatest boxers who ever lived. It might also make older Frazier fans re-think much of what they believed about "Smokin' Joe."

For everyone else, it is an in-depth look at one of sports' most epic battles.

Thrilla' in Manilla shows viewers that both of these men have the qualities of true-to- life heroes. Unfortunately, it also reveals how each also posses the frailties of a villain.