Fourteen years after the famous "Thrilla in Manila," heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton were brought together to have dinner and film a video talking about their incredible exploits in the ring.
For the most part it was congenial—old warriors reliving the past. But there was still a spark in Frazier's eye, a dangerous glint that presaged violence. All those years later, you could see the fire still burned. Ali had gone too far. And no amount of time was going to help bridge that gap.
Ali and Frazier will walk into history hand in hand. They will be glaring at each other the whole time. The two men put each other through hell in the ring. But it was the wounds to Frazier's psyche that hurt the most. Ali hit hard and he hit low, taunting Frazier for his lack of education, his looks, even his smell. Attacks built on race hurt most of all.
As Ron Borges explained for ESPN, 32 years after their last fight, Ali knew just where to hit Frazier—both in the ring and out: "He marginalized him in a way no one else could have, not only demeaning and ridiculing him but also transforming him into something he was not. The latter has been, it seems, what Smokin' Joe has never been able to forget. Or forgive."
The harsh words spurred harsh actions in the ring. Contemporaries marveled, wondered at the brutality. Both men ended up trapped in their own minds—Ali by the physical ravages of the ring, Frazier by the hatred he couldn't let go.
Simply put, it was the greatest rivalry in sports history, the kind of naked hatred author Mark Kram, who wrote a book about the third epic fight called Ghosts of Manila, suggested rarely manifests itself so clearly in public:
True contempt is seldom visible in sports. While greed, envy, and smallness run through games like congealed blood, they are commonly concealed, if for no other reason than they are disruptive to the supposedly idyllic code of sportsmanship that athletics promotes; such contempt is far too personal.
Whatever their flaws, Ali and Frazier hid little from the public. Everything they had they gave openly and honestly to the world—even the kind of vitriol that made Frazier suggest, without a hint of humor, that he wished his rival had fallen into the Olympic flame in 1996.
All of the greats have long resumes stuffed full of dates, vaguely familiar names and venues long since demolished. But only a handful matter—the few fights that saw them transcend the ordinary, casual brutality of their sport, that forced them to achieve new heights of craft or dig deeply into their soul, into what makes us human.
Every great hero needs his foil, a rival capable of pushing him to limits he'd never reach on his own. For a boxer, winning fights is only step one on the path to immortality. The true legends redefine courage and will, demanding more of their bodies and minds than seems possible.
Ali and Frazier pushed things farther than any two men in boxing history, battling not just for the public and the world championship but in their own personal contest of wills. We know a bit more about the limits of human endurance because of these two extraordinary men and the hell they went through in a boxing ring.
What many call the greatest boxing match of all time wasn't supposed to be much of a fight. Ali and Frazier, after splitting their first two fights earlier in the decade, were supposed to be past their prime in 1975. An aging Ali seemed increasingly bored by his own excellence. Frazier, it seemed, had never quite recovered from winning their first fight four years earlier.
The trauma for Frazier was as much mental as it was physical. The proud son of a South Carolina farmer, Frazier was practically a poster child for the black diaspora in the 1960s. He had escaped a life of wretched poverty in the South only to find himself in similarly dire straits in the ghettos of New York and Philadelphia, a dismal slaughterhouse replacing the farm in his struggle to feed his growing family.
Frazier, his biographer Phil Pepe explained in Come Out Smokin', had come up harder than Ali, experiencing the kind of suffering his rival could only imagine:
As a boy Muhammad Ali lived in a rather comfortable home, while Joe Frazier lived in a shack. Muhammad Ali had his own bicycle and never had to work while Joe Frazier picked vegetables on a farm for a dollar a day and made his own punching bag. Muhammad Ali had plenty to eat and wear, while Joe Frazier worried about starvation and a pair of shoes, hand-me-downs, became a special treat.
Despite these struggles, before their first fight Ali presented Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the "white man's champion." Frazier knew Ali's narrative was false. But he lacked the wherewithal to combat the verbose Ali in a war of words. Even if he had, the polarized nation might not have wanted so much gray tossed into their social proxy war.
The best Frazier could do in return was call Ali by his "slave name" and continue referring to him as Cassius Clay.
"Clay is a phony," Frazier told confidant Dave Wolf, who kept a journal during all three Ali-Frazier fights. "He never worked. He never had a job. He don't know nothing about life for most black people."
While the drama made the 1971 "Fight of the Century" more than a splendid athletic spectacle, touching on race and politics in a time when those things were irrevocably intertwined, it did so at great psychic cost to Frazier.
Even victory couldn't assuage the pain. Frazier, sitting on top of the world, found it a lonely place to be.
"Anything that come to his mind about me, he said. And he meant every word that he said," Frazier said in the documentary Facing Ali. "It did not just hurt then. It still hurts...It didn't quite bother me, but it bothered me when it started coming to my kids...it cut down their fun, all because of those names. I just wanted to be the champion of the world and represent the people in the right way. Not a Tom, or a yes-man or the white man's champ. I represent the world. That's how I looked at it."
By the time their third bout came around, Frazier believed he had experienced Ali at his worst. Whatever the champion had, he could take. He still didn't appreciate Ali's politicization of their feud, but he understood—it had made the two men bigger than boxing, and his checkbook appreciated the extra zeros, even if his pride didn't.
But when Ali called him a "gorilla" at a press conference in Malaysia, invoking one of the most vicious racial stereotypes there is, all of the pain came bursting to the surface.
"Every once in a while, the ugliness that's behind that cocky smile sees the sunshine," Frazier told Wolfe. "Clay is a phony and a hypocrite who uses his people, mostly his own people."
In retrospect, it was almost inevitable. You don't put a motormouth with a penchant for rhyme like Ali in front of a microphone in Manila without expecting the worst. In different hands it might have even been innocent fun—but Ali's hands were already covered in Frazier's emotional blood.
"I hated Ali," Frazier admitted to Ali's biographer Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "...I hated that man. First two fights, he tried to make me a white man. Then he tried to make me a n--ger. How would you like it if your kids came home from school crying, because everyone was calling their daddy a gorilla?"
If Ali knew he'd gone too far, he showed no sign, doubling down on the ugliness in subsequent television appearances.
"Joe Frazier should give his face to the Wildlife Fund," Ali boasted. "He's so ugly, blind men go the other way. Ugly! Ugly! Ugly! He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country! What will the people of Manila think? That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly."
He had already questioned the man's intelligence. His boxing prowess. His blackness. In the buildup to the second fight, Frazier once broke into tears in the back of a car. Despite himself, Ali got to him, especially his attacks on Frazier's intelligence.
With that water under the bridge, this storm flowed right over Frazier's defensive walls. This was too far.
While Frazier stewed, Ali was busy enough just navigating his increasingly complicated life. The grand drama in Manila centered on Ali's not-so-secret mistress, Veronica Porsche. Normally, she settled in among Ali's growing entourage, just one of a contingent so large he needed 52 rooms at the Hilton in Manila to house them all for the fight.
Here, for whatever reason, Ali thrust Porsche into the spotlight, even bringing her to a state dinner with Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda.
There has always been a tacit understanding in the boxing press not to report on Ali's romantic life. He was a man of big appetites—women included. One member of his entourage, Lloyd Wells, had a simple job—make sure there were plenty of pretty girls around.
But when Marcos mistook Veronica for Ali's wife, and the champion let the misunderstanding stand, reporter Peter Bonventre didn't feel he could sit on the story any longer. Bonventre's story for Newsweek, "The Ali Mystique," blew the lid off the scandal. After that, there was no going back, for anyone, including Ali's wife, Belinda.
Like many in his life, she had been content to look away as he made a mockery of their marriage vows. But the story hitting a national news magazine made it impossible to ignore. The next day she was on a plane for Manila, where she confronted Ali in his suite at the Hilton Hotel, where he was filming a story for The Today Show with Dick Schaap.
As Belinda left the room, she issued a threat for Ali to take back to his mistress.
"You tell that b--ch, if I see her I'm gonna break her back. If I see her anywhere, I'm gonna break her back,'" Wells, who was in the room, recounted to Thomas Hauser. "And then she went downstairs, back to her limousine, rode to the airport and went home on the same plane that brought her."
To Ali, Frazier was a secondary opponent that October. His wife, the media, even the weight of the world all rated higher on his mental priority list.
"This fight won't even be close," Ali told the New York Times. "Not one round will the judges say Frazier won. By round three, the fight will have to be stopped. Joe Frazier is completely washed up, nothing but a punching bag."
It was bravado, sure. But there was also a ring of truth to the verbal assault. The previous year, one that saw Ali smash the legend of Foreman, Frazier had struggled badly against Jimmy Ellis, a man he had previously dispatched with ease.
Frazier had never been a perfect fighter. He was small. Approaching lackadaisical when he didn't respect his opponent. A linear craftsman, carefully following the notes while Ali played jazz. It was these flaws, boxing historian Mike Casey wrote, that kept fans' interest:
For me, Joe Frazier was a glorious fighter, for reasons as simple as his unrelenting style. We knew exactly what he brought to the table during his exciting rise to power, and they were the qualities we love to see in champions. In Joe’s case, the simple ingredients comprised of pride, determination, an insatiable will to win and a wrecking ball of a left hook as the icing on top. Yet the chinks in Smokin’ Joe’s armour were no less appealing. Perfect fighters, if there are such things, captivate us for a while but begin to annoy us in the long run. Imperfect fighters win our affection and stay in our hearts.
His rival may have been distracted by the minutiae of his complicated life. Frazier was focused on one thing, with his not-insubstantial will propelling him toward a single goal—making Ali pay.
"A man can't think he's God," Frazier told Kram. "And he put me on earth for one reason, made me a fighter, for when the day come, I go and slay a false god."
Ali had a gift for making people care, for turning a fight into a show. With Frazier, perhaps to Ali's eternal annoyance, the fight was the show. Even at an ancient 31, even washed up as he was, Frazier was still a stylistic nightmare for the champion.
Maybe, just maybe, there was something about Ali that brought out Frazier's best, that allowed him to make liars out of all those who claimed he could no longer step into the ring with the "Great Ali." Whatever the reason, rumors of his demise proved unfounded.
After a slow start, Frazier did what he was made to do. He persevered, outlasting Ali. While the champion was built for speed, brilliant at improvisation, seeming to always find the right strategy for the moment, Frazier was predictable and plodding—but unyielding.
In a heat that approached 120 degrees as an overwhelmed air-conditioning system battled both the sun and nearly 30,000 fans, Frazier proved in three-minute increments that he still belonged.
As the seventh round opened, one minute after several thunderous left hooks snapped his head back and sent his mouthpiece flying, even Ali was forced to acknowledge as much.
"Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you was washed up," Richard Hoffer recounted Ali saying to Frazier in his book Bouts of Mania.
"Somebody told you wrong, pretty boy," Frazier replied.
Words exchanged, the two men went back to destroying each other. On his way to his 34th birthday, Ali had slowed considerably, more closely resembling the sad old man who fought Larry Holmes than the young fighter who so easily outclassed poor Floyd Patterson a decade earlier.
Ali no longer floated quite like a butterfly. The fleet feet that had once so infuriated his less gifted foes could no longer carry him from danger. Instead, he parked himself right in front of Frazier, the two proud men playing a game of chicken.
In the middle rounds Ali's stamina began to fade. He came into the bout almost 10 pounds heavier than he'd been against Foreman, and it showed.
The once-graceful champion was now just a typical heavyweight lion, graying in the mane and laying back in the ropes hoping desperately for a respite. Against Frazier, even a badly faded Frazier, there would be no such luck.
Age, wear and the sheer arrogance that made him think he didn't have to train for Frazier, of all people, cost Ali dearly. The rope-a-dope style that had worked so well against Foreman was less effective against Frazier. Despite the sweltering conditions, the challenger showed few signs of fading, according to Hoffer:
Frazier was so crude in comparison, without the slightest elegance. Ali would shoot out a right hand, double the speed Frazier could ever shoot one out. But it wasn't mattering. Frazier continued in, anesthetized by rage, eating every punch just so he could keep pounding on his sides.
As the fight continued, however, damage to Frazier's eyes started to create major problems. Unbeknown to anyone except a tight circle of his closest confidantes, Frazier had entered the fight nearly blind in his left eye due to a cataract.
When his right eye began to close, he wrote in his autobiography Smokin' Joe that he was essentially fighting Ali blind:
I figured if I could get close enough to Clay, I might be able to nail him. What the hell. He was no fresh daisy. I'd put the scamboogah through the wringer.
...The punches were coming at me, and I just couldn't make them out...All I knew was that Clay was a fuzzy vision, and the less I could see of him the more it cost me. There was nothing else to do. There was always the chance that I could fire the big one on him. Tired as he was, if I could nail him once more, who knows?
By the 14th round, Frazier was bleeding from the mouth and both eyes were closing. Ali, though too battered and winded himself to take complete advantage of Frazier's infirmity, pounded his opponent with punch after punch.
In the corner, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch had seen enough and refused to send his fighter out for a final round. Across the ring, Ali's corner was desperately trying to convince the champion to walk out for one final round.
Would Ali have gotten off his stool for three more minutes? Ultimately, it's moot. He never had to. Frazier protested stopping the fight, shouting "I want him, boss," but Futch would not be dissuaded.
"I didn't want Joe's brains scrambled," Futch told Hauser years later. "He had a nice life and a wonderful family to live for. So I decided at the end of the 14th round to stop it. I just didn't think Joe should go on anymore."
After the fight, Ali stumbled into the post-fight press conference with help from his handlers. His shoes proved too hard for him to secure. Instead, he met the press in socked feet, echoing what he had told supporters in his dressing room.
"Don't let me ever again hear anybody put Joe Frazier down," Ali said, his voice muted and solemn, according to reporter Hugh McIlvanney. "That is a man."
Ali asked to see Frazier's 15-year-old son, Marvis, in his locker room. He told the young man he hadn't meant all the mean things he'd said, calling Frazier a "helluva man." But he never made an apology to Frazier himself, something that Frazier wrote stuck with him over the years:
It didn't change a doggone thing for me. Why tell it to Marvis? Why not be man enough to say what you feel to me, to my face? Yeah, he'd proven himself in the ring—I'd give him that. He stood up to punches that would have put holes in concrete. But as a man, Clay was so knee deep in ego that in the end he couldn't bring himself to do the right thing.
The result, Kram wrote, was a rage that was close to boiling over for decades:
Ali still swam inside of Joe Frazier like a determined bacillus. Despite the advice of a few friends and some of his children, Frazier was still keeping an obsessional hold on Ali, sometimes with a freefall into the void between regret and revenge; at other times his contempt just lay there hissing.
In time, his anti-Ali position became an increasingly lonely precipice for Frazier, with him screaming alone into winds that were now blowing another direction.
Once Ali had been despised by large swaths of the population, his political views and religious convictions too much for a slowly changing America to handle. By the time he took center stage at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he was the most beloved athlete, not just worldwide, but at home as well. In part, perhaps, because his infirmity made it so clear how much he had given physically, in part because of how much we missed him as he disappeared further and further behind the mask of Parkinson's.
Frazier, true to his nature, never bent the knee to the new Ali legend. He had earned his enmity, and he intended to see the feud through to the end.
"Look at him now. He's damaged goods. I know it, you know it," Frazier told Hauser. "...I don't care how the world looks at him. I see him different and I know him better than anyone. Manila don't really matter no more. He's finished and I'm still here."
Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the Thrilla in Manila. Ali, now 73, seldom does interviews or makes public appearances. Frazier died of liver cancer in November 2011. He was 67. Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.