Remembering the Thrilla in Manila

An Extract from the book:  The Last Great Heavyweights-From Ali and Frazier to Lewis and Tyson.

Sporadic chants of Ali, Ali, began to well up in the theatre. The big moment was almost upon us. I felt a tinge of nervous anticipation.

The hurt business held me in its thrall once again.

My man Joe Frazier was about to face down our nemesis in the next few minutes.  There would be no more rematches. This was it.

I wanted Joe Frazier to win with every fiber of my being.  The hurt and anguish of the rematch loss in January 1974, and the embarrassing pounding at the fists of George Foreman would be redeemed at one fell swoop.

It was curious.  I had invested so much energy and empathy in Smokin’ Joe, I felt I had a personal stake in the fight. Such is the occasional insanity of vicarious experiencing through the exploits of a sporting hero.

The chants for Ali grew in crescendo. I resigned myself to the familiar scenario of being surrounded by Ali fans.

It appeared Frazier had virtually no friends in the building. All the odds were against him. But it was a small matter. It would make his upcoming victory all the sweeter.

My heart sank as the first three rounds sped by. Frazier chugged forward in his inimitable style: Gotta close the distance. Gotta get under the butterfly’s long arms. Bob and weave. Keep that head moving. Make him miss those flashy combos. Pressure, pressure. Pound the body. Work the hook. Feral grin. You can’t hurt me. You are mine. I’m gonna git you sucka…

It was to no avail. Ali was firing with real intent. His fluid combinations caromed off my man’s head. Ali’s pre-fight observations that Frazier was finished and ready to be put out to grass seemed painfully accurate.

A female voice to my immediate left implored: “Come on Joe, get him!” I was startled. Another Frazier fan! I glanced at her, nodded my approval and echoed her cry. “Come on Joe!”

And Joe Frazier started to come on.

By the fifth round, he had fully established his percussive rhythm.  Ali was no longer enjoying himself. The body shots and heavy hooks to the head were starting to hurt and discombobulate him.

I winced as my companion drooled over Joe’s ‘lovely’ back muscles. The war was on. Frazier was in the process of chopping down our nemesis and all my companion had eyes for were the aesthetics of his musculature.

The middle rounds flew by in a blur. Frazier was smokin’ and Ali was in a nightmare fight for survival.

The intensity and brutality was unrelenting. The heat and humidity of Manila, magnified by the myriad TV lights and body heat of thousands of excited fight fans combined to make the temperature in the arena almost unbearable.

Ego, pride and the unbreakable will to win forced both to reach into previously untapped reserves of their very essence.

Frazier took Ali for a walk across the abyss on a gossamer thread. One inadvertent slip and both were doomed. An endless fall into the pit, locked together like two warring demi-gods. Creatures of myth and legend, in an endless struggle for supremacy.
Ali’s rapier like shots, the intolerable heat of the arena and the inhuman energy expenditure of constantly pressurizing Ali were taking a toll on Frazier.

The beginning of the championship rounds, namely rounds twelve to fifteen, saw Joe losing steam. The metronome-like consistency of his rhythm began to falter. Ali sensed daylight and began to tee off on a more stationary target.

Frazier’s power output was diminishing by the minute. The grunts of effort accompanying each pulverizing hook and salvo, signalling his joy of combat and unquenchable belief Ali would be felled like a giant redwood, began to lose vibrancy.

Ali stood flat footed in the fourteenth round. An assortment of spiteful jabs, hooks and right hands hammered into Frazier’s battered features. A grotesque swelling under his left eye made it impossible to see Ali’s right hands.

Frazier was gone. Only his indomitable courage kept him upright. Half blind, he staggered and lurched after his tormentor vainly trying to throw punches. A sad St Vitus dance.

My heart sank. I never figured Ali had the power to hurt Joe.

C’mon Joe, hang on. Dig deep. Survive this round and there is only one to go. This was the butterfly’s last hurrah. He is dog tired. Just one sweetly timed left hook in the last round and he is ours. We can finally get this monkey off our back.

Hope springs eternal in the mind of the man-child. Joe could come back from this and triumph in the face of extreme adversity.
Fortunately, trainer Eddie Futch did not share my failings. He had been with Frazier since Yank Durham died a few years earlier. He was fully aware of the capabilities, and strength of will of his charge. It was clear to him Joe was teetering on the brink.

At the end of the round Ali slumped heavily on his stool. His gaze vacant and body limp. He was totally exhausted and had near punched himself out.

One more round to go. Sheer purgatory. Angelo Dundee got set to ready Ali to go one more round.

In the other corner, Eddie Futch knew what he had to do. He signalled to the referee, Filipino native Carlos Padilla, he was pulling Joe out.

Ever the warrior, Frazier tried to protest. Mumbled protestations came from misshapen and mashed lips. His blood smeared face a road map of lumps, bumps and bruises. However, he knew as did I, that his race was done.

Joe Frazier had taken Ali to the edge of the abyss. Had him tottering, but alas, only to tumble in himself. Ali likened the purgatory he had endured as akin to being in a darkened room. Complete sensory deprivation. The closest thing to death he knew of.

Ali still stood at the summit of boxing. I was near choking on the ashes of defeat. But I was full of admiration for my man Joe. He had fought himself to a standstill and had gone out the only way he would have wanted to. On his shield, like Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans.

Retirement beckoned. The unforgiving nature and unmitigated brutality of the fight seemed to me, to provide the perfect finale to Smokin’ Joe’s career. Uncompromising, unstinting and unrelenting. Wringing every drop of effort from his being in pursuance of his goal.

There was nothing left to give. No one left to fight and nothing left to prove.

There was no mileage in a fourth encounter with Ali. Anyway, Ali might conceivably consider changing his name back to Cassius Clay rather than put himself through the same torment again.

About the Author

Ollie Odebunmi
Ollie Odebunmi has been an avid boxing fan since 1971. But unlike most of his contemporaries, grew up idolizing Smokin’ Joe Frazier, not Muhammad Ali. His book "The Last Great Heavyweights-From Ali and Frazier to Lewis and Tyson" is available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

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