Thrilla in Manila

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By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Reporter

IT WAS WIDELY believed to have been used as a “tactic” by the government then to divert the attention from the social turmoil brought about by Martial Law, but there is no denying the significance the “Thrilla In Manila” had both as boxing fare and a sporting event — four decades later, people are still talking about it.

Held at the Araneta Coliseum on Oct. 1, 1975, ‘Thrilla’ was the much-talked-about heavyweight boxing encounter in the Philippines between legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week. It is regarded as one of the best fights in the history of boxing for the drama it brought inside and outside the ring, with Ali winning via technical knockout after Frazier’s camp conceded before the start of the 15th and final round.

‘Thrilla’ was the last of the three-fight saga between Ali and Frazier, following that of 1971 dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” which Frazier won, and 1974’s “Ali-Frazier II,” which Ali seized.

“The ‘Thrilla’ ranks as one of the most dramatic fights in the heavyweight division because it was literally a seesaw battle and the fight had a personal dimension to it because both men entered the fight disliking or even hating each other,” Conrad Cariño, sports columnist and boxing analyst for The Manila Times, told BusinessWorld when asked about how he views the marquee boxing event.

He added that the fight being for all intents the rubber match of the Ali-Frazier battle jacked up interest in it further.

“As a boxing fare and a sporting event, ‘Thrilla in Manila’ will remain as the biggest sporting event that was ever held in the Philippines. At that time, the whole world was looking at our country as the epicenter of sports and entertainment,” international boxing referee and judge Danrex Joseph V. Tapdasan said in a separate interview.

“The event made boxing a mainstream form of entertainment. It proved that being a very popular sport, world championship boxing between the great heavyweights can be staged in an Asian country and it can still create an impact on the entire boxing world,” he added.

The battle for the ‘Thrilla In Manila’ actually started before Ali and Frazier entered the ring for their third fight, with both camps exchanging biting words against each other.

The brash showman Ali nicknamed Frazier “The Gorilla,” incorporating it into the rhyme “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” The rhyme was the basis for the now-legendary fight title.

To accommodate an international viewing audience, ‘Thrilla’ took place at 10 a.m. local time, in front of some 25,000 people who braved steaming-hot conditions — 40° Celsius many said — inside the coliseum just to see a piece of boxing history.

Filipino Carlos Padilla, Jr. was chosen as the third man in the ring over “neutrality” concerns, this notwithstanding initial worries that a Filipino referee might be too small to handle a heavyweight fight.

Ali started the fight strong, landing solid straight punches and jabs that had Frazier rocked.

But “Smokin’ Joe” eventually found his rhythm as the fight progressed, able to elude the attacks that Ali threw at him while connecting steady shots of his own that rattled his rival.

As the fight wore on, the fighters went into a back-and-forth that wore down on both of them.

Published reports have it that Ali, at the end of the ninth round, even told his trainer Angelo Dundee, “Man, this the closest I’ve ever been to dying,” underscoring how gruelling the proceedings had turned out to be.

A key turning point happened midway in the 13th round when Ali sent Frazier’s mouth guard flying with a solid right hand, which he used as a springboard to pound on Frazier with a flurry of punches in the 14th round.

Seeing how the fighter absorbed such a beating, Frazier’s camp, led by trainer Eddie Futch, decided to throw in the towel between rounds despite Frazier insisting he could still go on.

Ali was declared the winner. Later on, Ali was said to have said that had Frazier’s camp did not quit, he could have out of pure exhaustion and the beating that he also absorbed.

“It was the best of the trilogy,” said veteran analyst Ron de los Reyes of Aksyon Sports sa RADYO 5 of the epic fight.

“The ‘Thrilla’ was the conclusion of three of the best fights of all time, with Ali winning 2-1.

Both boxers gave their all. It was a bloody, action-packed and quite scary match with any of the fighters possibly going down for a knockout,” he added.

For Mr. Tapdasan, the fight could well be the best in the sport’s history, bolstered by its “uncanny qualities” as a third fight.

“It was indeed the best fight in the sport’s history. It is very rare in boxing that the hype leading to the fight will pale in comparison to the actual intensity and entertainment value that it brought to the people that watched it,” the referee said.

“Another thing is the fact that usually third fights of trilogies are not as exciting as the first and second ones due to familiarity of the fighters [with] each other, which leads to the tendency of each one just waiting for the other to commit a mistake then capitalize. Third fights in trilogies usually are disappointing to boxing fans. However, the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ exceeded all expectations. It brought the best out of both Ali and Frazier,” he added.

The experts believe that the ‘Thrilla’ was very significant to the careers of both Ali and Frazier as legends of the sport of boxing, albeit some surmised that it also took a heavy toll on them as they rode into the sunset.

“[Through ‘Thrilla’] Ali cemented his legacy as [being] among the greatest in boxing, while Frazier proved that he was truly a warrior… But the two great boxers were no longer the same after the ‘Thrilla’,” Mr. Cariño said.

“Muhammad Ali was adjudged by most boxing experts as the greatest of all time after the fight, but the ‘Thrilla’ and his other fights may have contributed to his developing Parkinson’s disease. The fight also sent Joe Frazier to semi-retirement. Ali had retired but seemed to have moved on despite the disease that afflicted him, but Frazier continued to nurse his hurt feelings towards the fight.

In a mini-presscon Frazier held at a break during the Atlanta Olympic Games boxing competition in 1996, a journalist asked him how he felt whenever he remembers Ali calling him as the ‘gorilla in Manila,’ I saw Frazier giving the reporter an angry look as he said he still felt bitter about it,” Mr. De los Reyes said.

Four decades later, the fact that people are still talking about it speaks volume about what the “Thrilla In Manila” meant, not only to boxing but to sports in general, the experts said, just as they said it may be difficult to duplicate a fight with such magnitude and profile.

“Forty years after, we still talk about the ‘Thrilla,’ not only in the Philippines. When we get to talk to some foreign journalists, they have fond memories of the event… It contributed to the glory of boxing as an extreme, physical but entertaining combat sports. The ‘Thrilla’ is already part of sports history and perhaps no other fight can equal the glory and prestige it generated,” Mr. De los Reyes said.

“I think it would be hard to duplicate the ‘Thrilla’ because it lasted for 14 rounds and today’s championship bouts are only 12 rounds. But one thing that makes the ‘Thrilla’ great was both fighters simply wanted to show who was the better boxer. Today’s top fighters seem hesitant to get into the ring just to prove who is the better or the best. Just look at Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao which took many years to materialize,” Mr. Cariño said.

“I’m afraid there will never be another ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in our lifetime. There was something in Muhammad Ali and his rivalry with Joe Frazier that separates them from other fighters of today.

As boxing experts say, ‘styles make fights’ and Ali’s ‘Fly Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee’ style would just easily dominate other heavyweights of his era. However, there was something in Smokin’ Joe Frazier that challenged Ali’s style to the hilt. It was the perfect style that brought [out] the best of Muhammad Ali… I would be hoping at least one fight happening with equal magnitude in my lifetime. But there will never be another one of that kind of sporting event,” Mr. Tapdasan said.

“There will only be one ‘Thrilla in Manila’.”