CULTURE

The legacy of Muhammad Ali and "Thrilla in Manila"

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Muhammad Ali training at the Folk Arts Theater in 1975. The venue served as practice grounds for both Ali and his 'Thrilla in Manila' opponent George Frazier. Photo by SOLER SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of,” Muhammad Ali told Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram of his third fight with Joe Frazier. It had been a ruthless blow for the two, the entire 15 rounds of what was christened the “Thrilla in Manila” one of the bloodiest and most brutal fights to go down in boxing history. But only one of them emerged, by TKO, as champion. It was watched by 700 million people on television, and almost 27,000 sweating in Araneta Coliseum — the heat punched to a sweltering 49 degrees Celsius; it had been said that it even cooked Ali’s pre-fight malaise right out — all of them bearing witness to the two pugilists giving each other the beating of their lives.

Frazier led the early rounds of the fight, but Ali leaned on his “rope-a-dope” strategy to tire out his opponent. Frazier landed powerful left hooks onto Ali’s head, pushing him to exhaustion during the ninth round. By then, Frazier had accumulated numerous punches aimed at his own head, resulting in a swollen face and a limited line of vision. Ali gained advantage by the 11th round, landing frequent and charged punches on Frazier. By the 14th round, Ali was making sure it will be the last of the fight, giving “thirty tremendous punches,” as a Daily Mirror reporter later observed, to secure his victory over Frazier. Seeing Frazier’s worsening condition, his coach Eddie Futch signaled to end the fight, which was met with protest by Frazier. Futch told him, “Sit down, son. It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Muhammad Ali in the ring during the "Thrilla in Manila" bout. His supporters wore all matching shirts that read "Manila Gorilla." Photo from BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

Outside what seemed to be the gladiator grounds for the two fighters, the country was in the third year of Ferdinand Marcos’s Martial Law. Hosting the fight in Manila gave his administration an opportunity to elevate the status of the country as a functioning “new society” capable of being the center of such a momentous occasion. The Philippine and international press lapped up the events leading up to the fight — even the American novelist and literary golden boy Norman Mailer was in the country to cover it. As his presidency was scrutinized, Marcos turned this into a chance to demonstrate his capabilities as a leader, a fact that was apparent to everyone who had their eyes turned to the country.

Newspapers bannered headlines about the fight along with the activities of the two fighters, since they arrived two weeks before the looming bout. Everyone was mesmerized by the two opponents; Frazier with his humility and Ali with his quick-witted retorts that delighted not only the media but the government as well. The two trained at the Folk Arts Theater — constructed initially for the Miss Universe pageant held in Manila in 1974, supposedly another international PR pull by the administration — and praised the facilities, saying they were better than the ones they had used for their earlier fights in Malaysia and Zaire. Outside the ring, festivities were in full swing: Frazier visiting a local dance hall, Ali proclaimed "Datu" by his Muslim brothers from the royal houses of Mindanao, Ali’s wife landing in Manila after hearing how her husband introduced his mistress as his actual wife, Ali judging a beauty pageant, the boxers breaking ground for a sports complex in Manila, plus Ali’s toy pistol stunt outside Frazier’s Hyatt hotel room yelling, “I’m gonna shoot you!” Once more, this was during Martial Law — when a curfew was being implemented and carrying a gun was illegal.

In a 1989 profile for Esquire titled “Great Men Die Twice,” Mark Kram recalled that wasn’t only the people who were enamored by the charms of Muhammad Ali, but even world leaders like Ferdinand Marcos, as well. “If you were a Filipino, I’d have to shoot you,” Marcos jokingly told Ali reportedly.

Given that the whole affair was shaping up to be the Philippines’s grand turn in the international spotlight, it seemed that there was another victor in this fight: Ferdinand Marcos. Both fighters praised Marcos and the handling of the fight. Ali was enthusiastic and heaped platitudes and endorsements about the strongman. “Marcos is a great man,” he told the Daily Express. “He is humble. He is peaceful. He is loving. I am sure he will lead his people always with the best decisions.” And after meeting the president, he also said: “President Marcos knows how to solve the problems here better than we could. I’m sure he’s doing something to help his people.”

“The flood of international guests and international money into the Philippines was presented to newspaper readers as proof of the progress and growing international clout of the Marcos-led Philippines,” observed Thomas Quinn in his paper “When Malakas Met ‘The Greatest,’” an examination of Marcos’s influence over the staging of the fight. Ali may have been “the greatest”; however, for the weeks leading up to the “Thrilla in Manila,” the brightest star shining in the Manila newspapers was not the heavyweight champion of the world, but rather, the man hosting the champ, President Ferdinand Marcos.

By the 14th round of "Thrilla in Manila", Muhammad Ali was making sure it will be the last of the fight, giving “thirty tremendous punches,” as a Daily Mirror reporter later observed, to secure his victory over Frazier. Photo from BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

In a 1989 profile for Esquire titled “Great Men Die Twice,” Kram, touted by many as the great chronicler of the Manila fight, remembered scenes from his 1975 coverage, and that it wasn’t only the people who were enamored by the charms of Ali (born Cassius Clay), but even world leaders like Marcos, as well. “If you were a Filipino, I’d have to shoot you,” Marcos reportedly told Ali as a joke.

A year later, a mall emerged in Cubao, named after Ali; a bustling area in the capital serving as a monument to remember the triumphant streak of one man. Reverence seemed to be the end game for everyone involved, and in the annals of history, great men make playgrounds wherever they choose to be. And for a few shining weeks, The Greatest and Smokin’ Joe — and, to a larger extent, a President looking for a chance to prove his reach — made Manila their own slate on which to tell their ever-sprawling story of glory.