THRILLA IN MANILA, HBO's expansive new documentary on the third fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, on Oct. 1, 1975, opens with a scene of a cockfight, complete with images of talons flashing, rooster blood seeping into the dirt and rabid fans yelling and betting at ringside. It is a ham-handed and appallingly inappropriate device. For, as brutally violent as it was, the third Frazier-Ali bout—won by Ali when Frazier did not come out for the 15th round—was also profound human drama of the highest order.
Thankfully, producer-director John Dower quickly drops the human-cockfight conceit, and over the ensuing 90 minutes—as footage from the time is interspersed with recent interviews—provides a rich and affecting look at what many consider the greatest heavyweight fight of all time. And make no mistake, it was an astonishing back-and-forth war between two champions who brought out the best in each other.
Of course, both fighters also paid a terrible price. Ali famously called what he went through in that bout "the closest thing to dying," and Frazier echoes him here, saying, "We were dead. Both of us." Certainly neither was ever the same out of the ring afterward, and it's reasonable to consider that Ali's current sad state is owed at least in part to the fearsome punches he took to the head on that scorching morning in Manila.
Dower, though, focuses on Frazier (Ali declined to be interviewed for the film), examining just how deeply hurt he was by Ali's cruel taunts (Frazier was called ugly, a gorilla and an Uncle Tom) throughout their rivalry. For boxing fans who remember the proud, relentless champion known as Smokin' Joe, the images in the film of the 64-year-old Frazier struggling on a metal cane to climb the stairs to the cluttered apartment he lives in above his gym in North Philadelphia are heartbreaking—as is the bitterness he clearly still feels toward his old foe. Amazingly, Frazier had never seen a film of the Manila fight until Dower screened it for him. The hollow shimmer in his eyes as he watches it, though, shows that he's been fighting it every day for the past 34 years.
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COURTESY OF HBO (POSTER)
NEIL LEIFER (FIGHT)
THRILLA MINUTE Ali (right) and Frazier were never the same after their 1975 battle.