Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier shared what can only be described as the biggest rivalry in combat sports history. The pair who started off as friends saw each other get mashed up in a fight to determine supremacy of the heavyweight division.
Back when Muhammad Ali was undergoing immense scrutiny and backlash from the US Government over his decision not to enlist for his mandatory service in Vietnam, it was Joe Frazier who came to his rescue lending him money and even advocating to then President Richard Nixon to re-instate Ali’s boxing license. In the lead-up to their first fight, all of that was thrown out of the window.
Ali had by then gained notoriety as a civil rights figure in a racially disturbed America, this left Joe Frazier, by no choice of his own, to play the part of an establishment figure who’d come to take out Ali. Ali gladly played into the narrative even going as far as to label Joe to be “the great White Hope. “ However his trash talk would not be enough to subdue Frazier in the ring and he became the first man till that point to knock down Muhammad Ali.
After a second fight to determine the number one contender for George Foreman’s title, Ali walked out making the score even with both fighters having gained decision victories over the other. However, Joe was yet to taste the canvas against Ali when Ali was already down by one. All of this came to a grand conclusion when the two were booked for a final time for the heavyweight championship. To be held in the Philippines, the fight was appropriately named, Thrilla in Manila.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s incredible triumph of will at the Thrilla In Manila
The fight itself was one of the best and most brutal fights in boxing history. It saw both heavyweights trade shots from the outside while connecting with stinging hooks in the pocket. None however put either man down. Rounds 1-3 were all Ali, as the champion danced his way around the ring while pushing aggressively to land on Joe Fraizer who was a notoriously slow starter.
As the rounds kept piling on Ali realized that his initial goal of having a quick finish over Fraizer was all just pipe dreams. It was here that Joe started to find his own rhythm to batter Ali with shots that might have put out lesser men. However, Fraizer was not squaring up against just any man, it was Muhammad Ali, The Greatest to ever do it.
Now a big factor in this fight was the Arena and the climate of the country itself. Temperatures in the Philippines average at around 30°C, for someone living in the equatorial region, it’s not much but for Ali and Frazier who grew up in the cold western hemisphere, this was as good as a desert climate. Add this to the fact that the Arena back then didn’t have proper ventilation and we can understand what an oven full of people it might’ve felt like.
In fact, both Ali and Frazier suffered from severe exhaustion, with post-fight reports indicating they had lost 3 and 2kgs respectively during the duration of the fight. That’s almost akin to undergoing an MMA weight cut while being punched by your heaviest-hitting contemporary. Ali was more prepared for the heat than Frazier as he had just regained his belt by defeating George Foreman, in Zaire, a country with a similar climate, while this was Frazier’s second fight out of the Western Hemisphere.
The middle rounds and after of this fight is what showed the world that Ali, in fact, was the greatest alive. By the second half of the fight, both boxers were under severe exhaustion with coach Angelo Dundee noting Frazier and Ali were in the same state, only that Frazier had the scars of battle already showing in the form of swollen eyes.
As we mentioned before, Ali was yet to make Joe taste the canvas. He was sure he would die trying to make that happen. By round 10 both fighters could only wish to survive the remaining rounds, which, unlike today’s championship boxing, didn’t last only 12 rounds but 15. By the end of the round, Ali had second thoughts about his status as a heavyweight great and wondered if it had all come down to this.
Similarly, Frazier, who was equally exhausted was gradually losing his vision as Ali’s punches started showing results in the form of swelling around his eyes. Walking out for the 13th Ali had lost all hope of putting Joe to the canvas and now looked only to make it past the final bell without tasting it himself. However, around the end of the round, Ali put in a monumental effort and landed multiple combinations to end the round.
By the 14th bell, it was obvious both fighters had changed for the worse. Ali looked nothing like a floating butterfly, and all the fire in Joe had extinguished, taking the smoke along with it. Muhammad Ali would later recall that he was surely at death’s door saying, “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of. ” Ali’s ringside doctor was more specific in his analysis of the 14th saying, “Round 14 was the closest I’ve seen somebody come to killing somebody. “
The end of the round saw Ali land another flurry with the hopes of finally putting down Frazier who was clearly fighting out of instinct as his vision was noticeably compromised. He failed and heartbroken, went back to his corner, preparing himself for the fifteenth and final round of the fight. In his hurry to get back to his corner, Ali had not noticed that Frazier was in fact guided by the referee towards his team as he barely could see anything.
While still on the stool, Ali and his team recognized the rumblings from Frazier’s corner. Shortly after this, the fight was called off before the final round marking an end to the trilogy. Though he had not been able to put Frazier on the canvas, Ali gained the bigger accomplishment of not leaving Frazier able to continue.
With his broken and exhausted body, Ali leaped out of his stool to raise his hands in victory. No sooner had he done that, than his body gave up realizing the task at hand was accomplished. Ali fell down to the canvas and rejoiced not having to go out for another round against Joe Frazier.
As the combat Gods ask for names when judgment day arrives, the will, grit, and sheer hatred that the two men shared for each other will have to be at the top of any list in that category. At 33 a long out of his prime Ali was still able to take the damage and dish it out against one of the heaviest punchers in boxing, grazed the valley of death, and came back out to put a decisive end to one of the darkest rivalries in combat sports ever.
The fight changed the two men, with Ali’s trainer later recalling that he had tried to get Ali to leave the sport after the “Thrilla In Manila.” Frazier on the other hand would stick around in boxing for a while finding mixed results. He reconciled with Ali later on in life but was obviously bitter as Ali had been venerated as the greatest while Joe had to live check to check despite being the second best heavyweight of the era. On Frazier’s death in 2011, Ali would say of his former friend, “world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”
Frazier’s funeral , paid for by Floyd Mayweather was attended by his rival and friend Muhammad Ali, who was himself in the final stages of his battle against Parkinson’s. Looking on at the man who gave went from being an olive branch in his toughest days to turning into his biggest rival in his prime, we can only wonder what went through Ali’s mind as he saw his old friend be lowered to the ground.