Director and script editor John Dower takes us back to 1975, The Thriller in Manila, the fight of the century and the last of the three bruising encounters between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier. Score card, one win each. Note the running order of syntax in most guides. Muhammed Ali comes first. Then Smoking Joe Frazier. One an iconic image, perhaps second to Nelson Mandela in the late twentieth century, certainly during the seventies eclipsing the latter, it would have been no surprise if astronauts in space had claimed to see images not of The Great Wall of China, but Muhammed Ali. Muhammed Ali was everywhere and later able to sell part of his copyright image in a deal worth fifty million dollars. Fast forward thirty years to 2005, Smoking Joe Frazier lives in a back room in a gym he named after himself to remind people who he was. Aged sixty three he was still wrapping up his hands, hitting the bags and training boxers, in one of the most deprived parts of Philadelphia, a place where black people like him lived. Go back further, Joe’s mother smoked a clay pipe and, aged seven, he was sent into the fields, but it was to work and work hard and not to play. Boxing was his salvation, but you’d need to knock him out to add, and his downfall. Asked what he thought of his old adversary, now stricken by Parkinson’s disease, Muhammed Ali, who carried the Olympic torch for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, 1996, Frazier remarked, ‘it would have been better if they put him in the flame’. For Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali really did have feet of clay. Larry Holmes who trained with Ali and as one World Champion to another took his mentor out, said Ali did a lot of great things, but in boxing terms was overrated, ‘he stung like a butterfly’ but it was Frazier that ‘stung like a bee’.
For a man so verbose, the one man’s opinion who is missing from this documentary is Muhammed Ali. Joe Frasier laconic, who did much of his talking with his fists John Dower had to assemble a cast that could speak on his behalf about that fight in Manilla, and what went on before and afterwards, and to get someone from Ali’s camp, to speak for Ali. For the latter he had the outspoken Dr Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician and corner man, and he was happy to tell the viewer that Ali was in the Philippines for the pussy –he took a Porsch but her name was Veronica, leaving his wife at home – and the six million dollar payday; he thought Frazier’s hammering at the hands of George Foreman had broken him and it would be a matter of just turning up and turning over the old ‘gorilla’. Pacheco made no secret that those two had history, but it was Ali that was cashing in the chips and offering the ex-world champion a derisory amount for the rematch of the century. Hype and hyperbole where Ali’s punch and counterpunch. It was a call Joe Frazier was waiting on. He would have paid to fight Ali, because the latter had publicly shamed him. This wasn’t a matter of selling tickets, but personal. What neither boxer had planned for was the intense furnace like heat in the auditorium where the fight was screened in the early hours of the morning for American fight fans. Temperatures were over 100 degree centigrade. The fight should never have taken place, but neither Joe Frazier nor Muhammad Ali could stop it and neither of them were willing to budge an inch of canvas.
Carlos Padilla, the referee didn’t let Ali hold Frazier by the back of the neck, in the way he did in their second fight in which Ali stayed out of range and outpointed Frazier. Nor did the rope a dope tactics he’d used against George Foreman work against Frazier. Frazier explained he just punched him on the hips so Ali couldn’t walk and hammered his liver and kidneys so he pissed blood and that slowed him down. Ed Schylauer, Associated Press, said after the early rounds, when they went toe to toe in the middle of the ring, Frazier was ahead and Ali was wobbling. Rounds five to eleven, Schylauer only gave Ali one round. Pacheco said of round 14, it’s the closest I’ve ever seen someone to death’. He was talking about Frazier, but he could just have well have been talking of Ali. Jeremy Izenberg a fight correspondent said ‘I love boxing, but I thought somebody has got to stop this.’ Frazier’s eye was closed, but what nobody knew was that he was fighting blind. He’d lost all but his peripheral vision in his left eye since a fight in 1964. Willie the Worm, a fighter that fought out of Frazier’s gym, was signalling to Frazier’s son Marvis and Eddie Futch that he’d heard Ali say to his manager Angelo Dundee that he couldn’t carry on, ‘and he was to cut his gloves off’. We see footage of Eddie Futch and his corner man arguing with Frazier; he ‘is desperate to continue’, but his manager throws in the towel. Unrepentant, Futch later explained, ‘No regrets. I seen eight men die in the ring’.
Ali gets off his stool, as victor, holds his hands in the air and then collapses. Frazier has been beaten, but Ali had been beaten too, he will never box again with any conviction or any of his old fluidity. Then again part of his mythology was that he ever did. Ali by then was an aging athlete and an aging boxer. The difference between the two is an athlete can train through injuries, but inside the ring another athlete’s job is to add to them, to exploit them.
Thomas Hausser, Ali’s biographer explained that when he challenged Ali about whether he, then known as Cassius Clay, had thrown his 1960 Olympic gold medal in the Ohio river as he had claimed and asked him to swear on Allah that he did, Ali came clean and said he’d lost it. In his first fight with Sonny Liston for the World Championship, he claimed Liston thought he was crazy and that was the one think that scared him. Ali played on that, but it was him that was scared. He needn’t have been. His hand speed and ability to dance out of trouble meant Liston couldn’t put a glove on him. The only trouble Cassius Clay had in the second fight and rematch was when a substance on Liston’s glove temporarily blinded him (the latter worked for the mob) but Clay was able to stay out of reach. Ali was more a print the legend and not the facts kind of guy.
Frasier’s sense of hurt and is believe that God had punished Ali for his lies and deceit with Parkinsonism can only be understood in the context of what had gone previously. When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali and had refused to go to Vietnam and been suspended from boxing Frasier was there for him. He gave him money, said he ‘talked to him every other day’, helped him out and went to Congress and to Nixon to get Ali’s boxing license renewed. Frasier was in Ali’s corner. This wasn’t sheer altruism. Frasier recognised that to be champion of the world he first had to beat the myth that was Cassius Clay and later Ali. He might have been dumb but he wasn’t that dumb, neither was he an ‘Uncle Joe’.
Ali played to the cameras with his rehearsed thriller, chiller killer speech with a gorilla on the Parkinson show before the fight in the Manilla. He flattened his nose and called Smoking Joe and ugly pug. He claimed that Joe was worse than Parkinson. What he meant was he was worse than a white man. According to his newfound religious beliefs blue-eyed white men were responsible for all the world’s woes. Uncle Joe worked for the white man, and ‘Uncle Joe’ was worse than being white man. The Nation of Islam was the black mirror image of the white supremacist Klu Klux Khan, which advocated separation of the nations into black and white. Abdul Rahman from the Nation of Islam explained how they advised Ali to say ‘No Vietcong never called me a nigger’ and they advised him to take a firm stance with Smoking Joe. They offered the same scriptwriting support as the later President Reagan was offered by his rich pals in the Republican Party. Was Ali manipulated? ‘Absolutely,’ said his personal physician and corner man, but it suited both parties. After Smoking Joe beat Ali in the first contest, by a unanimous referee’s vote, Ali’s plea that he would go on his knees and proclaim Smoking Joe the greatest, didn’t happen. Ali said he was robbed by biased and prejudiced referees. Frasier’s retort ‘go get Clay- tell him to come in here and kneel’ was all but forgotten. Ali the showman, even in defeat, was better box office. Frasier did not forgive Ali, for what he had done and for what he had not done. When Ali after that fight in Manilla tried through intermediaries and through Marvis Frazier to apologise Smoking Joe’s response was straight and unequivocal: ‘Why don’t he say it to me? Let him come and tell me.’ Ali never did. If this was a morality play Smoking Joe wins by a knockout, but it’s boxing and box office and entertainment. America likes it’s boxers to be great, in victory and in defeat, but only as long as they are undefeated. Ali never could and never would admit he was beaten fair and square. I’ve got more respect for Smoking Joe now, but let old boxer lie.