Remembering Ali vs. Frazier: The Thrilla in Manila
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's last fight is considered to be one of the most terrible and fascinating spectacles in boxing history. We discuss the lead up, the result, and the fabled lost round.
As publicity stunts go, George Foreman fighting five men in one night was among the greatest failures in boxing history. As Foreman stood swinging at his fourth opponent, desperately trying to deliver the heart stopping knockout that fans had paid to see, but which had so far been absent, Muhammad Ali sat at ringside, hollering the same mantra he had through each fight that night.
'Hit the ropes! Hit the ropes!'
The same rope-a-dope which had carried Ali to victory over Foreman and allowed him to regain the world heavyweight title was now allowing nobodies—chosen to fall down in front of Foreman—to outlast the most severe puncher in the heavyweight division. As Foreman's fourth 'victim', Charlie Polite covered himself along the ropes and deflected every meaningful shot Foreman loaded up, Muhammad Ali commented to Howard Cossell:
'He's using my method... This guy is a good fighter.'
To which Cossell, reviewing Polite's record, announced to the world on a live broadcast:
'I disagree, champ. Charlie Polite is not a good fighter.'
But that was the genius of Muhammad Ali. He could find a way to win a fight he had no business being in. Cassius Clay had been one of the most talented heavyweights the world had ever seen, he had blistering speed and the ability to keep it up into the late rounds. That is, before his three year exile from boxing. When Muhammad Ali returned to the ring, he was slower, heavier, and though he could still dance, he had no hopes of keeping it up with such effortless grace for twelve or fifteen rounds.
In his later days, Ali was a study in ringcraft and savvy. He would box and dance for a round, and then hold in clinches for the entirety of the next. If he needed a knockout, he could summon the power to knock a man out. If he needed points, he'd clip off flurries at the end of rounds to win over the judges. If he got hit, he'd shake his head and have the fans almost believing that he let the blow land deliberately, just to show that he could wear it with no bother.
When Ali met Foreman for the world heavyweight title in 1974, it seemed as though Foreman were an unbeatable challenger for any boxer, let alone the slowing Muhammad Ali. Ali couldn't out punch Foreman, and it became almost immediately apparent that Foreman's ring cutting was too sharp for Ali's lateral movement. An outfight was off the cards, so Ali hit the ropes. After eight rounds of receiving Foreman's wide, swinging blows against his arms and gloves, Ali pirouetted turned off of the ropes and sent Foreman pirouetting to the canvas with a right hand to reclaim the heavyweight belt.
But the people were getting wise to Ali's game. Following Foreman, the champ took a fight with the unknown Chuck Wepner—a fight so undeserved and pointless that it inspired Sylvester Stallone's Rocky—and managed to get dragged down to the challenger's level. Following that, Ron Lyle boxed Ali up for the better part of eleven rounds, before Ali summoned a right hand to reel Lyle and poured on blows for a stoppage. There was no doubt, Ali was slipping.
After a victory over Joe Bugner in Malaysia, Ali signed a bout with Joe Frazier. The news failed to resonate with the public. It was their third meeting, and both were far past their primes but Frazier had certainly suffered the harder fall, losing to Foreman in 1973 and Ali in 1974. Fans had no idea that Ali and Frazier's third meeting would be the last great fight in either man. Certainly, no one expected one of the most brutal and dramatic fights in the history of the sport.
Joe Frazier had suffered the saddest fate in combat sports—being the alter rex. The anti-champ. When a champion leaves the sport by retirement or through controversy, the man who takes up the title is always looked on as something of a second rate replacement. It happened when Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney, and Rocky Marciano retired, and it happened again when Muhammad Ali was denied a boxing license for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
Following Muhammad Ali's departure in 1967, boxing's governing bodies began their search for a new champion. The World Boxing Association held a heavyweight tournament to decide their new champion, in which the dark horse, Jimmy Ellis, was able to triumph. Ellis, a training partner of Ali's from early in his career and a favorite of trainer, Angelo Dundee, utilized the familiar back-stepping right hands and Ali's favorite delayed cross counter (the infamous 'anchor punch') to put on the greatest few fights of his life.
The WBA tournament had invited the top eight heavyweights in the world, but failed to secure the consensus number one ranked contender. Joe Frazier opted instead to fight Buster Mathis for the vacant New York State Athletic Commission World Heavyweight Title. When Ellis met Frazier to unify the titles and decide who would receive the additional WBC heavyweight title, Frazier continued his incredible winning streak—blasting Ellis in the fifth round.
But Frazier, unlike many of those alternate champions before him, actually got his chance to fight the departed champion. Almost as soon as a new champion had been agreed upon, Muhammad Ali was back. Three years older and a few pounds more muscular, Ali had accumulated a couple of ho-hum victories over Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena in the dying months of 1970 but to many, he was still the champ. By 1971 the world was anxious to see Ali and Frazier go at it.
'The Fight of the Century' as it was billed, proved to be one of the most anticipated fights of all time. Famously, Frank Sinatra was only able to get a decent seat by attending as Time magazine's photographer.
Of their three meetings, the first showed Ali and Frazier in their best physical condition. Ali, like Jimmy Ellis, found success against Frazier early on. When he was fresh and his reflexes were sharp, Ali easily found Frazier's bobbling head with hard jabs and right hands that looked to be hurting the champion. However, Frazier's game was never about perfection, nor about self-preservation. He won by attrition, and the opponent working was part of that. By the third or fourth round, the punches came slower and Frazier's constant, rhythmic dipping of his head and loose cross guard carried him to safety more often than not.
Frazier began to connect his leaping counter hooks, and soon Ali was getting stuck on the ropes for half a minute at a time. This gave Frazier chance to hit the body and tire Ali out further. This was not the savvy, holding Ali of years to come, he simply covered up and exposed his gut to the infighter.
The further the fight progressed, the deeper Ali got into the habit that Angelo Dundee chastised him for more than any other. "Don't hook with a hooker!" Dundee would say. Never was the reasoning behind this clearer than in Ali vs Frazier I. Frazier relied on missed punches to leap in with his hooks and catch his opponent recovering. When Ali jabbed, he had a decent amount of time to recover. When he hooked, it necessitated being closer, and the punch travelled a wide arc rather than a straight line. The window through which Frazier could move and evade the punch was greater, and the distance he had to cover to retaliate was far shorter. The harshest blows Ali took that night were when his discipline failed and he attempted to swing hooks with Smokin' Joe.
At the end of fifteen rounds, with Ali being dropped to the mat in the fifteenth, Frazier won the unanimous decision.
Joe Frazier took the rest of 1971 to recover, and defended his belt just twice in 1972. Muhammad Ali meanwhile fought nine bouts in that time. Beating his old friend, Jimmy Ellis to take the New York State Athletic Commission heavyweight belt, Ali began a world tour from Switzerland to Japan, and Canada to Dublin. Ali kept his profile high as he campaigned to do what still just one man had ever done to that point—regain the heavyweight title. It was during these bouts that Ali honed his new craft—using the ropes, holding behind the head and cupping the arm at the triceps, clipping off flurries to steal rounds.
After a surprising loss to Ken Norton, and a close victory in the rematch, Ali was poised to fight Frazier again. Unfortunately, Frazier was no longer the champion after being knocked out in just two rounds by the juggernaut that was George Foreman. In the second meeting between Ali and Frazier, Ali was able to work on the outside, but completely smother Frazier's infighting by holding behind the head. To Ali, the fight had proven he could beat Frazier now. To Frazier, the fight was an anomaly because the referee had failed to stop Ali from excessively holding with an illegal grip.
On the eve of their third meeting, in Manila, this was a sticking point between the camps. So much so that a Filipino referee had to be found at the last minute as a replacement for the intended official. Carlos Padilla Jr, a former actor, was chosen to ensure fairness and spent most of his life looking for violations of this rule and the expense of ignoring others from both fighters.
Attitudes to the clinch have changed a great deal over time. Looking back at Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, they were essentially wrestlers who unleashed threw a few punches from the clinch. In the forties fighters would tie up, but were allowed time to work free—as Rocky Marciano so famously did against Ezzard Charles. Where in the modern era the referee is expected to break the fighters immediately and no-one seems to know how to move their head underneath and create space to free their arms. Whatever the case, Ali's ability to nullify Frazier in close in their second fight was pivotal in keeping him off of the ropes and avoid punishment of his midsection.
Aside from disagreements over the rules and a rivalry, the two men had a bitter personal relationship. The two had been friends initially—with Frazier helping Ali out through staged confrontations to keep him in the public eye while Ali was unable to secure a boxing license. The problems came when Ali began to trash talk and alienate Joe Frazier from the black community.
The difficulty with putting a professional fighter on a pedestal and considering them a significant figure in the civil rights movement, as Ali was and is to this day, is that pre-fight trash talk can be confused with that. Ali's choice to paint Joe Frazier as an Uncle Tom and a white man's champion was easily the most cruel of his career. Frazier was one of thirteen children and worked on a farm for his father from the day he was physically able to. Ali, meanwhile, had never been in a position of abject poverty.
When he was asked to comment on Frazier's winning the heavyweight title, Ali replied sincerely that:
"Joe's got four or five children to feed. He's worked in a meat-packing house all his life and deserves a break [...] Joe Frazier wasn't just given the title. He had to fight for it."
His painting Frazier as an Uncle Tom and his curious use of the gorilla to mock Frazier's appearance both resonated with Ali's millions of fans. Frazier suddenly became the villain to a community he had never done anything to wrong. For all the good he did in the world, Ali's behavior towards Frazier outside of the ring is impossible to justify.
It was the plan of Ali's camp to test Frazier's chin early. They had seen him sent down repeatedly by George Foreman and finished inside of two rounds, and they knew that Frazier was at his most hittable early on. If Frazier's ability to take a shot was waning, he was done for. In the first round, it was very apparent that Ali could knock Frazier out, as Frazier was stunned and sent reeling by hard right hands.
In the first instance that Frazier got Ali to the ropes and looked to open up with anything of significance, he was hit with a checking left hook which sent him stumbling and saw Ali flurrying in hopes of an early stoppage.
The second round marked an important turn in the bout as Padilla warned Ali for a blatant pull behind the neck. The crowd erupted in a mix of cheers and boos. Ali tried it again, and was warned again. As Frazier pushed Ali to the ropes, Ali used the neck grip to throw Frazier past him and into the corner. Padilla stopped the action and warned him yet again. Clearly, Ali had to mind his manners when it came to holding the neck.
Of course, both fighters were already involving themselves in other illegal strategies that Padilla wasn't under pressure to notice. Ali was repeatedly heeling—pushing Frazier with the palm of his glove—while Frazier was repeatedly putting in low punches on Ali's hips and legs.
Denied his hand behind the neck tie up, Ali's breaks along the ropes became a great deal more dangerous. Where covering up against Foreman simply resulted in Foreman swinging away at Ali's arms, Frazier was accurate. He would dig inside, under and behind Ali's elbows. What's more, Frazier's right hand seemed more dexterous than ever as he doubled up on both lefts and rights. Where Foreman had two targets—head and body—Frazier saw two obstacles, the arms, and anywhere they weren't was ripe for assault. Ken Norton commented between rounds that Ali could not apply the same strategy he had utilized against Foreman in this fight with a far more savvy and accurate infighter.
By the third round, Ali was hooking with Frazier. Exactly what Dundee wanted him to avoid. "Don't swing with him!" shouted the always audible Bundini Brown from Ali's corner as the champion returned to trading hooks with Frazier in round four. Ali spent the majority of the fifth round in a corner, and the cracks began to show. The commentary team noted that the bout was taking on a similar feel to the first—with Ali building up a lead, and then Frazier 'coming on' as the fight progressed. Round six was equally disastrous for Ali as he tried to dance but couldn't seem to get his feet moving, he wound up on the ropes and taking the body blows again.
The seventh round saw Ali catch his second wind as he began dancing again. Things evened out as Ali landed cleanly while Frazier walked towards him, but once in range, Frazier got off enough offence to justify it. It was becoming a grueling slog, but both men still had venom to their punches. In the eighth, Ali came off of the ropes to stun Frazier and tee off on him with punches, only to have Frazier return to end out the round.
As the rounds progressed, the pace slowed but both men were still being hit cleanly. This was not a boxing clinic by any means, it was an all out fight. Around the twelfth round, Frazier began to slow, and Ali's pace increased. Frazier was having difficulty avoiding the punches, and his feet were slowing to the point where he was struggling to get the fight to the ropes without taking a great deal of damage beforehand.
The Lost Round
As the thirteenth round ended, both men were bloodied and battered, but only two rounds remained. Eddie Futch, Joe Frazier's head second, knew Ali like no-one else. Of the five men to beat Ali, four were trained by Futch. Men with physiques and abilities as disparate as Ken Norton and Joe Frazier But Futch also knew Frazier, and he knew something about him which had remained well hidden. Joe Frazier had been nearly blind in his left eye since 1964.
With his right eye swollen shut from Ali's jabs, he was stumbled repeatedly by Ali's right hand through the thirteenth and fourteenth rounds. When he returned to his corner, Frazier found Eddie Futch ready to stop the bout.
But unbeknownst to Frazier and his seconds, Ali was at the point of breaking on the other side of the ring. Before the final round, Ali asked Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off—signaling that he didn't want to come out for the fifteenth. Angelo Dundee was not the tactical genius that Eddie Futch was—few have ever been—but he was a master of kidology. Famously if Ali wasn't doing something that Dundee wanted, Dundee would pretend Ali had, and congratulate him on how beautiful it looked.
It was Dundee who tore Ali's glove open and bought him precious seconds in the corner after he was near knocked unconscious by Henry Cooper. It was Dundee forced Ali back into the action when something on Sonny Liston's gloves found its way into Ali's eyes and blinded him for several rounds. And it was Dundee now, with his charge near unable to stand from exhaustion, who ignored Ali's pleas to end the fight and forced him back to his feet for the fifteenth round.
Ali answered the bell, Eddie Futch did not allow Frazier to.
Round fifteen remains one of the great 'what ifs' of boxing history. As the fight was called off, Frazier remained standing in his corner in disappointment, while Ali collapsed to the canvas and had to be lifted onto his stool. Frazier was up on many ringside observer's scorecards. What if Frazier had continued? Would he have won, or continued to take as severe a beating as in the two rounds previous? While Frazier believed the former, his friend Eddie Futch believed the latter.
While Muhammad Ali was the victor, and Joe Frazier never really recovered from that—going to his grave bitter about the way Ali had treated him outside of the ring—it was a hollow victory. This bout is generally agreed to be Ali's last great fight, and he took a battering throughout. Ali went on to win a few more bouts, and lose a few, before getting brutally stopped by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. The punishment Ali's body and head took through the latter stages of his career—particularly in the portions of his bouts which he spent along the ropes against heavy hitters like Foreman and Frazier—and his suffering from Parkinsons disease have raised many questions about the morality of boxing and its effects on the health of the participants not just immediately but in later life.
Joe Frazier, meanwhile, took a rematch with George Foreman in 1976. After Foreman's power put Frazier away in the fifth round, Frazier stepped away from the sport. He continued to live in Philadelphia until his death in 2011. In 2014, Philadelphia finally moved to erect a statue of their great heavyweight champion.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.