Boxing

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier Were Never the Same After Their Most Destructive Matchup: ‘It Was Like Death’

Muhammad Ali’s illustrious career is filled with incredible matches. But the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier stands out as a particularly epic bout. It was the ending of a trilogy between two historic fighters with wildly different personalities. The fight was so brutal and taxing that it left permanent scars on both of them. The men exited the ring in 1975 as different fighters than they were when they went in. 

The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was the end of an incredible sporting trilogy

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The “Thrilla in Manila” is the fight that derives hushed tones and deep reverence from boxing fanatics, but it wasn’t the first time that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met in the ring. They first fought in the “Fight of the Century” in 1971 in New York’ Madison Square Garden.

Frazier, then the heavyweight champion of the world, delivered Ali’s first pro loss (and the only knockdown in their three meetings) in the 15th round and won by unanimous decision — although he did have to spend three weeks in a hospital to recover from the match. The next fight, entitled the “Super Fight II” (marketers really didn’t try with this one) went Ali’s way, although there was some controversy about referee Tony Perez’s conduct during the fight. 

By the time their third and final bout came around, both Ali and Frazier were past their prime. Frazier had lost his last two major bouts (he lost the world championship to George Foreman before losing to Ali) and Ali viewed the entire prospect as an excuse to visit the Philippines for an all-expenses paid, four-week vacation with his mistress and future third wife, Veronica Porché Ali. 

The fight took place in Manila because the Filipino government cut the biggest check. They wanted a big sporting event that would bring positive attention and a lot of money to the country while also distracting people from the chaotic political situation and the failing economy. (Who can relate?) President Ferdinand Marcos gave promoter Don King whatever he asked for to make the fight happen. He got the spectacle he paid for and then some. 

The fight lived up to the hype, for better and worse

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As personalities, Ali and Frazier were oil and water. It didn’t take much for them to get sick of each other. The tone and the name for their fight was set early on when Ali compared his opponent to a giant ape. “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila,” he boasted as he punched a small gorilla doll he brought to the press conference.

Unsurprisingly, this infuriated Frazier, who already thought he didn’t get enough credit for beating Ali the first time. He responded, “I don’t want to knock him out, I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I’ll stand back, give him a chance to breathe. It’s his heart I want.” Spectators could feel mutual hatred in the atmosphere. The arena had no air conditioning. Combined with the full crowd and high humidity, this made breathing difficult.

Both boxers channeled their dislike into an unforgettably bruising fight, trading momentum-swinging blows every couple of rounds. Frazier trained for 15 rounds, Ali expected an early decision. In an early-round clinch, he muttered to Frazier: “Joe, they told me you was all washed up.” Frazier growled back: “They lied.”

To the delight of the worldwide audience, Ali and Frazier gave everything they had. They responded to every challenge their opponent gave them in spite of the pain of every punch. At the end of the ninth round, Ali struggled with fatigue. He told his trainer “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” Frazier’s right eye nearly shut due to swelling. He was already almost blind in his left eye after a training accident a few years prior.

The fight went on for five more rounds. After the 14th round, with Frazier’s face covered in blood, his trainer, Eddie Futch, called the fight against his wishes. Ali won by technical workout. “I was thinking about Joe’s family, how much they loved him,” Futch told the Independent shortly before his death.

Quitting was also on Ali’s mind. His biographer Thomas Hauser told the 2008 documentary that at the end of the round an Ali cornerman heard the champion telling trainer Angelo Dundee to “cut ’em [gloves] off”.

The impact of the bout never left Ali or Frazier

Joe Frazier tries to punch Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali steps away from Joe Frazier during their 1971 title bout | Bettmann/ Contributor

Ali and Frazier fought a few more times after the “Thrilla.” But they were never the same after their last bout. Ali defended his world title six more times. He got it back after losing to Leon Spinks in 1978, but he never fully recovered from Frazier’s blows. He retired in 1981 after consecutive losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. 

Frazier fought only two more times after Manila. First, he lost again to George Foremen in 1976. Then, he drew with the little-known Floyd Cummings in 10 rounds after coming out of retirement in ’81. 

As much as they loathed each other, the “Thrilla in Manila” kept Ali and Frazier connected by history forever.