Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier: How "Thrilla In Manila" Became The Most Legendary Boxing Match in History
It was 10am in Manila on the first day of October 1975. The sun was unforgiving. Despite the intense heat, the aluminium-roofed Araneta Coliseum (then referred to as the Philippine Coliseum) was exploding with cheer, jampacked with more than 36,000 people waiting to witness what would be a historic match between two boxing legends. “We were fortunate to host Thrilla in Manila at the Araneta Coliseum on 1 October 1975. Consistently ranked by USA sportswriters as probably ‘the world’s best boxing match in sports history’, the fight was the culmination of a three-bout contest between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship of the world,” says Jorge L Araneta, chairman and CEO of the Araneta Group.
The bout started on a high note, with Frazier, cloaked in blue, entering the larger-than-usual 6.4sqm ring, followed by Ali, who had incessantly thrown provocative words at the former for months leading to the match up until the time the two were called to the centre of the ring. “You don’t have it, you don’t have it! I’m going to put you away,” Ali was caught on camera, to which Frazier smiled and replied, “We’ll see.” Both were determined to crush each other to get the throne to what would later translate into arguably the greatest fight in boxing history.
Thrilla in Manila, the arduous fight left Frazier nearly blind and Ali on the edge of giving up. Its name was derived from Ali’s famous pre-fight line—“It would be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila”—that he sarcastically chanted while punching a gorilla doll that symbolised the opponent.
Ali triumphed the first two rounds by keeping Frazier in the centre of the ring and landing several sharp right and left blows. Frazier was knocked off-balanced by solid punches twice in the early rounds. In round three, Ali began using the “rope-a-dope” strategy, which makes use of the side ropes of the ring for support and rest while allowing his opponent to drain energy by letting him throw punches. However, it did not turn out that way—Frazier landed his first good body punches in the same round while Ali was pinned in the corner. With his lack of reach and arthritic right elbow, Frazier had to get close to Ali to hit him with frequency, and Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy gave him exactly that.
Fast forward to round nine, a clearly exhausted Ali went back to his corner, telling his trainer: “This is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” On the opposite side, Frazier’s face was badly swollen, as a result of hundreds of punches aimed at his head.
At the 11th round, Frazier indicated that he could barely see some of the punches he was being hit with. At this point, he was advised by his trainer, Eddie Futch, to stand more upright when approaching Ali rather than continuing his usual bobbing and weaving style. Ali seized upon this immediately in the 12th round. With his back to the ropes, he threw back-to-back punches that landed accurately, causing more damage to Frazier’s limited eyesight. Adding to Frazier’s concerns was the inability of his team to maintain a functional icebag to apply to his eye past the middle rounds due to the scorching heat inside the Philippine Coliseum. Come round 13, Ali took over the game as Frazier, who at this point could barely see, ate punches after punches from the opponent. Round 14 had both fighters on the verge of surrender. “Frazier’s face looked like it exploded; his eyes were all skinny. He couldn’t see him. He had so much fluid and blood in his face that it was squishing around,” says Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s ring doctor.
After seeing the outcome of the 14th round, Futch decided to stop the fight so as not to risk a similar or worse fate for Frazier in the next round. Bent on winning the match, Frazier protested, trying to convince Futch to change his mind. To no avail, the trainer signalled the referee to end the game. “Ali won by technical knockout [TKO] after Frazier’s chief second, Futch, asked Filipino referee Carlos Padilla, Jnr to stop the fight following the end of the 14th round,” Araneta continues. “To my mind, it was the best heavyweight fight I’ve ever seen in my life and the closest to death that both fighters came. I don’t know whether that’s praise or not, because death should not enter into a sporting event, but it did,” adds Pacheco.
Thrilla in Manila was the finale of a trilogy fought by the two boxing icons. The first match in 1971 titled, Fight of the Century, was won by the then-unbeaten Frazier, handling Ali the first defeat of his professional boxing career. Ali’s victory in the second bout, a non-title match dubbed as Super Fight II in 1974, was by a unanimous decision.
The late President Ferdinand Marcos reportedly sponsored the fight in order to shed positive light on the Philippines, which, he put under martial law three years earlier. The aim was to distract the people from political unrest and an impending revolution. The late sports journalist Ronnie Nathanielsz, who was the appointed liaison officer for Ali by the Philippine government, once wrote, “Faced with the reality, Marcos was looking for an opportunity to show the world that the economy was moving forward, the country was stable and there was peace and order.” Reports of a hefty sum spent to pay for the expenses of the show at the time when most Filipinos’ annual income was not enough to get an upper box seat at the Big Dome buzzed in circles everywhere. According to the reports, bringing in world-class entertainment to conceal poverty and insurgency was one of the late president’s aces during that time.
In the months leading to the Manila fight, Ali verbally abused Frazier non-stop on purpose so the latter would get provoked and won’t be able to think rationally. This strategy worked in Ali’s favour in his defeat of George Foreman, who seemed to explode with rage until he had exhausted himself. However, it was not only winning the match that occupied Ali’s mind during the preparations. He was engaged in a scandalous shouting “match” with his wife, Khalilah Ali, who flew in to Manila upon seeing on television that her husband introduced Veronia Porche (Ali’s reported mistress) as his wife to President Marcos and First Lady, Imelda. The incident was just one of Thrilla in Manila’s most memorable shenanigans.
Frazier on the other hand, was busy training in the lush, quiet mountainous outskirts of the city to avoid the steaming hot and “poor” environment in the metropolis. There, he led a spartan existence, often training for hours in a meditative state in preparation for the bout.
Led by Futch, Frazier’s camp was very much concerned about preventing Ali from repeating his illegal tactic of holding Frazier behind the neck to create extended clinches. Ali used this strategy to enable himself to get needed rest during his victory in Super Fight II. Futch, claiming that Ali had done this 133 times in that fight without being penalised, raised concern that he might do it again in Thrilla in Manila.
Futch worked his way to block Zach Clayton as referee by enlisting the aid of Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. Clayton was the referee during the Ali-Foreman fight where Ali also reportedly used the same illegal tactic. The mayor refused to let Clayton get out of his duties as a Philadelphia civil service employee to referee the fight.
Futch also suggested the Filipino team handling the event to assign one of their countrymen to referee the bout, stating that “this would reflect well on the Philippines”. The result: the appointment of Filipino referee, Carlos Padilla, Jnr, father of singer, Zsa Zsa Padilla.
Now, 45 years later, Thrilla in Manila remains in the minds of fans and boxing enthusiasts. And why not? According to reliable sources, it was a fight watched by over a billion viewers globally, including 100 million viewers watching the fight on closed-circuit theatre television. Add to that, Thrilla in Manila was the very first boxing match to be on pay-per-view home cable TV, transmitted through HBO. This garnered another 500,000 pay-perview buys for the most lauded Ali-Frazier match.
“Our hosting of the famous boxing match at the Araneta Coliseum greatly contributed to making the Big Dome an ideal venue for international events such as the visit of Pope John Paul II, and the entertainment performances of popular celebrities including Nat King Cole, Andrea Bocelli, Julio Iglesias, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Andy Williams and many more,” shares Araneta. As a tribute to Ali’s victory, the Philippines’ first multi-level commercial shopping mall was named after him: the Ali Mall in Araneta Center, Quezon City, which lies almost next to the Araneta Coliseum in which the Thrilla in Manila took place. “We are happy to have established this historic legacy for all fellow Filipinos and the entire sports community worldwide. Exclusively, we have named one of our malls, the Ali Mall in honor of Muhammad Ali,” Araneta concludes. Both the mall and the coliseum still stand today.