Thrilla in Manila

On a blistering morning in October 1975, Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier pummeled each other to death’s door. As the 14th round ended, neither fighter wanted to leave the corner, and the final outcome remains stunning.

This bout played a key role in both fighters’ futures and haunts many associates and experts to this day. The landmark Thrilla in Manila event has been chronicled elsewhere, but we’ve rarely seen the personal conflicts that fueled this brutal event.

John Dower’s surprising film concentrates on Frazier and gives a stunning perspective on his grim motivations. Visiting the former champ at his inner-city gym in Philadelphia, we observe a hatred that continues to this day. Ali’s over-the-top antics often took shots at his opponents, but he raised the level with his personal attacks on Frazier. Calling him nasty terms like “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla”, Ali opened wounds that don’t heal with time.

Although Frazier’s well into his 60s today, his emotions when discussing boxing remain fierce. It’s hard to believe that a former world heavyweight champion could live in a small room connected to the gym. But that revelation only heightens the wide gap between the working-class Frazier and the world-famous Ali.

Originally aired on HBO, this documentary clearly identifies the contradictions in the beloved Ali persona. Speaking the separatist views of the Nation of Islam, he even drew a positive reaction at a Klu Klux Klan rally. Refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and needed help from friends like Frazier to stay afloat.

But the tide shifted when they became opponents again prior to 1971’s “Fight of the Century”. Ali’s comments questioned Frazier’s identity as a ‘black man’ and only increased his determination. The personal attacks continued before Thrilla in Manilla, and controversial tactics in their previous fight raised the stakes. With his typical wordplay, Ali made statements like “It’s gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thriller, when I get the Gorilla in Manila.”

Did he realize that his barbs only increased his opponent’s fire? It’s doubtful that Ali really considered the ramifications. This film makes it clear that Frazier had a personal interest to not only win the fight, but to inflict serious damage.

While the filmmakers support Frazier’s viewpoint, they also depict a frightening, unhealthy side of his personality. When Ali completed the torch relay for Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, Frazier hoped he’d fall in the fire. Another scary aspect is his pride at contributing to Ali’s problems with Parkinson’s disease.

While Frazier’s enmity is understandable, the lack of any warmth after so many years is still unsettling. The duo fought three times, and though Ali won twice, this picture argues that it easily could have shifted the other way.

The DVD’s extra footage reveals another reason that Frazier’s not content to retire as a gracious former champion. One scene presents the parallels between Rocky Balboa and a young Frazier, including the famous run up the steps and meat-packing training scenes.

While Philadelphia erected a statue to the fictional character, the real-life champ has received much less acclaim. Frazier did make a cameo in the film, but the credit for his inspiration fell short of what he expected.

Much of the bonus material contains a discussion with former champion Larry Holmes, who’s a natural on camera. His comments are entertaining, but they lack the heart-wrenching feelings generated by Frazier.

Another touching moment shows Frazier’s son Marvis discussing his grief after losing a title bout to Holmes. Watching him relive the aftermath of that fight is sad, but it also shows a compassionate side of his proud dad.

I expected a typical boxing history film, but Thrilla in Manilla gives us a more intriguing, sharper position. Not content to simply chronicle the classic fight, Dower takes a broader look at the buildup to the pivotal events.

Films like Ali and When We Were Kings gave me a much-different view of Ali, who’s considered by many to be the century’s greatest sports figure. ESPN has numerous shows documenting his popularity, but few dig at his nasty side like this film does. I still admire his feats in the ring and his brave political choices, but I’m left with lingering doubts about Ali’s his near-angelic characterization in popular culture.

Dower provides some comments from Ali’s camp, largely from trainer Ferdie Pacheco, who becomes visibly irritated with several questions. Pacheco is a great subject because he’s not afraid to clear answers even when they make him look callous. His statements about Frazier being “dumb” might seem nasty, but Pacheco clearly believes it.

Compared to Ali’s well-crafted showmanship, Frazier’s quiet personality makes him appear less intense. However, his rare ability to match Ali’s moves with raw power has rarely been equaled. It’s sad to see how much he’s still affected by those three 1970s bouts, particularly the Thrilla in Manilla.

Would Frazier’s life have been different if the outcome was reversed? It’s hard to say for sure, but his feelings are clear, which brings a haunting resonance to this gripping picture.

RATING 7 / 10