Thrilla in Manila

If you can talk about a fight, that was a war.

— Joe Frazier

“I love boxing. I love these two guys. But at that time I hated it. During the last round and a half, I thought to myself, somebody’s got to stop this.” Thinking back on the third and last fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger maintains a standard sports writer’s demeanor, tough and world-weary. But he also reveals something more, a brief glimpse of the horror he felt watching two men battle until both seemed about to fall out. Frazier himself recalls the end of the 1975 bout with what looks like a mix of nostalgia and wonder. “We were dead, both of us,” he muses, “I was dead. I was fighting out of instinct.”

John Dower’s Thrilla in Manila, premiering 11 April on HBO, puts this end in some perspective. Actually, it puts the fight in several perspectives, including that of Joe Frazier, most often remembered as the man who lost to Ali. The documentary traces the ugly race politics that shaped the fight and the relationship between these two former friends. Its array of interview subjects — including men who worked for Ali and several Frazier associates, as well as journalists and Imelda Marcos, whose shoe collection had not yet been discovered I 1975. Each tells a story about that last fight, and none agrees on what was at stake, how the tension between the fighters escalated, or whether the decision to stop the fight and award the win to Ali was a right one. What they do offer, however, is a compelling glimpse at the complicated politics of the time, and the ways that sports — in particular the simultaneously brutal and poetic sport of boxing — represent, affect, and produce racial and racist discourse.

Currently living in the Philadelphia gym where he and his son Marvis train young fighters (in a back room he calls “my dungeon”), 63-year-old Frazier remembers the fight as a kind of trial by fire. A spectacular spectacular of the sort that only professional boxing can stage, it was set in the Philippines for political reasons. For Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor, the choice was obvious and noncontroversial. He sounds impatient that anyone would even wonder why. “Are you in boxing at all?” he queries his offscreen interviewer. “A fight is done where a dictator needs a fight, to take the nation’s mind off the revolution that’s going on in the mountains or how bad things are and nobody’s eating.” The Marcos regime was in a bad way, thanks to increasingly aggressive communist rebels; the arrival of Ali, and to a lesser or very different extent, Frazier, distracted much of the underclass population, who lined the streets and cheered this worldwide hero.

Ali’s self-representation as a man of the people meant that he needed an impure adversary. And so he and the Nation of Islam, who helped to construct Ali’s promotional campaigns at the time, set about framing Frazier as a tool of the establishment. Not only was he financed by a nearly all-white group of Philadelphia businessmen called Cloverlay, he was also, Ali insisted, an “Uncle Tom.” By 1975, Ali’s bona fides as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war and spokesperson for the civil rights movement. If he was vilified in 1967 for refusing to be drafted, he was, by 1970, revered as a champion of progressive anti-war politics. The documentary points out, however, that during Ali’s “exile” — when his boxing license was revoked — he was hard up for money and friendship. Frazier offered him both, defending his religious argument for not going to Vietnam (“If Baptists weren’t allowed to fight, I wouldn’t fight”), and providing him with emergency cash.

Ali and Frazier’s first professional encounter took place in Madison Square Garden, in 1971’s “Fight of the Century.” With Burt Lancaster serving as “color commentator,” 27-year-old Frazier defeated his 29-year-old opponent, much to the boxing establishment’s surprise. Ali won their second bout, in 1974, and by the time they met in Manila, their enmity in and out of the ring was well publicized. Ali in particular was mouthing off, leaving off his signature poetry and instead conjuring a series of inflammatory insults.

Fans and less invested observers took sides according to the simplistic spin offered by Ali, then amplified by fight promoters and media hypesters: Ali was the choice for black, liberal or young consumes, those “against Vietnam or for the civil rights movement.” Frazier, as the opponent, was supported by white conservatives (the film shows the usual clip reel of white working class guys on the street speaking up for “Smokin’ Joe”). As this conflict escalated, Thrilla‘s narrator Liev Schrieber notes, people lost sight of Frazier’s “authentic” blackness, the fact that he came up in “the blackest part of black America,” Beaufort, South Carolina, and “spent his adult life in Philadelphia’s badlands.” Meantime, Ali walks the sidewalks of New York with a stylishly afro-ed Jesse Jackson, surrounded by neatly suited Nation members. (A brief shot of a magazine cover reveals the author of one article wondering about Frazier’s status, Bryant C. Gumbel’s “Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in a Black Skin?”)

Such racial divide, trumped up and exploited, was business as usual for U.S. entertainment. The film notes each of Ali’s slurs — “Uncle Tom,” “house negro,” and “gorilla” (this last accompanied by a doll that Ali punched for cameras in Manila) — though it does not look in detail at how such language or posturing served other people’s purposes. With Ali established as the most visual and vocal villain (one manipulated by the Nation, here linked to the Klan, with whom it shared segregationist inclinations), the film makes its way to the Thrilla in Manila.

Here the film’s focus shifts to the brutality of boxing per se, and this bout specifically. Though boxing cornermen and others recount here the brilliant excitement of the fight’s start, by the last round, several interview subjects are lamenting the battering both men inflicted and suffered. Pacheco — easily the film’s liveliest interview — asserts that the fight’s continuing was a “signal of how sick the sport is and a signal of how dumb Joe Frazier is.” He adds, “It’s what gets people killed in boxing, where the fight becomes more important than life and death.” Images show both men staggering and bloodied, Frazier’s eye closing, his inability to see his opponent. At last the fight was called and Ali declared the winner.

But the film suggests that no one could have won. The promotional revving up was so obnoxious, the race-class-and-gender politics of the sport so backwards and oppressive, that neither man could emerge intact. If the analysis in Thrilla in Manila is slight or occasionally deflected, its points are crucial, and remain pertinent to this day.

RATING 7 / 10