For this week's Closet Classic we are doing a first and speaking about a contest that featured no Asian fighters. In fact the combatants were two American fighters. Despite that the bout took place in Asia and is one of the most famous bouts in history. In fact it's arguably the greatest bout seen in the Heavyweight division and it took place almost 46 years ago, in fact the bouts anniversary will take place tomorrow, October 1st, and even now, well over 40 years on, the bout is still a legendary contest.
Muhammad Ali (48-2, 34) vs Joe Frazier (32-2, 27) III
For once we don't really think we need to introduce either fighter, with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier being two of the most iconic fighters ever. Despite that we will briefly look over the two men, their rivalry and what this bout meant.
The bout is, of course, the "Thrilla in Manila", the third and final chapter in the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. A bout that took place in Quezon City, not Manila City as many assume, and a bout that gave us everything we could ever wish to see in a ring.
Coming in to the bout the 33 year old Muhammad Ali had had 50 profession bouts, losing only twice. The first of those losses had come in 1971 to Joe Frazier, and the second had come to Ken Norton in 1973. That first loss hurt Ali a lot, and saw him losing to a man who had essentially won the title he had been stripped of for not fighting in the Vietnam war. Ali had avenged both defeats, beating Norton in a direct rematch and beaten Frazier in 1974 before becoming a 2-time Heavyweight champion thanks to a massive upset against George Foreman. In his 4th defense of his second reign he wanted to not just be level with Fraizer, but to defeat him for a second time, in a rubber match.
Aged 31 himself Frazier was the younger man, but had lost the second bout to Ali and had been splattered by George Foreman in Jamaica just a few fights earlier. He was rugged, tough and aggressive, but his style, and his offensive mentality had seen him take some real punishment through his career. Win or lose. He had given Ali his first loss, as mentioned, but was 5-2 since then and he had really not looked his best for a while. Many had assumed, coming into this, that Frazier was washed up. An easy win for Ali, and a bit of cynical matchmaking and a chance for Frazier to collect a final big payday before retiring.
Many had assumed wrong. Many had overlooked the fact Frazier was as stubborn as they come, and wanted revenge for the mocking he had suffered at the hands of Ali. This wasn't just a boxing bout to "Smokin' Joe", this was a personal war. He hated Ali, and the way Ali had treated him. He had helped Ali during his exile from the sport, and felt like Ali had essentially spit in his face in the years that had followed.
As well as Frazier resentment of Ali the bout had so many other sub-stories, including Ali's affair with Veronica Porche, and the bout being fought in the Philippines, which at the time was under-martial thanks to Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, who sponsored the fight and was ringside with his wife.
It had history, it had back stories, it had personal animosity and it had two all time greats. And it delivered something truly legendary.
Before the opening bell Ali played the clown with a special trophy that was set aside for the winner, and paid for by President Marcos, trying to further incite Fraizer, and pretending to cry in the corner when fans booed him during the introductions. He further spoke smack with Fraizer when the men were getting their final instructions.
From the opening bell Frazier came forward, ducking low, tried to avoid the snappy Ali jab and pressure Ali. Despite the pressure from Fraizer it was Ali who seemed to land the better blows in the first minute, with Frazier walking into shots. After that however Fraizer’s pressure began to have some success, forcing Ali on to the ropes, where Ali began to clinch. Unlike their second bout, which was marred by holding from Ali, the referee wasn’t letting Ali use the same tactics here and repeatedly split them almost immediately. Despite the good pressure from Frazier through the round Ali finished strong with a good flurry that caught eye.
Frazier continued pressing hard in round 2, and although Ali tried to control him by holding around the neck the referee wasn’t having it and gave Ali a warning early on. The tactics of the two men couldn’t be much more different. Frazier constantly marching forward, looking to grind Ali down, work the body and take the legs of “The Greatest” away. Ali on the other hand was head hunting at range and looking to hold and spoil up close. It was making for an engrossing round of action which continued into round 3, with Frazier refusing to take a backwards step, no matter what Ali caught him with, and for a large portion of the third round Frazier managed to pin Ali on the ropes, until Ali turned him late on and put on a late rally.
Within just 3 rounds it was clear this was going to be something special, and going into round 4 it seemed Ali was starting to feel the pace, despite having the more eye catching success, whilst Frazier was starting to really find his groove, and late in round 4 he also found Ali’s crown jewels with a brutal show that went low.
Before round 5 there was a large “Ali” chant, which the fighters himself played up, before we got another brutal round of Frazier’s pressure against Ali’s clean, solid head shots. It seemed like Frazier was being outboxed, and putting in a lot of effort, but he was also forcing Ali to work really hard every minute of the fight, and asking questions of Ali’s gas tank round after round.
As the rounds went on the violence got more brutal. Frazier was getting close more and more often and forcing Ali against the ropes almost consistently. Ali, as he had done against George Foreman, was fighting well off the ropes, but Fraizer was gradually getting through with more and more leather and the bout was becoming a test of both man’s heart, stamina, toughness and determination. By the end of just the 6th round it seemed the fight was turning in Frazier’s favour and it was becoming tougher, and tougher, for Ali who was starting to take some clean head shots himself as Frazier started to mix it upstairs more often.
We’ll leave the rest of the bout for those wanting to watch it without any more of the bout being ruined, though we suspect many reading this will have seen this legendary bout before. Before we leave you all together though, it needs to be said that this bout pretty much ruined both fighters and is, truly, one of the most punishing bouts in the storied history of the Heavyweight division. It is also the most famous fight to ever take place in Asia, and one of the most gutsy, courageous and exciting fights you could ever wish to see. It is also one of those great fights that more exceeds it's reputation for being an all time classic.
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features