Home Boxing History Thrilla In Manilla – Muhammed Ali vs Joe Frazier

Thrilla In Manilla – Muhammed Ali vs Joe Frazier

It was known as the “Thrilla in Manila” that took place on Wednesday 1st October 1975 at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, Quezon City in the Philippines. The venue was temporarily renamed as the “Philippine Coliseum” and it was the place where Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier met for their third and final boxing match.

The bout is consistently ranked as one of the best and most brutal in the sport’s history and was the finale of a three-bout rivalry between the two fighters that Ali won, 2–1. The fight was watched by a record global television audience of 1 billion viewers including 100 million viewers watching the fight on closed circuit theatre television and 500,000 pay per view buys on HBO home cable television.

Ali won by TKO after Frazier’s chief second Eddie Futch asked the referee to stop the fight following the end of the 14th round. The famous contest’s name came from Ali’s rhyming boast that the fight would be “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manilla”.

Let’s go back in time……..

The first fight took place on 8th March 1971 at the famous Madison Square Garden in New York. Frazier won the fight by a unanimous decision over previously undefeated Ali in a fast-paced 15 round fight, with Frazier scoring the fights (and trilogy’s) only knockdown at the beginning of the final round.

When the rivals met in their rematch in January 1974 neither of them was champion. Frazier had suffered a second round knockout at the hands of big George Foreman a year earlier and Ali had two split bouts with Ken Norton.

In a promotional appearance before the second fight they both got into a scuffle at an ABC studio during an interview segment with Howard Cosell.

In the fight in the second round, Ali stung Frazier with a hard right hand which backed him up. Referee Tony Perez stepped in between the fighters signifying the end of the round even though there were about 25 seconds left. In doing so he gave Frazier time to regain his bearings and continue fighting. The referee also failed to contain Ali’s tactic of illegally holding and pulling down his opponents neck in clinches, which helped Ali to smother Frazier and gain him the 12 round decision. This became a major issue in selecting the referee for the Manilla fight.

So in the lead up to the fight, the President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos wanted to hold the bout in Metro Manilla and sponsor it in order to bring attention on the Philippines as a great nation having declared martial law three years prior in 1972.

In the build up to the fight it was a very much verbal affair, Ali verbally abused Frazier and nicknamed him Frazier “The Gorilla” and used this as the bass for the rhyme, “it will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manilla” which he chanted whilst punching an action-figure sized gorilla doll.

Ali explained to reporter Dick Schaap that this was part of a longstanding pre-fight strategy of his, he told the reporter “I like to get a man mad because when a man’s mad he wants ya so bad, he can’t think so I like to get a man mad”.

This strategy had appeared to work for Ali in his defeat to George Foreman who seemed to explode with rage every round until he had exhausted himself.

Joe had skill, confidence, stamina and the character to persevere in difficult situations. A member of Joe’s team in Manilla said “with all of the residue of anger that Joe had from what had happened before the first fight, what had happened before and during the second fight and after these fights, Joe was ready to lay his life on the line and he did”.

Reparations for Ali were already upset before the fight when he introduced his mistress Veronica Porche as his wife to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. This made Khalilah Ali, Ali’s wife angry who saw the introduction on television in the States. She flew to Manilla where she engaged with her husband in a prolonged shouting match in his hotel suite.

Eddie Futch who was in Joe’s camp decided that the hordes of people and the tension in the steaming hot city were a poor environment to prepare in so Joe completed his training for what was to be his final show at the championship in a lush, quiet setting in the mountainous outskirts of the city of Manilla. He would often sit for hours in a contemplative state in preparation for the fight.

Regarding the fight strategy and referee selection, Joe’s cornerman Eddie Futch was concerned about preventing Ali from repeating the illegal tactic of holding Joe behind the neck to create extended cliches. Ali used his tactic to keep Frazier from getting inside and enable himself to get needed rest during his victory in their second meeting. Futch claimed he had done this 133 times in that fight without being penalised.

He also did it while facing the taller Foreman in his defeat of him in Zaire leaving little doubt as to his intentions for the up-and-coming fight in Manilla. Futch sensed trouble so he moved to block (Ali-Foreman ref) Zach Clayton as referee by enlisting the aid of Philadelphia mayor Frank Ruzzo. The mayor refused to let Clayton out of his duties as a Philadelphia civil service employee to go referee the fight.

Futch also warned the Filipino authorities that Ali was going to mar what was to be a great event for their nation by constantly tying up Joe illegally. He advised them to assign one of their countrymen to referee the fight, stating that this would reflect well on the Philippines and be a source of pride for it’s people.

Futch and the Filipino officials (who bought in heavily to the idea) brushed aside complaints from Don King that a Filipino referee would be too small to handle a heavyweight fight. This resulted in the appointment of Filipino Carlos Padilla Jr.

On the other hand Ali’s corner was concerned about repeated foul blows by Joe who struck Ali below the belt lots of times in their previous fights, as a strategy to diminish Ali’s superior movement.

Futch and his assistant, George Benton, believed that the key to winning the fight would be for Frazier to persistently attack Ali’s body, including punches to the hips when Ali effectively covered up his torso along the ropes. Benton said, “My expression to Joe was what you’ve got to do is stay on top of him, and hit the son of a bitch anywhere, hit him on the hips, hit him on the legs. You hit him anywhere!”

Frazier’s strategy followed the boxing axiom “if you kill the body, the head will die.” As he described it, “Once I’ve stopped your organs—when those kidneys and liver stop functioning, he can’t move so fast. The organs in his body have to be functioning. If you slow them down, he cannot do what he wants to do.”

The Ali camp used the championship as leverage in negotiations and won out on two key points. The ring size of 21 feet (6.4 m) square allowed him the ability to move and circle the ring if he so chose, which would enable him to use his superior boxing skills to his advantage. He also got his preference for 8 oz (230 g) gloves, which were smaller and less padded than those used in most heavyweight fights. According to Ali’s ring doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, Ali planned to take advantage of Frazier’s reputation as a slow starter, and use his superior reach and hand speed to attack Frazier exclusively with punches to the head in the early rounds in the hope of scoring a knockout, or at least doing enough damage to Frazier to prevent him from fighting effectively as the fight wore on.

So on to the fight and in order to accommodate an international viewing audience, the fight took place at 10am local time and though it served the business interests of the fight it was detrimental to the fighters. Ferdie Pacheco who was Ali’s ring physician said, “at 10am the stickiness of the night was still there but cooked by the sun. So what you got is boiling water for atmosphere”.

Denise Menz who was part of Joe’s team said of the conditions inside the aluminium-roofed Philippine Coliseum “it was so intensely hot. I’ve never felt heat like that in my life. Not a breath of air, nothing and that was sitting there. Can you imagine being in the ring? I don’t know how they did it”.

Joe estimated that the temperature of the ring was more than 120 degrees F, taking into account the effect of the additional lights used for purpose of televising the fight. Ali said he had lost 5 pounds (2.3 kg) during the fight due to dehydration.

When the fighters and their cornermen met in the centre of the ring for the referee’s instructions, Ali continued his verbal assault on Joe Frazier, finishing with the taunt: “You don’t have it, Joe, you don’t have it! I’m going to put you away!” In response, Frazier smiled and said “We’ll see”.

In the beginning Ali was sharp early and the slow-starting Frazier could not bob and weave his way inside of Ali’s jab. Ali won the first two rounds and kept Frazier in the centre of the ring and landed several straight right hands immediately after his jab. Frazier was wobbled or at least knocked off balance by solid punches twice in the early rounds. Don Dunphy who was commentating for the US television audience said “Ali with his fast hands and sharp shooting keeps it his way”. When viewing the fight for the first time some 31 years later, Frazier said “too far away, needed to get closer”.

Ali continued with the verbal attack to Joe, most noticeably in the third round when he was performing well and had plenty of energy. Referee Carlos Padilla said “during the fight (Ali) would say “Ah one ah two and a three….Jack be nimble and Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick. Is that all you can give? Come on, you ugly gorilla, hit me!”

Several times Ali made circular hand gestures at Frazier to encourage him closer.

During the third round Ali begun using the “rope-a-dope”, a strategy in which he used the ropes for support and rest while allowing his opponent to expand energy throwing punches. When it was effective Ali would eventually spin off the ropes and unleash a volley of punches in rapid succession against an arm-weary opponent.

It didn’t work out that way in Manilla, Frazier landed his first good body punches of the night in the third round with Ali pinned in the corner. Because of his lack of his general reach and arthritic right elbow Frazier needed to be close to Ali to hit him with frequency and the rope-a-dope enabled him to do that.

Approximately two minutes into the round Ali threw a succession od hard punches but many missed.

Harry Carpenter who was commentating for the BBC said “I don’t know when I’ve seen I’ve seen Ali in as aggressive a mood as this. He really looks as if he wants to nail Frazier to the canvas for once and all”.

Into the fifth round we go and Frazier’s timing and the rhythm of his bobbing and weaving improved. He was able to avoid the oncoming fists of the champion and for the first time in the fight land solid left hooks to Ali’s head.

Ali spent most of the round along the ropes and according to his trainer Angelo Dundee that “was the worst thing he could do because he’s making Joe pick up momentum where he could drive those shots to the body”.

Ali’s method of self defence worsened noticeably in the fifth also and boxing journalist Jerry Izenberg who was ringside said, “somewhere about the fourth or fifth round Joe hit him with a right hand, I didn’t think Joe could tie his shoes with his right hand and Ali pulls back and says “you don’t have no right hand, you can’t do that” and bing he hits him with another right hand.

All of a sudden Ali had to think, “well there are two hands in this fight on the other side” that was very important. Also his guard lowered visibly in this round as a result of the vicious body attack he was taking. Ali had become more exposed to Frazier’s most lethal punch, the left hook.

We’re now in the sixth round and shortly after the bell Frazier landed a thunderous left hook which thudded against the right side of Ali’s face. Ali was knocked back by the force of the punch and landed into the ropes behind him. He didn’t appear groggy or dazed but he was visibly stiff in his body movements while backing away from the oncoming Frazier and continued to throw punches of his own.

Seconds later Frazier landed a tremendous whipping left hook to Ali’s head again and again Ali landed into the ropes behind him but he only gave the appearance of being a little dazed and stiff legged. Even though he had taken blows that would have destroyed a lesser or less committed fighter, Ali remained standing and was able to finish the round without being knocked down.

Frazier watched the fight years later on video and shook his head at the sight of Ali withstanding those powerful blows. Jerry Izenberg observed, “they were tremendous hooks and you have to understand normal fighters would not have continued, it would have been all over”.

Ed Schuyler of Associated Press was present at ringside, Ali reacted to Frazier’s sixth round barrage by saying at the start of the round “they told me Joe Frazier was washed up” to which Joe retorted “they lied”.

As the fight wore on it became clear that despite his belief in the rope-a-dope, when Ali had his back against the ropes Frazier had the advantage.

Snokin’ Joe was able to wear down his opponent with body punches, left hooks to the head and occasionally short chopping right hands.

Meanwhile, the long-armed champion had a difficult time getting much power into his punches while fighting on the inside. Dundee, who detested the rope-a-dope (never more so than in Manila) constantly asked his fighter to “get off the goddamn ropes!”

At the beginning of the seventh round, Ali managed to do so effectively for about a round and a half and was able to best Frazier in exhausting toe-to-toe exchanges during the opening minute of round eight—described on the telecast as “a big rally by Ali”.

Later on n that round, an arm-weary Ali began to be beaten to the punch by the challenger. During the final minute of round number eight, Ali sagged against the ropes in a neutral corner as Frazier landed a series of punches to his body and head. On the broadcast, Dunphy excitedly told his audience: “Frazier may have evened up the round!” with about 30 seconds to go”.

At the close of a very tiring ninth round, a very visibly tired Ali went back to his corner and told his trainer “man this is the closest I’ve been to dying”.

Over in the opposite corner Frazier was suffering from pronounced swelling about the face, the result of an accumulation of hundreds of punches exclusively aimed at his head.

Frazier was nearly blind in his left eye after a training accident in 1965, this was a dreadful development. In the eleventh round Ali landed frequently and Eddie Futch confronted his charge asking him “what’s with this right-hand business?”. In response Frazier indicated that he could not see some of the punches he was being hit with. At this point Futch gave him what turned out to be poor advice, he told his fighter to stand more upright when approaching Ali rather than continuing his usual bobbing and weaving style. Ali seized upon this immediately in round twelve. With his back to the ropes he threw many punches with both hands that landed accurately and did still more damage to Frazier’s limited eyesight. In addition to Frazier’s problems was his corner’s inability to maintain a functional icebag to apply to his eye past the middle rounds because of the oppressive heat inside the Philippine Coliseum. As Frazier rose from his stool to contest round 13 he was a fighter who could barely see.

The sportswriter Frank McGhee for the British paper Daily Mirror described the final rounds:

The main turning point of the fight came very late. It came midway through the thirteenth round when one of two tremendous right-hand smashes sent the gum shield sailing out of Frazier’s mouth. The sight of this man actually moving backwards seemed to inspire Ali. I swear he hit Frazier with thirty tremendous punches—each one as hard as those which knocked out George Foreman in Zaire—during the fourteenth round. He was dredging up all his own last reserves of power to make sure there wouldn’t have to be a fifteenth round.

Seeing the results of round fourteen, Eddie Futch decided to stop the fight between rounds rather than risk a similar or worse fate for Frazier in the fifteenth. Frazier protested stopping the fight, shouting “I want him, boss,” and trying to get Futch to change his mind. Futch replied, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today” and signalled to referee Carlos Padilla Jr to end the fight. Ali would later claim that this was the closest to dying he had ever been. Unbeknown to Frazier’s corner, at the end of the fourteenth round Ali instructed his cornermen to cut his gloves off, but Dundee ignored him.

Ali later told his biographer Thomas Hauser “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight anymore”. Padilla, who scored the fight and the ringside judges had Ali ahead by a comfortable margin on points but many of the ringside press had the fight scored much closer. The Associated Press had the fight even after fourteen rounds.

The fights legacy

The Philippines first multi-level commercial shopping mall was named after Muhammad Ali as a tribute to his victory.

The mall is located in Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City almost right beside the Araneta Coliseum in which the “Thrilla in Manilla” took place.

Another legacy of this fight was its pioneering use of communication technology. On the 30th September 1975, HBO became the first television network in history to deliver a continuous signal via satellite by broadcasting the “Thrilla in Manilla”.