Thrilla in Manilla
By Martin Wade, (April 22, 2009)  
Is this a review? Hell I don’t know but I will say this; what I’m about to write is from the perspective of a true child of the 70’s and a diehard Ali fan. My earliest memory of boxing was watching Wide World of Sports with my father (AKA my mamma’s husband) in the mid 70’s. I was drawn in to the bombast and braggadocio of Ali, and as I grew into a self absorbed, vain teenager I felt it was my birthright to verbalize how I too was more “pretty” than my rivals. I had no way of understanding that historically Ali had normalized a nasty protocol of personally demeaning a rival through words. Maybe Ali, in his cruelty unknowingly invented trash talk to aid future competitors in the art of processing anxiety and fear. I too may have a slew of “Joe Frazier’s” in the darkest recesses of my past because only in my late 20’s through veracious reading and discovery did I begin to grasp the true power (for good and evil) of words. The documentary “Thrilla in Manilla”clearly illustrates how even in the most brutal of worlds words can cut deeper than Everlast and leave wounds that not only demean Joe Frazier but cast shame on a large number of onlookers who delighted in the spectacle. I can write about this documentary and these two men forever but for the sake of those who require expediency I will comment on highlights I found important.

The Love Affair with Ali

Ali was probably one of the few figures that needed “Goding up” but nevertheless the writers from Roger Daltry’s g-g-generation were a part of the synergy of the 50 million dollar licensing worth Thomas Hauser half bragged about. His courting of the media, even before the Vietnam War stance made him a mega force who could push his agenda beyond anything a fighting man could ever imagine. A lot of the writers were as enamored with themselves as they were Ali-their narcissistic soul mate; so much so that no one even bothered to point out that in his denigration of Frazier he was practicing “Plantation Politics” disguised as Black Nationalism. Make no mistake, when Ali who possessed a physical beauty valued by whites acted as if his visage was superior he is echoing the pride of slave master Cassius Clay not Malcolm X. I loved him for his confidence, his defiance and his powers of manifestation but those powers are also evident in Joe Frazier his greatest rival. The 70’s was a self congratalatory time for the boomers and Ali’s fistic redemption was a small slice of a much bigger gratification pie. As I’ve aged the love affair with Ali has deepened as I know he was a man capable of much harm and possessing great flaws. After watching this documentary I’m even more aware that you cant love Ali and not love Joe Frazier because what Ali was able to show us (in battle) had no conduit without the gallantry of “Smokin Joe”.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and the Champs Camp

Obviously he needs no respect from me, which is good because he’ll never get any. I don’t know if it was the onset of senility or just plain old nastiness but this man came off as derogatory and patronizing. He could never just answer a question without taking a shot at Joe Frazier or the questioner himself. That he thought the rubber gorilla looked like Joe and was clueless enough to say it is of no slight to Joe; regretfully it is Pacheco’s family who have to deal with the horror of watching this unfold. It seems he took a little too much pleasure in watching a culturally naïve Black man attack the “Blackness” (AKA connection to Africa) of another. Ali in more politically correct times would have been called to the carpet and I am sure he is embarrassed by dissemination of this part of his life. Pacheco seems to still be amused even today by Ali’s antics even dismissing it all as a case of immaturity (and ignorance) on Joe’s part. Yet as a viewer I am thankful HBO decided to keep this footage in the show to give me a glimpse of the sentiment of the enablers in Ali’s camp. Ali in many ways was egged on by many forces like the Nation of Islam to slew venom in arenas where there was no such need. Seeing him brag about speaking at Klan rallies is exhibit A as to why we ourselves should be wise men and look close to home when choosing our heroes. Luckily for us, the ring is a place of truth and what Ali and Frazier did inside it will always obscure what they said outside of it.

Where they Friends?

Only the two of them truly know, but I choose to believe that this “friendship” is one of the great myths in boxing history. I just trust my gut that they were cool ( AKA “cordial”) but nothing about the two men can lead me to envision them having a couple of brews together. Ali was a sheltered wunderkind- first by indulgent parents and then by the system that nurtured his professional career. By the time they crossed paths Ali was already surrounded by Elijah Muhammad’s “people” and numerous “yes men”. Joe Frazier comparatively is the quintessential “brotha’s brotha”, the kind of cat you could hang out on the block with or see beating up bad guys with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown. Take modern day friends gone sour Floyd Mayweather and Zab Judah, you can actually envision them hanging out with one another-as they did. Joe Frazier is a sensitive man, but lets not forget he was a fighter for pay and I believe a lot of his compassion for Ali’s position was motivated by money. Joe Frazier passing Ali money and politicking for his return is no different than all of the excuses possible opponents of De La Hoya explained away his lackluster performances. Ali may have shone a brave face outwardly but had he lived in the age of youtube there would have been several genuine anti Frazier rants caught on video as early as 1968. Ali was a young man, and there were probably a lot of people who told him he’d be back in the ring much sooner than 1970-it had to be killing him. I can see him accepting Joes “help” but deep down resenting a man he felt the “system” was elevating at his expense.

On a Humorous Note

No Ali documentary is complete without pointing out he was a “womanizer” to add spice to our palette. Let me be the first to say I doubt any Heavyweight Champion that held the title when it meant something was beyond reproach, how they were different is all semantics. I understand this documentary was “Fraziercentric”and every dirty detail about the champ was pertinent but; you would think they could limit the screen time of a woman simply credited as Joe’s “travel companion”. At least Veronica Porsche went on to be the former Mrs. Ali, Laila’s mamma. On this little “trip” the only thing Joe did different than his rival was keep his business where it needed to be. On the down low.

How can a warrior in a blood sport provoke a blood feud?

The one word none of us want to attach to Ali (because it says more about us), the word that is the essence of what he did in his career-the word is primal. Ali in all of his grandeur and self glorification took all of his championship bouts with men of substance personal. Had Buster Mathis or Jimmy Ellis handled Joe in 1969 Ali would have made them the scapegoat of his rage. It’s the thing that is in all of us even Joe, which his why Ali ended up on his ass that March night of 1971. Ali is human, prone to bitterness, paranoia and fear, he turned up the heat on Joe emotionally because Joe not only survived the first salvo of insults but punished him for it. I would warn the viewer not to punish Ali too severely for War Crimes when boxing in itself is a form of war. Ali was manipulative but to his credit his main objective while active was to be the champ and he held a thirst to confront any man who held that distinction. Lord knows we as fans require similar verve from modern fighters so consumed with risk/reward ratio. Both men existed in a time when there weren’t six separate sanctioning universes to convince a man he need nothing to prove. Both men existed in a time where the fighter was not that far removed from the street, when the nod of acknowledgement from cats at the barbershop meant something. No wonder Eddie Futch had to be the one to stop it, no wonder “Smoking Joe” minus 50 million in licsensing fees can live comfortably among “his people”.

Did Ali want to quit?

I believe both men had moments of extreme reticence, but I also believe that when it comes to courage and competitiveness with one another they were on “autopilot”. Ali was always more poetic on accident than contrived and when he said he felt he was dying it was eulogy to a former athletic self. Joe Frazier was homicidal and suicidal in that Manila heat and Eddie Futch knew it, he also knew humanity was his responsibility in the face of two men who in hatred had become animals. According to Angelo Dundee Ali never tried to quit, and he was never featured in this documentary because it was presented from Frazier’s side. And if he laid down afterwards, so what? We’ve seen fighters fall to the ground on plenty of occasions because they were overcome with emotion. Had Joe Frazier stood up for more Ali would have followed because there’s nothing in his history that tells us he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have stood up because he wanted to, but what makes Ali special is he would have stood up because he had to.

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