There is no greater personal rivalry in the history of sports than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. They fought three times, and while the second fight was forgettable, as neither one held a championship and Ali won a lackluster decision by holding most of the fight, the first one and the third one have taken on legendary status.
The first one in 1971 was known as the Fight of the Century, featuring two undefeated champions — Frazier had won the title after Ali was stripped of it for his refusal to enter the draft for the Vietnam War — and it was an epic battle, as Frazier put Ali on the canvas in the 15th round and won a decision at Madison Square Garden.
The third one, though, in Manila in 1975, was a war, as both men probably left pieces of their lives in the ring.
Given the state of heavyweight boxing these days, the only fighting worth watching these days among the big men are those battles from that golden age of heavyweights. Saturday night at 8 p.m., Home Box Office will present a fresh look into the “Thrilla in Manila” with a 90-minute documentary that is must-see television.
The show examines the Ali-Frazier rivalry and the bitterness leading up to this third fight through the eyes of Frazier, and will open some eyes about Ali, who has taken on sainthood-like status these days, but betrayed Frazier, who helped Ali when he was in exile, with his nasty racial attacks — calling Frazier a “gorilla” — before the fight.
The battle ended before the start of the 15th round, when Frazier’s trainer at the time, Eddie Futch, wouldn’t let his fighter come out for the final round because Frazier could not longer see Ali’s right hand coming. It was a controversial finish, because many believe Ali was ready to quit on his stool in the corner and not come out for the final round.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Futch during his years training Riddick Bowe. He is probably the greatest boxing trainer the sport has ever seen, and one of the wisest and most decent men I have ever met. I spent hours interviewing him about a number of subjects. Here is what he told me about his decision in the third Ali-Frazier fight:
“At the end of the 10th round, Ali was ready to come out of the ring. Angelo Dundee kept him in there. Ali wanted to come out, but Angelo badgered him to stay in there. I thought Frazier was ahead after the 10th, but in the 11th round, that’s when Ali started coming on, and that’s when the beginning of the swelling started around his eyes.
“In the 12th round, the swelling became more pronounced. Joe was having trouble seeing out of the left eye because of the swelling. So I had to move him back about six inches from the target, and have him stand up more so he could see. The swelling was over the top, and he had to look up. He couldn’t see as well, so we had to abandon our fight plan, which was to stay low and in close.
“Now we had to back him up six inches and make him stand up. When Ali saw this, he knew that something was wrong. So that’s when he started firing with the right hand. He had Joe with one right hand that knocked his mouthpiece into the crowd. I said, okay, this guy was pretty well shot in the 10th round. Let’s see by the 13th or so if he punches himself out. Then we’ll come on if he slows down. Ali kept landing those punches because Joe couldn’t see that well. But if he had slowed down, Joe would have taken over. But he didn’t slow down. Ali was an opportunist, and he saw that this was his chance. So he sucked it up.
“In the 13th round, which was a bad round for Joe, I said let’s give it one more shot. Maybe this guy will ease up and get hit by exhaustion. By this time Joe was not seeing the right hand at all. He was getting hit flush by it. This is now the 14th round of a hard fight, in a hot climate, a very hot night, and it was 4 a.m. in Manila.
“So I decided, okay, Joe’s spent now. I said I know he’ll snap back after the fight. After about five or six minutes of rest, he’d be better. But right now, it’s all gone. He wasn’t seeing the shots he was getting hit with at all, and it doesn’t take many of those to damage a man.
“Joe Frazier was a good father. He has a very lovely family. Nice people. I saw how much time, how much of himself he put into his family. He and his kids were ver close. They were like brothers and sisters, rather than father and children. I said I just can’t see myself letting this man possibly wind up a vegetable or be injured fatally, not when he had so much to live for, so much to enjoy. That’s what was going through my mind in the 14th round.
“You have to remain cool and collected in there. You have to think of anything you can do to win, anything you can do to pull or out, or anything you can do to protect your man. All of those things, when you lose your capacity to do any of them, you can’t help your fighter.”
It took a lot of courage for Eddie Futch to stop that fight. He is worth a documentary of his own.
I will be on The Sports Reporters on ESPN 980 AM on Tuesday, April 14, from 5 to 7 p.m.
To learn more about Thom Loverro, go to www.thomloverro.com