- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

The three fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier took place more than three decades ago, but the memories linger. So, too, does the ugliness, for time has not diminished the differences and dislike between the two great heavyweight champions.

In a disturbing documentary, HBO recounts the confrontations that dominated and defined boxing in the 1970s when the cable network premieres “Thrilla in Manila” — the final and most brutal of their encounters — Saturday night at 8.

The 90-minute program, produced by Joe Smithson and Elinor Day, is told solely from Frazier’s standpoint, with the 65-year-old former “Smokin’ Joe” claiming the spotlight for once from his garrulous and more renowned rival.

As Ali biographer Thomas Hauser notes: “The two were equal in the ring, but Ali sold 80 percent of his name and likeness for $50 million and Frazier lives in a room above his gym in Philadelphia. It’s an interesting look at how America treats its sporting icons. Some are accorded special status, and others are largely forgotten.”

In recent decades, Ali’s courage in battling the effects of Parkinson’s disease, possibly stemming from his long ring career, has won much admiration. But before and during his battles with Frazier, he treated his one-time friend with a contempt bordering on sheer cruelty.

In his most unfortunate epithets, he called Joe “an Uncle Tom” and “a gorilla,” the latter rhyming neatly with what Ali termed “the thrilla in Manila” on Oct. 1, 1975. In fact, Ali turned what should have been merely three bouts in a declining sport into a racial war, casting himself as a hero for all black people and Frazier as a “tool” of white handlers and segregationists.

It was all a lot of hokum perpetrated to build interest and sell tickets, as Ali conceded three decades later, but clearly he overstepped the boundaries of common decency. Frazier, meanwhile, chooses to believe that Ali’s long-standing health problems are payback for earlier excesses.

“What you did as a young man, it comes [back] to bite you in the butt,” Frazier says in the documentary. “He can’t walk straight, he can’t [urinate] straight, and he can’t talk straight.”

Ali lost a unanimous decision in their first fight after being allowed to return to the ring following a 3½-year layoff, when his conviction for being a draft dodger was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. Three years later, Ali outpointed Frazier. By the time of the third meeting, both had seen their best days, and neither had anything left following the slugfest held in blistering heat at 10 a.m. Manila time.

At the end of the 14th round, Ali staggered back to his corner and told trainer Angelo Dundee to “cut [the gloves] off.” But it was Frazier who couldn’t come out for the 15th, or so trainer Eddie Futch insisted, because of exhaustion and a left eye almost totally shut. Thus ended one of boxing’s greatest and saddest rivalries.

After the fight, Ali said, “He’s tough — he’s a great champion.” But as Frazier notes, “He never told me.”

Clips from their first two fights are shown, but much of the program obviously deals with the third as Frazier watches a recording of the bout and makes occasional comments.

Noted talking heads include Imelda Marcos, who was first lady of the Philippines at the time, and Frazier’s son Marvis, who delivers a dead-on impression of Howard Cosell describing Joe’s devastating title-fight loss to George Foreman in 1973. (“Down goes Fraz-uh! … Down goes Fraz-uh!”)

During the program, Frazier is shown walking up steps with a cane and speaking in a slurred voice — reminders, if any are needed, that he and Ali labored in a business that is unattractive enough without anybody adding an extra helping of nastiness.

In so doing, HBO suggests again that whatever fame and fortune may rest on a chosen few, perhaps there are no real winners in this most violent and vicious of sporting endeavors.

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