The fight was the culminating moment in the careers of Ali and Frazier, two of the sports greatest champions, who were linked by a trilogy of epic fights. The ‘Thrilla’ was the final confrontation.
The fight took place in the Philippine islands, and it was sponsored by Philipino president lmelda Marcos, who put up a chunk of the purse. It was sold to 380 USA closed circuit locations, and 68 other nations world wide. (Note: At that time there was no cable or satellite to the general public. You had to go to a movie theater to see closed circuit events). Ali was guaranteed $4.5 million, and ultimately collected about $9 million. Frazier was guaranteed $2 million, but walked away with a hard earned $5 million,
On March 8, 1971 Frazier won the first meeting, dubbed ‘The Fight of The Century’ at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was a brutal fight, that could have gone either way, until Frazier knocked Ali down with a left hand in the 11th round. That gave Frazier enough points to win the fight on a decision. Frazier celebrated his victory by spending the night in the hospital. Ali won the rematch at Yankee Stadium in 1974, but it didn’t get him the crown back. By that time Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman, who demolished in three rounds, a year earlier.
Foreman, who seemed like the incredible Hulk, walked over opponents until he met Ali in Zaire, Africa, in 1974. Ali masterfully dismantled Foreman with his ‘Rope A dope’ tactics in an eight-round knockout, in regaining the title.
(An aside here for boxing fans, is how the old adage ‘styles makes fights’ defines Ali-Frazier-Foreman perfectly. Foreman’s lumbering style was tailor made for Ali’s piercing jabs and athleticism. But Foreman’s power was perfect for Frazier’s relentless style. Frazier had no problem taking punishment in order to give punishment. However, he couldn’t withstand Foreman’s incredible power punching. But Frazier’s unrelenting style gave Ali fits. Ali could beat Frazier up, but he didn’t have the power to put him away.)
Now, back to the Thrilla……
So, Ali’s victory over Foreman in Zaire made him champ again. Enter Frazier, his greatest rival. Frazier never needed extra motivation to fight Ali, but he had some coming in. Ali taunted him unmercifully coming into the fight, calling him ‘the gorilla’. Those taunts left Frazier seething, and genuinely hurt. Frazier felt betrayed. When Ali was exiled for boxing from 1967-1970 (during his court case for refusing to join the armed forces) Frazier encouraged him, and helped him financially.
Frazier was ready for his payback, and reportedly told people in his camp leading up to the fight that “I am willing to die” in the ring against Ali.
It was a hatred Frazier, who passed away in 2011 at age 67, carried around for years. “I hated Ali,” Frazier is quoted as saying in a biography on Ali, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser. ” God might not like me talking that way, but it’s in my heart. I hated that man How would you feel if your kids came home from school crying because everyone was calling their daddy a gorilla? 20 years I been fighting Ali, and I still want to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus.
“I don’t like him but I got to say, in the ring he was a man. He shook me in Manila; he won. But I sent him home worse than he came. Look at him now. He’s damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it. He was always making fun of me. I’m the dummy; I’m the one getting hit in the head. Tell me now; him or me; which one talks worse now?”
It was one of the most brutal fights in heavyweight history. Instead of sticking and moving, Ali came out and went after Frazier, standing toe to toe. There were so many ebbs and flows to the fight. Ali won the early rounds. However, Frazier, who seemed to like getting hit in order to get his momentum going, took over the middle of the fight. Ali scored in barrages, flashing his jab into Frazier’s face most of the night. But Frazier landed the heavy blows, they would seem to take down the ordinary heavyweight.
“Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city,” Frazier told reporters later. “Lawdy, lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
With Ali slightly ahead on the card, Frazier fought on courageously, until his trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel after the 14th round. Frazier’s eyes were practically closed. He was essentially fighting blind. Yet, he still pleaded with Futch to continue. “I want him, boss,” Frazier said. Futch replied, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today.”
Futch was correct. Frazier gained more respect in defeat than he had as champion. Moreover, the man who had shown him so much disrespect. “It was like death,” Ali said. “The closest thing to death I know of.”
Neither Ali, who was 33 at the time, or Frazier, 31, were never same boxers after that. In many ways, they were never the same men, either.
Ali explained how Frazier drove him close to quitting: “I heard somethin’ once. When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doin’ this?’ You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you.”
“It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ in here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”
Later in his life Ali apologized to Frazier for the taunting, and while they never became close, they did have the ultimate respect for each other as fighters. “Joe Frazier brought out the best of me, and I brought out the best of him,” Ali said.
Posted are two clips. The first it the actual fight, and the second is Ali’s controversial pre-fight comments about Frazier.