The Endorsement: Thrilla in Manila
Each Monday in the Toy Department, a Sun sports writer will take a moment to offer his or her Endorsement of something he or she feels passionately about. There are no rules, and the subject can be as broad, or as narrow, as the writer chooses. This week, Childs Walker says you should watch a new HBO documentary on the greatest heavyweight fight in history. For previous editions of The Endorsement, click here.
Every so often, sport brings together rivals who are so close in skill and commitment that their confrontations cease to feel like games.
These showdowns tend to be the province of individual sports. Great team rivalries produce their own sorts of epic narratives. But I'm talking about the sense of total confrontation between two athletes' life experience, craft, endurance, intelligence, anger, joy and will. These absolute clashes of being produce the most exhilarating and chilling moments in sports. Exhilarating because there's nothing like seeing an absolute master tested absolutely. Chilling, because in the inverse, a near-equal genius throws everything on the line and in the end, fails.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal produced this sort of spectacle at Wimbledon last year. But no sport is richer in momentous battles than boxing. The reason is simple and frightening: In an epic fight between epic fighters, both men are willing to die. You can literally watch a man throw decades of day-in-day-out work, pain and accrued skill into a 36-minute competition with the full understanding that, no matter how gifted he is, he might not walk out.
It's primal stuff and no two boxers ever threw more at one another than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. If their first fight was the greatest sporting spectacle of the 20th century and their second, a relative bore, their third fight, the Thrilla in Manila, was the consumate ending to a blood feud. Many great writers and commentators have committed thousands of great words to Ali and Frazier. Yet the subject remains rich and disquieting enough to keep on giving. So I learned on Saturday night when I watched John Dower's Thrilla in Manila documentary on HBO.
Dower adeptly unspools the story of Frazier's friendship with Ali during the Champ's Vietnam-era exile, Frazier's sense of betrayal when Ali turned to race baiting in the run-ups to their fights and the ongoing uneasiness (a euphamism, really) between the old rivals. The contours of the story are familiar, but Dower makes a wise choice. He concedes that the viewer probably knows Ali's point of view on these happenings and thus, tells the whole backstory through Frazier's eyes. This is important, because Frazier, in old age, is a great, novelistic character.
We see his rise from the harsh fields of Beaufort, South Carolina. We see the absolute commitment with which he fought (mostly blind in one eye.) We see the hurt at Ali's slights, the strange way his mouth opens as he watches the 1975 fight, the brutal pride he takes in having left Ali a broken man. We see that he lives in one, spare room above his musty gym in a rough section of Philadelphia. We learn that even his cell phone greeting speaks of the punishment he inflicted on Ali. It has been 34 years, but Frazier still lives the rivalry that defined him, and Dower captures the suffocating loop of it all.
The film brims with great details. There is Ali, describing his warmly received speech on racial separation at a Ku Klux Klan rally. There is the obvious pride of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos at her appearance in those days. There are the reflections of Frazier's son, Marvis, who saw the whole spectacle as a child.
The fight is ultimately the star, of course, and Dower recreates the dreadful intensity of it -- the oppressive heat, Frazier's awesome hooks to the ribs and kidneys, Ferdie Pacheco's sense that Ali might kill Frazier in the 14th round, Ali's absolute exhaustion (he asked Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off just before Eddie Futch stopped the fight.)
If you haven't seen the full fight, I can't recommend strongly enough that you track it down. It's hard to imagine how it must have felt to watch the Thrilla in Manila live. But the fight's aura is hardly lost on tape.
Watch Dower's film and then watch the real thing. You will be impressed at the skill on display--Ali's stinging right and ability to deflect damage on the ropes, Frazier's iron chin and relentless power. But in the late rounds, it will become clear that you're watching something more than sport. It was a clash of shared history, of philosophy, of hatred. Ali and Frazier were, simply, two men who would die to prove a point.
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Tuesday, 9 a.m., HBO East
Tuesday, 4 p.m., HBO East
Wednesday, 2 p.m., HBO East
Thursday, 3 a.m., HBO East
Friday, 2 p.m., HBO East
Saturday, 12:45 a.m., HBO East