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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.  

* * *

Upcoming showtimes:

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

Comments

Ali never asked to have his gloves cut. That's a myth to make the ending more dramatic. That story is nowhere in any magazine or book, or newspaper articles of the time. Ali had just had his 2 best rounds of the fight going into the last round. You think he would quit with 3 minutes to go and victory already sealed. Common!

Don’t get me wrong, I like both Ali and Frazier. But I must say, while watching the documentary, I felt for Ali—yes, Ali. Did anyone try to interview him? I would like to hear his side of history. I feel the movie was too one sided. Yes, it’s good to hear from Frazier’s prospective, but I think Ali may have been able to clear up some things. Then again…, would that have ruined such a great movie?

It's really great that after all this time that two great champions are still so widely thought of because of their collision.there should be more news coverage of the sport in the newspapers.In spite of the controversy, as well as the times of that generation there will never be another Thrilla in Manilla' another Joe,an Ali a Forman,ALL those greats in my time,not to mention some greats in other weight classes.Good story for all fight fans!

Ali declined to be interviewed.

After watching this HBO special, all I can say is what a pack of lies, innuendo and slanted yellow media disguised as a documentary. If you listened to just the commentary you would think Frazier won the fight. The truth is if judged by truly independent qualified fight judges it is doubtful Frazier won any of the three fights. I witnessed the fight on pay per viw and Ali won the first 5 rounds easily. Frazier came on and won the next 5 rounds and the fight was effectively tied after the tenth round. Frazier never won another round. Ali pitched a shutout for 4 round nearly killing Frazier in the 14th. Frazier didn't land a solid punch in the 14th. If you want to get a more realistic view of the fight go to SI.com and pull up the issue on the fight. Additionally they bring up Ali's infidelity in the fictional account while interviewing Frazier's female "traveling companion"! Give me a break! It sad that Frazier is a bitter broke old man living over a gym who can't let this fight go. He speaks of God and faith, but he can't find forgiveness in his heart and finds joy in Ali's physical suffering.

I find it sad that Ali couldn't give Frazier his due and somehow insisted he won the first fight, even though he was on his seat twice and out on his feet another time.
But what is worse is the way Ali taunted the man. He was incredibly cruel and racist.
And he pointed a gun at Frazier in the Philippines, some champ. As a former fan of Ali, I can say I was tricked by the media for all those years. Frazier is the real champ. Ali is the true Uncle Tom, out there shuckin and jivin' for the white man's money..

There's no myth whatsoever to Ali's asking to have his gloves cut. The man that published Ali's biography (Thomas Hauser) CONFIRMED that Ali did in fact tell him that he told Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off after the 14th round. Look it up. Frazier was willing and able to go out for the 15th.

As far as I'm concerned, the willing participant at that point was the winner, not the guy who wanted to quit.

Frazier should have been declared the winner. His trainer screwed him over.

I agree 100% with James Newman, disagree with Neil McCauley , and with all due respect, Greg, April 14, 2009 3:07 pm, is just plain wrong. All Ali is guilty of is selling his fights. You must give Ali his due for doing a fantastic job of selling ALL those fights. No matter how you look at it, rather you wanted Ali to win or get his butt whipped, you wanted to see Ali fight !

It had a slant, but I never saw anything that didn't when it comes to this great fight. I choose to believe my eyes. Frazier was near-blind and clearly arguing with his corner to continue after 14. Ali was near-catatonic after 14 and collapsed the moment he got off the stool.

ali never asked dundee to cut the gloves off, dundee stated recently that hbo got this wrong and called it absolute baloney, frazier was losing 9-5 going into final round, could not land a single blow and was getting pulverized, it does not make any sense that ali would be dominating and dancing in round 4 and want to quit, very biased account

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