Thrilla in Manila: A boxing event that set aside political differences during Martial Law era

Every time that an issue of critical relevance sparks and is discussed, it is often said that there are always two sides to the story.

This is very much applicable to the unforgettable era of Martial Law. Despite the fact the many perceived it as the darkest period in the frangible history of the Philippines, others have a contrasting opinion regarding its infamous enactment in the 1970’s.

During the full implementation of Martial Law under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, various accounts of rabid abuse of authority, unspeakable human rights violations, and rampant incarceration without due process of many opposing political figures surfaced.

Moreover, several experts claimed that the nation’s economy during that time took a downward spiral.

On the other hand, there were those who argued that the iron fist rule of Marcos was the “Golden Era” as the country purportedly experienced an economic boom.

Ardent followers of the New Society, as Marcos called it, hailed the discipline and supposed order brought about by the then-President’s political ploy, seeing the period as “one of the best years” of the Philippines.

A few days ago, the Philippines remembered the 46th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law.

Until today, the subject about Martial Law continues to divide the people of the nation on whether it was good or evil, beneficial or catastrophic.

Notwithstanding the differences in opinion and perception about the Martial Law era, there came a day when the two contending sides came to a stalemate in favor of a sporting event that went down in history books as the greatest display of human courage and will.

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On October 1, 1975, the third and final in-ring encounter between Muhammad Ali and “Smokin’” Joe Frazier took place at the historic Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Metro Manila. It was renamed into Philippine Coliseum specifically for the aforementioned heavyweight tiff.

Billed as “Thrilla in Manila,” the world heavyweight championship clash was an instrumental moment for the Philippines, a spectacle of true international attention and recognition for a country that was at a crossroads under three years of Martial Law.

The magnitude of the heated rivalry between two outstanding pugilists of their time accomplished to unite the country in one swoop.

Fighting for more than just gold

What made the Filipino people and the rest of the world affixed in a rubber match between Ali and Frazier was the interesting backstory of two heavyweight fighters whose only desire was to be the best boxer who ever laced up a pair of gloves in their generation.

The intense contention stemmed from Ali’s almost four-year suspension from boxing for refusing to render military services in Vietnam.

In his absence, the thriving boxing scene at that time crowned a new heavyweight kingpin in the form of Frazier, who scored a fourth-round stoppage victory over Jimmy Ellis to capture the WBA, WBC and lineal titles.

Ali resented the reign of Frazier as undisputed heavyweight champion, prompting both men to duke it out in a bout dubbed “The Fight Of The Century” in March 1971.

Frazier was able to walk out of Madison Square Garden in New York City with his hand raised in triumph, defeating Ali by way of unanimous decision after 15 rounds.

After Frazier bowed and lost the crown to the hard-hitting heavyweight George Foreman via second-round technical knockout in January 1973, he was eager to get back into the world title picture.

Frazier had no other choice but to have a rematch with Ali, who won 12 of his last 13 outings since yielding to his arch-nemesis.

Ali came out on top of Frazier in the second meeting by 12-round unanimous decision in January 1974, but it was marred by controversy for Ali’s tactic of holding Frazier behind the neck with his left hand while keeping his opponent’s vaunted left hook tied up with the other throughout the bout.

Frazier’s camp strongly complained to referee Tony Perez about Ali’s frequent use of the said tactic, but the latter got away with it in the second fight.

By the time of their third date inside the ring, it became really personal for both men, especially after Ali did the impossible by knocking out Foreman in Zaire to reclaim the heavyweight straps in October 1974.

In the lead-up to the Manila fight, Ali verbally abused Frazier and nicknamed his infuriated opponent “The Gorilla.”

Ali Frazier Marcos

Ali used his villainous name-calling and needling as the basis for the rhyme, “It will be a killa, and a thrilla, and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila,” which he spewed while punching an action-figure-sized gorilla toy.

Frazier did not see the funny side and later recounted how his children were taunted by the nickname at school.

When he took his eyes off Ali at the pre-fight press conference, it was a clear indication that Frazier’s mind was merely wired to one thought: “Kill or be killed.”

Nearly 15 rounds of agony

To suit the demands of an American audience, the highly-anticipated heavyweight collision between Ali and Frazier was held at 10 o’clock in the morning.

The showground carries a seating capacity of 16,000 to 20,000, but the organizers managed to squeeze in 27,000 ticket-paying fans, including Marcos and his wife Imelda.

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Although it was fully air-conditioned, the cooling effect failed due to the large volume of the crowd and the excruciating temperature outside which, according to reports, sizzled at 49 degrees.

Fernando “Ferdie” Pacheco, who served as Ali’s physician at ringside, was quoted saying: “I had a hard time breathing. Not only were all the seats filled, but all the aisles were also filled and their people crammed in the rafters. I don’t know if you could squeeze in one more person. It was body to body.”

It was the scorching heat that emanated from the aluminum roofing of the Araneta Coliseum that prevailed, and to make matters worse, inside the ring.

In the humid sauna-like arena, both men traded heavy blows that could shatter concrete walls.

Living up to the hype, “Thrilla in Manila” turned to be the most brutal hand-to-hand combat that has ever been seen in the ring since the Marquess of Queensberry introduced the basic rules in 1867.

Ali ruled the first five rounds, clobbering Frazier with precise and quick punches that had his ring counterpart reeling.

Sensing the urgency that he was down on the scorecards, Frazier rallied impressively in the next five rounds, bulldozing his adversary’s guard with his signature left hooks that snapped Ali’s head back on numerous occasions.

In the sixth canto of the nail-biting tussle, Frazier hit Ali with one of the greatest left hooks ever thrown in boxing.

After regaining his senses and somehow staying on his feet, Ali muttered through a bloodied mouth: “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up.” Before launching another stinging left hook, Frazier gallantly responded: “They lied.”

At the end of the ninth period, Ali looked like he was on the verge from keeling over on his seat in the corner, telling his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee: “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.”

Exhibiting his patented toughness that continually gave Ali fits, there was no quit on Frazier’s part as he absorbed a tremendous amount of headshots from his opponent.

The last four stanzas of the heavyweight title tilt were the deciding rounds as Ali and Frazier hammered each other like there was no tomorrow.

Both men were gasping for air in the late championship rounds, but Ali was able to land solid blows on Frazier, swelling the former champion’s eyes and then blasting him with hard rights to the head in the 14th round that might have impaired an ordinary boxer.

Frazier’s head coach Eddie Futch was compelled to throw in the towel before the start of the 15th and final round as his valued pupil could no longer see due to a bad left-eye vision and a swollen right eye.

An exasperated Frazier protested his trainer’s choice to stop the bout and tried to get Futch’s attention to change his mind.

“I want him, boss,” Frazier told Futch. “No, Eddie, no. Don’t do this to me.“

However, Futch remained firm about his decision to call it off and then signaled to Filipino referee Carlos Padilla Jr. to end the match.

“Sit down, son. It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today,” a reply given by Futch to Frazier.

In the opposite corner, Ali rejoiced when he saw Frazier’s corner waving the white flag, and then he collapsed off his stool due to exhaustion.

What Frazier and his team did not know was that Ali was about to quit when he returned to his corner at the end of the 14th round, instructing Dundee to cut his gloves off.

The ‘Thrilla’ aftermath

The punishment inside the four-rope ring at the Araneta Coliseum took away something from both men because they were never the same after they left Manila.

After the pre-fight tirades and the personal issues that added color and sophistication to what was a memorable occasion, Ali and Frazier finally let bygones be bygones—at least as fighters.

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Going a total of 41 rounds with Frazier in their three-match saga, Ali brimmed with respect and admiration for his dauntless rival.

“If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me,” Ali stated.

On October 1 this year, it has been 43 years since Ali shared the squared-circle with Frazier for the very last time.

Many have witnessed countless scintillating boxing matches for a good number of years after “Thrilla in Manila,” but pundits and fans alike still recognize the epic third encounter between Ali and Frazier with high regard, affirming its rightful place as one of the most notable bouts in the sport’s well-entrenched history.

“Thrilla in Manila” changed Ali and Frazier forever, both as human beings and athletes. Sadly though, it did not change the country when the calendar moved to October 2 in 1975 as the nation reverted to the reality of Martial Law.

Although every Filipino went their own way after “Thrilla In Manila,” it was a breath of relief that at the very least, two clashing parties were able to put their differences aside to savor what unfolded within the four corners of the ring.

“Thrilla in Manila” is history, and so is Martial Law, but people still talk about the legendary bout that climaxed in dramatic fashion.

Others may imply that Marcos used the boxing extravaganza as a facade to mask the shortfalls of his dictatorship. What most Filipinos failed to realize was that “Thrilla in Manila” was a precursor to what is reflected in society today.

Presently, divisions still exist in the country, especially in politics. However, Filipinos have the uncanny stubbornness to momentarily shelf these in favor of a big sporting event.

“Thrilla in Manila” has been deeply imbibed into the fabric of Filipino culture and society because subconsciously, it still resonates, as evidenced when Manny Pacquiao wowed the world by unprecedentedly winning boxing titles in eight different weight classes.

Boxing and other sports can serve as perfect unifying avenues for the nation and its people, and to remind one another that they are quite similar to a certain extent. Unfortunately, it will not be the case when the final bell sounds.

 

Note: This is the original and unedited version that was published on ANC-X’s website.

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Author: Nissi Icasiano

Sports Writer | Boxing & MMA Analyst | Pro-Wrestling Smark | Aspiring Graphic Novelist | Student of the Sweet Science

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