What's the greatest boxing film ever made? Rocky? Raging Bull? Million Dollar Baby? Up until now, I would have said When We Were Kings was the contender for best boxing film ever made, but having seen Thriller in Manila I'm not so sure.
When We Were Kings tells the story behind the George Foreman/Muhammad Ali title fight (billed as the Rumble in The Jungle), which took place in Zaire in 1974. Thriller in Manila (as that fight was hyped), recounts the story leading up to the world heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and 'Smokin' Joe Frazier. Both films use extensive footage of each title fight to drive home the power of their stories.
And what a fight the contest in Manila was. Fourteen brutal rounds beginning at 10am on a hot, humid Manila morning, just so the folks back home in America could watch it live in the comfort of their lounge rooms.
By 1975 when the fight took place, both men were at their peak as boxers. They had met on two previous occasions, each coming away with one win. Now they were going head to head, for the third and final time. What unfolded in the searing heat of Manila is now considered one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.
This documentary tells its story through the battered eyes of Joe Frazier. It makes extensive use of archival footage, and numerous interviews with many of the surviving key personnel involved in both Ali and Frazier's support teams, including Ali's ringside doctor, and one of Frazier's corner-men.
It shows Ali at his best and his worst, as he stalks Joe Frazier with racial taunts of 'Uncle Tom', as "ignorant", and through constant references to Frazier as a "gorilla". For Ali, this was all part of the 'mental game of boxing', and he was a master of it. He knew how to psyche an opponent out, and he was using every weapon in his arsenal to try and put Frazier off his game. But Frazier was having none of it.
Finally, when all the bluff and swagger, the arrogance and taunts, the hokey poems, and the hours of training are over, all you are left with is the ultimate physical contest between two men inside a boxing ring.
It was probably the first time that Ali had stood head to head with an opponent and slugged it out. No fancy dancing, no jokes or smart quips to the crowd and no mercy or surrender. By the fourteenth round, both men were physically and mentally exhausted. Joe Frazier could barely see through his puffed and swollen eyes, and Ali's body had taken such pounding to his kidneys, heart and liver that it was beginning to shut down (Frazier states in the documentary, that his constant pounding around the area of these vital organs was a deliberate attempt on his part to inhibit Ali's ability to fight).
In the end, the fight finished not with a bang, but a whimper. Although Joe Fazier wanted to go out for the fifteenth and final round, his trainers would not let him. You can see him in the television footage refusing time and again, to throw in the towel, but his trainer, who had the final call, made the decision that gave the fight to Ali.
In Ali's corner, a separate drama was taking place. Ali had gone back to his seat and demanded that his gloves be 'cut off', a clear sign that he had had enough. Ali was prepared to give the fight to Frazier, but his trainers refused.
One can only speculate now whether Ali would have refused to fight the last round with Frazier. History on the other records that Muhammad Ali won the 'Thriller in Manila'.
One of the most poignant aspects of the film is watching Joe Frazier's face as he in turn watches a film of the boxing match. You see him re-fighting every round with Ali, adding little comments here and there; taking the blows one more time.
While Muhammad Ali went on to make millions by selling his image to a host of advertisers, and through numerous lucrative product endorsements, Joe Frazier still lives humbly above the gym that bears his name in a poverty ridden suburb of Philadelphia.
At 63 years of age (when he was interviewed for this documentary), Joe Frazier does not make a good poster boy for the sport of boxing and Muhammad Ali even less so. Both have been ravaged, physically and mentally by the constant pounding of sledgehammer-like blows to their heads, and yet I suspect that if either men were asked today, neither of them would probably have any regrets.
This film makes the perfect companion piece to When We Were Kings, which tells the story of arguably the greatest boxer in the history of the sport. Thriller in Manila, on the other hand, looks at this myth through the eyes of one of Ali's greatest opponents, and casts an altogether different light on the man and the myth.
My only reservation about the film is that it is told almost entirely from Joe Frazier's point of view. Of course, Ali himself, is no longer in any position mentally to present his side of the story. In many respects, his own words and actions speak for themselves, and viewers will have to be satisfied with these.
Over the intervening years since that great contest, Ali to his credit, has apologised on several occasions for his racial jibes against Joe Frazier, acknowledging that he had gone too far. Frazier for his part, seems to still harbour resentment for the way he was treated by Ali, and feels that Ali is now paying the price for his arrogance.
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