This is an entry in an occasional series of posts looking back at the Ring Magazine Fights of the Year from 1970 to 2009.
In 1975, Muhammad Ali defended his unified (WBC & WBA) Heavyweight championship against Joe Frazier. This fight was billed and remains known as the “Thrilla in Manilla”, as Ali and Frazier completed their trilogy in the punishing heat and humidity of the Philippines. This is a fight that lives up to its hype and reputation: It was a great, all-action fight between two legendary fighters for a unified championship that capped off a trilogy in which each man had already claimed a victory.
Frazier had previously defeated Ali via a 15 round unanimous decision in a title defense, and lost a 12 round unanimous decision in a non-title (the NABF doesn’t count) rematch. In Manilla, Frazier would retire in his corner after the 14th round. Frazier’s career was essentially over after Manilla; only a 5th round TKO loss in a rematch with George Foreman and a single, ill-advised fight in 1981 would follow. Ali, unfortunately, fought on.
The character of this fight was, as with others we’ve seen, determined by Joe Frazier’s aggression and movement, and by his opponent’s reaction to them. Ali seemed to switch between 4 basic strategies:
- Move away from Frazier and pot-shot his head.
- Stand near/lay on the ropes and trade with Frazier.
- Keep Frazier at bay with a left arm extended more-or-less permanently into his face.
- The rope-a-dope. (Ugh.)
I don’t think any one of these strategies would have won the fight for Ali, but the movement between them seemed to disorient and annoy Frazier. The other major factor in the fight was the environment; the heat and humidity made this fight, more than most, a terrific contest of endurance, and Ali seemed to hold up better.
This fight was never less than entertaining, and, for the first 10 rounds, it was quite thrilling. I had it 6-4 Ali after 10, and 3 of the rounds I scored for Ali could have gone either way. From the 11th on, however, the outcome became less and less in doubt, especially since a KO win for Frazier never looked particularly likely.
This truly is one of the sport’s great fights; the only minor knocks against it are that it wasn’t, in the end, that close-run or dramatic a thing, and that both fighters were in the twilight of their careers. It’s a cliche, but a truth nonetheless, that both Ali and Frazier ought to have retired after Manilla.
1: Ali and Frazier meet in the center of the ring, and being circling each other. Frazier works low, trying to get under and inside Ali’s guard, while Ali looks to counter and head-hunt. As the round goes on, the balance of aggression tilts towards Frazier, but Ali is somewhat more effective with his punches. Ali’s round, though Frazier’s defense is impressive.
2: Frazier comes out more aggressively, drives Ali to the ropes, and commits to solid body work. He wins the first half of the round. Ali then does something strange: He almost holds his left arm out like a guard, keeping Frazier away. After about 30s on-and-off of this tactic, he follows up with (effectively) a sharp lead right, which seems to disorient Frazier. Thereafter, although Frazier’s attack is still effective, Ali wins the round with sporadic but spectacular head shots. Ali’s round, narrowly.
3: Ali begins by resuming his “pike” defense, extending his left arm into Frazier’s face. It mostly keeps Frazier away, but Ali no longer follows up with attacks. After about a minute he drops the pike, and catches Frazier with counters as he comes in. Frazier was able to avoid these earlier; either he’s tiring or (more likely) frustrated. Ali then turtles on the ropes (the “rope-a-dope”) and waves Frazier in. Frazier attacks for about a minute; some shots are blocked, but not all of them. In the last 30s Ali decides to fight off the ropes, and perhaps narrowly wins the exchange, but Frazier looks like a much better boxer than Ali bargained for. Frazier’s round; you can’t win an otherwise close round by taking a minute off to lay on the ropes and get hit.
4: Both men look a little tired — Ali possibly more so. Frazier comes in, attacking the body, Ali counterattacks to the head. Frazier chases Ali to the ropes, and they trade. A modest but clear edge to Ali, although Frazier is not ineffective.
5: This is basically a repeat of the 3rd round, except the pike defense seems less effective, and the final exchange goes perhaps a little more Ali’s way. Frazier’s round on the basis of aggression.
6: Huge round for Frazier. He lands several vicious left hooks throughout the round, and wins easily with sustained aggression and consistent effective punching. Ali’s punches look to have lost their steam, his counters aren’t landing, and his pike defense appears for only a few seconds towards the end of the round.
7: Frazier back on the attack, Ali dancing, counterpunching, and retreating. Very tough to score; Ali’s punching looks a little better, and he seems to have better command of the fight, but aggression favors Frazier. I score it narrowly for Ali.
8: Ali stands near/lies on the ropes and they trade. Ali wins the first half of the round, Frazier the second. I thought Ali won his half more decisively, so I give him the round.
9: Frazier agains pursues, while Ali tries to maneuver and counter. Ali’s counters now look somewhat listless, and Frazier repeatedly drives him to the ropes and scores. The round tips in Frazier’s direction more as it goes on.
10: Much like the 8th, except I’d say that Ali wins 2 of the 3 minutes here, and the round overall. He also gets in a nasty uppercut after the bell. The boxing gloves are starting to look a little funny. I’m not sure the equipment is up to 100+ degree heat and 90% humidity.
11: An awkward round to score, because Ali takes between 60 and 90 seconds off to lay on the ropes and let Frazier hit him. When he fights he moves and counters (a lot) or stands and trades (a little). When he fights he wins, but those passive stretches put the round into doubt. I score it for Ali on the basis of effective punching, but not without reservations.
12: Ali stands near the ropes and they trade. Ali wins. They both look tired, Frazier looks worse.
13: Ali begins by going back to moving, circling, and pot-shotting. Ominously for Frazier, he catches Ali with a beautiful left hook that seems to have no effect; it looks like his power is gone. Ali wobbles Frazier, but slips himself: his legs are unsteady. Ali nevertheless wins this round handily.
14: Ali continues moving and head-hunting. For the first two minutes of the round the pace slows, but in the last minute Ali seems to sense that Frazier is weakening, and steps up his counterattack by throwing harder and sharper shots. He wins this round convincingly, and Frazier does not answer the bell for the 15th round.