No grudge match in sports compares to that between boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, who fought three bouts between 1971 and 1975. The first was considered the most anticipated event in sports history. And the last, the subject of the documentary “Thrilla in Manila” (7 p.m., today, HBO), is thought of as the greatest fight ever.
More than a boxing film, “Thrilla” is a work of historic revisionism that tries to tell Frazier’s side of the story and tarnish Ali’s well-embellished reputation.
During the buildup to all three fights, the media-savvy Ali relinquished a warm friendship with his fellow boxer and cast Frazier as an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white establishment. The rooting interests for their 1971 fight seemed to reflect the racial, cultural and generational breakdown of the time. Ali claimed the mantle of the champion of black America, young America and the antiwar and anti-Nixon factions. He portrayed Frazier as Archie Bunker’s favorite Negro. And before the 1975 fight in the Philippines, Ali taunted Frazier as a “gorilla,” a brutally racist term coming from another black man.
Ali has long held that he was only promoting the fights, but Frazier has never forgiven him. The filmmakers contend that Ali’s racial comments reflect his alliance with the Nation of Islam, depicted here as a group so dedicated to the cause of racial separatism that it coordinated its efforts with the Ku Klux Klan. In an archival interview, Ali even recalls addressing a KKK rally, praising their efforts to keep the races apart.
But all of this is merely prologue to the fight, 14 rounds of punishing blows that made even hardened boxing fans wince. The film includes interviews with Frazier, who still lives and works in his humble gym in North Philadelphia. We hear from his son and handlers as well as Imelda Marcos, whose despot husband paid a reported fee of $10 million to host the fight (and use it as a distraction from the incompetence and corruption of his regime).
The film’s most colorful character is Ali’s cornerman, Ferdie Pacheco, who offers brutally frank (and often unprintable) observations on the boxing world, the fighters and their motivations.
While “Thrilla” is clearly pro-Frazier, the boxer emerges as a tragic figure, a man possessed by his rival. To Frazier, Ali’s current diminished physical state is nothing short of cosmic payback for the cruel actions and words of his youth. And Frazier considers himself the man who did the most to pummel Ali into submission and put him on the road to perdition.
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