Thursday, October 1, 2015

One night in Manila

Forty years along now, and still you see the topography of Joe Frazier's face changing, dips and swales and small hillocks rising up beneath the merciless pounding. Still you see Muhammad Ali sitting exhausted on his stool, all hollowed out after emptying everything in the well in the 13th and 14th rounds.

They called it the Thrilla in Manila, and we'll never know, 40 years along, if Ali could have risen one more time that night of Oct. 1, 1975. We'll never know if Joe Frazier could have even survived one more rising, because he was half-blind by then and yet ready to go one last round with his bitterest enemy.

But Frazier's cornerman, Eddie Futch, ended it right there, unwilling to let his fighter destroy himself any further. He ordered the gloves cut off, and Ali won, if not the greatest heavyweight fight in history, certainly the most brutal.

Two lion's hearts met for the third time that night, and it was a Gethsemane that forever changed not only Ali and Frazier, but the trajectory of boxing itself. The two men ruined each other for keeps, and the heavyweight division was never the same thereafter. There have been heavyweight champions since -- Larry Holmes, the young Mike Tyson -- but none of them riveted the attention of the world like Ali and Frazier. If boxing has become a thundering irrelevancy, the heavyweight division has become a greater one within it, overshadowed by the lighter weight classes and, of course, MMA.

And it all started that night in Manila.

Having effectively destroyed one another, Ali and Frazier were supplanted by pale imitators. Holmes, who was not and never would be Ali. Tyson, a counterfeit threshing machine who could never surpass Frazier's genuine article. Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, the Klitschkos: None of them could give us what Ali and Frazier gave us.

That's because, 40 years ago tonight, they gave us everything. For better and worse. 


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