THE fight, often voted as the finest in all of boxing history, is 42 years old today, October 1. And all these years later, no-one can forget the incredible third fight between arch-rivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Known as “The Thrilla in Manila,” the epic war that took place in Quezon City four decades ago is rightfully celebrated as one of boxing’s finest hours; a fight that showcased all the bravery, all the savagery and all the courage needed to be the best.
And, in large part to the excellent HBO documentary of 2007, the rubber-match between Ali and Frazier is also the subject of some debate: just what would have happened if Eddie Futch had not pulled out his nearly blind warrior soon after the conclusion of the 14th-round that day in the sweltering heat of the Philippines?
The fight, as all fans are aware, was one of the most brutal, the most damaging and the most fiercely fought in boxing history, and after those astonishing 14 rounds were over neither Ali nor “Smokin’ Joe” had much left at all, if anything. But Frazier, the challenger, his eyes pounded shut (one of which only had partial vision going into the fight due to a 1960s injury Frazier had suffered yet kept secret) was deemed to have been in slightly worse condition than the reigning and defending heavyweight king, and Futch, fearing for his fighter’s very life, pulled Joe out.
Frazier was so incensed he refused to speak to Futch for a long time afterwards, such was his very real desire to either beat Ali or, without being melodramatic, die trying. Yes, Frazier, as he confirmed in the superb ‘Thriller in Manila’ documentary, would have been willing to risk his life by going out for that 15th-round. And fans and experts have differing opinions on what might have happened had the two bitter rivals met in ring centre, touched gloves and then attempted to fight for three more minutes.
Ali, as we now know, was so tired and utterly exhausted, he asked his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to “cut ’em off” as he slumped on his stool after the 14th-round was over. Again, this is according to the documentary, but people who were there – such as former Philadelphia middleweight Willie “The Worm” Monroe, say they heard Ali utter those words. In any case, Dundee – if Ali said the words or not – began watering his man down for the last round. Futch then made his brave decision, Ali was told what had happened by Dundee, and then “The Greatest” stood up, briefly raised one arm and then collapsed to the mat. Did the 33-year-old really have enough left in the tank to fight for another three minutes? Frazier, to the day he died, in November of 2011, didn’t believe so.
And though Ali was absolutely no quitter, he was after all a human being. There is a limit to just how far any athlete can push himself when exhausted, and Ali seemed to have hit the wall. Was it not so much a matter of whether or not he would have chosen to quit? Did Ali – who may not have trained as hard as he might have for the expected “easy” finale with Frazier – simply have no choice, as utterly depleted as he appeared to be?
Could Frazier, all but blind as he was, have outlasted Ali? Would Ali have even been there to meet him at ring centre? Ali, as close to being out of it as can be imagined, may well have been betrayed by his body had he been forced to use whatever remaining strength he had in an effort to stand and then resume fighting. Is it possible Ali would have soon collapsed upon seeing Frazier’s snarling face in front of him; his blinded but less shattered adversary literally willing to fight him to the death?
Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, has always maintained that if round 15 had been permitted to begin, we would have seen a fatality. Maybe Pacheco is right, and once again we can thank Eddie Futch for doing what he did. But in terms of what they think would have happened had round 15 began, two admittedly biased experts had some nevertheless interesting things to say:
Angelo Dundee, before he passed away in 2012, had the following to say to this writer on the subject of whether or not his iconic fighter said, “Cut ’em off,” or wanted to call it quits:
“No, that’s not true at all,” Dundee said in 2010. “People get confused, and they’re getting confused with the [Sonny] Liston fight. My guy told me (in the first fight with Liston), ‘Cut the gloves off, I wanna prove there’s dirty work afoot (due to being blinded in the fourth-round; possibly by an illegal substance Liston had placed on his gloves).’ But in Manila, no. Ali had such a great fourteenth round, why on earth would I stop it in the 15th? I’ve seen those documentaries, and I see faces on there of people who were not even at the fight. Ali could have gone all night. Where he got his reserves from I don’t know. He was a little bit special.”
Marvis Frazier, son of course of Joe, has another take on what might have happened. Quite unsurprisingly, Marvis disagrees with Dundee’s thinking:
“I think he [Ali] would have collapsed if he’d made it out [for the 15th-round],” Marvis told this writer earlier this year. “[At the time] I didn’t think he’d be able to come out. But you know, it’s all in the past, it’s history now. But that was the best fight of the three my father and Ali had. That fight was just non-stop action all the way.”
On that, everyone agrees.