Boxing’s greatest rivalry gets cuffed around a bit in “Thriller in Manila.” This British docu relating the story behind the three epic matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier between 1971-75 is pointedly told from Frazier’s perspective, which itself represents a sobering corrective in the face of the overwhelmingly pro-Ali bias that has always prevailed. Unavoidably fascinating, especially for fight fans, due to the participation of Frazier and other survivors of the era, the pic suffers from its needlessly jumbled chronology and lack of a genuine feel for boxing and American culture of the time. All the same, this should be a stellar attraction on HBO and DVD down the line.
Even lifelong Ali worshipers should welcome this opportunity to take another look at the passions of the time from the vantage point of 34 years on. Ali’s personality and life drama surrounding his three-year banishment from boxing due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam won him unconditional love from millions around the world, to the point where they would swallow whole even his most outrageous statements and never question any aspect of his affiliation with the Nation of Islam.
Docu’s aim is not to attack Ali, whose physical deterioration with Parkinson’s disease made his participation in the film impossible. But director John Dower does work from the premise that Frazier, fated to always be perceived as Ali’s boogeyman, has never gotten a fair shake from the public or fight chroniclers.
It wasn’t Frazier’s fault that Ali was more attractive, witty, articulate, politically newsworthy and exciting in the ring than any heavyweight in the history of boxing. By contrast, Smokin’ Joe was built like a truck, didn’t have much to say, fought like a machine programmed to only move forward and was seen as a king illegitimately crowned due to a void created by political and religious prejudice.
Worse, however, was the demolition job Ali did to Frazier’s reputation, manhood and status as a black man. Endless clips show the lighter-skinned Ali repeatedly calling Frazier ugly, referring to him as a gorilla, saying he belonged in a zoo, making fun of his flat nose and, worst of all, insisting that Frazier was an Uncle Tom, a mere puppet of white financiers. It was the latter charge that particularly enraged the disciplined, working-class Frazier and, unfortunately, stuck in the mind of the black community.
A lot of Ali’s wild talk can be chalked up to fight hype; he had often pinned funny nicknames on his opponents, and was second to none in capitalizing on the melodramatic theatricality of boxing. Ring historians may dispute factual aspects of “Thriller in Manila,” but Frazier and his circle claim he supported Ali throughout his exile, even financially, and that the two men were friendly until Ali started making derogatory comments in the lead-up to the March 1, 1971, battle of the undefeateds.
The pic is particularly tough on the Nation of Islam, which Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s ring doctor and by far the most outrageously opinionated and amusing person interviewed here, claims “totally manipulated” Ali, its prize convert and biggest cash cow. Most eyebrow-raising are claims that the Nation was actually in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan, owing to their identical racial separatist ideologies. Despite the fact that, immediately after their third fight, Ali praised his toughest opponent as a great fighter and apologized for the name-calling, Frazier has never gotten over the insults; for him, the blood feud is still on. “Yesterday is today for me,” he says. “He never die in me.”
Director Dower’s coup was securing the full cooperation of Frazier, who has been little heard from in recent years. Now in his 60s, Frazier lives, like Morgan Freeman’s character in “Million Dollar Baby,” in back of his Philadelphia gym, where he’s worked out since 1964. The man seems bitter but prideful, a bit out of it, prone to slurring his words. Looking at the Manila fight on tape, he gapes, open-mouthed, watching himself get walloped by Ali in the late rounds, then professes lasting fury that his trainer, Eddie Futch, called the fight off before the final round.
Ali famously said of that moment, “I think that’s what death is like,” and the docu’s close scrutiny of the fight’s tipping point suggests Ali himself didn’t think he could get up for the 15th round; when he was declared the winner, he collapsed in the ring.
Culling useful and colorful comments from Frazier’s son, brother and female companion, fight world insiders, journalists and Imelda Marcos, whose husband Ferdinand was not the only dictator to bankroll an Ali fight to enhance his prestige, Dower makes use of a treasure trove of archival material in a haphazard manner. Pic constantly hops around from Manila to assorted other time periods and back again, progressively draining what should have been mounting drama and excitement.
Further, the director lacks the confidence to show sustained boxing, even at its very best, in real time. Evidently afraid to bore, he mixes things up and jumps about without showing a real affinity for the sport. The second Ali-Frazier fight is disappointingly glimpsed only in still photos, and having Marvis Frazier shouting over Howard Cosell’s immortal coverage of the Frazier-George Foreman fight is overkill.
Still, the story is so monumental as to be imperishable, and there is great merit in learning Frazier’s side of the story at long last. This is no “When We Were Kings,” but nonetheless is a worthwhile addition to boxing lore.