I have always liked boxing on a conceptual level but have never enjoyed watching it. Which is why I love boxing movies and documentaries – they tend to really get down to the core of what I like about the sport: the elements of individual combat, the deep reserves of heart needed to overcome the physical challenge, the rags to riches aspect of the average boxer. One of the great boxing stories has always been that of Muhammed Ali – iconoclast, poet, comedian, dancer, philosopher, champion. We know Ali as The Greatest, a legend, a man who we all can look up to.
He’s the villain in Thriller in Manila, a new documentary about the battle between Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier in the Philipines in 1975. Considered the single greatest heavyweight bout in the history of boxing, the fight in Manila was also a final conflict between two men who had real, serious animosity. But more than that this film argues that the fight was a distillation of the state of the black nation in the late 60s and early 70s.
The differences between Ali and Frazier today couldn’t starker; Ali makes millions on the commercial rights to his name and likeness while Frazier lives in a small room in the back of the boxing gym he’s maintained for decades. That gym is deep in Philadelphia’s ghettos, a fact that takes on new meaning when we see archival footage where Ali taunted Frazier as an Uncle Tom. That was Ali’s public strategy for the fights the two had (there were three in total) – to cast himself as the face of black liberation and Frazier, who grew up poor in rural South Carolina and who had deep roots in the black community, as a collaborater with the white oppressors.
There’s more to the racial conflict than that, and I’m actually amazed that the movie doesn’t try to make this more explicit. The Uncle Tom stuff was Ali’s tactic before the first fight, but as they came to the third battle he began calling Frazier a gorilla, a term that would be incindiery if uttered by a white. The movie deals with the racial aspects of the gorilla taunting (Ali had gorilla dolls, gorilla shirts and even people in gorilla suits showing up to his trainings), but never makes note of the fact that Ali is lighter than Frazier. I’m obvioulsy not black (but I am Sicilian, so pretty close!) but even within the black community the shades of a person’s blackness take on meaning. For a lighter skinned black man to call a darker skinned black man gorilla is pretty astonishing when viewed through that prism.
The film puts the conflict into context not only racially but personally. Director John Dower seems pretty biased in favor of Frazier (whose continued bitterness is depressing – the revelation of his incoming voicemail message is heartbreaking), but Ali’s own words and actions paint him much more poorly than I have ever before seen. Before the first fight Ali and Frazier were friends; while Ali was in exile from the world of boxing for ducking out of Vietnam Frazier helped him with money and with attempts to get his boxing license back. But the Ali style – insults and humiliations hurled at his opponent – cut particularly deep for Frazier. The film never explores why Ali was so personal and cruel in his attacks, but the inference is that he resented the fact that Frazier was on top while he was down, and that he had to take help from the other man.
The movie would be gripping if it only included the archival footage of Ali throwing a chair at Frazier during Frazier’s first training session in the Philipines or the two men coming to blows during a TV talkshow appearance before the second fight or the clips of the actual Thrilla in Manila itself, but Dower has also collected a first class group of talking heads. Most were actually there, working with or reporting on the two men, and some are incredibly revealing and funny. Ali’s ring doctor, Pacheco, is flat out hilarious in his uncensored recollections while Marvis Frazier presents a side of his father that the proud, bitter, punch drunk old pugilist can’t share. And these talking heads bring us into the last moments of the 14th round of the Manila fight, showing us that had Frazier’s doctor not called the bout Ali might well have lost, as he was practically begging to end the fight. Frazier’s performance – all heart – is doubly impressive with the revelation that he was mostly blind in one eye at the best of times, and nearly completely blind by the end of the fight.
Frazier’s no saint – he views Ali’s current health problems as payback from God for the way the Greatest treated his former friend – but there’s something quintessentially real American about him. Ali is mythological American but Frazier, stuck in that little room, as good as if not better than his opponent, unable to get past the doctor’s decision to end that fight and forever dwelling in bitterness feels like the truth of this country today.