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On This Date in Sports: October 1, 1975: The Thrilla in Manilla

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Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight for the third time in Manilla, the Philippines, in what would become one of the most brutal matches in boxing history. The heavyweight title fight billed “The Thrilla and Manilla” would see both fighters reach their physical limits. Before the start of the final round, Ali was overexerted and considered quitting. In Frazier’s corner, a trainer accessed the damage and decided to stop the fight as Muhammad Ali was declared the winner.

The Thrilla in Manilla was not a boxing match; it was a war. Muhammad Ali had been the boxer that defined the 1960s, winning a Gold Medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Four years later, he won the heavyweight title against Sonny Liston. After changing his name from Cassius Clay and converting to o Islam, Ali faced his most prominent opponent in the U.S. Government, fighting to resist induction in the Army. Muhammad Ali would be convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison while losing his title and getting suspended from boxing.

As Muhammad Ali fought the government, Joe Frazier rose to claim the heavyweight title that was vacated. Ali spent three years fighting to get the conviction overturned, which would allow him to reenter the ring. Ali’s fight would reach the Supreme Court, where he won a unanimous decision having his conviction vacated on the fact that he was a conscientious objector.

When Muhammad Ali got his boxing license back, he had a match for the heavyweight title against Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971. The match at New York’s Madison Square Garden was billed the fight of the century and lived up to expectations, as Frazier won a unanimous decision in 15 rounds.

The two would fight again three years later, on January 28, 1974. In between, Joe Frazier lost the heavyweight championship to George Foreman. The fight went the full 12 rounds, with Muhammad Ali declared the winner by unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden.

After Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight title in the Rumble in the Jungle, the wheels were put in motion for the third showdown between Ali and Frazier. Ali had three championship fights after beating Foreman, two of which reached the 15th round. However, it was the fight against Joe Frazier, a third match to settle the rivalry once and for all that would be the fight everyone wanted.

The lead up to the fight in the Philippines was ugly as the two pugilistic warriors traded barbs through the press. None worse than Muhammad Ali referred to Joe Frazier as a Gorilla. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos paid to ghost the fight to boost tourism and show that his country was a great nation. To have the fight air on closed-circuit television in primetime, the match was held at 10 AM local time in Manilla. This created a tinderbox in the arena, as the aluminum roof made the in-ring temperature an unbearable 120 degrees.

When the fight began, Muhammad Ali continued to take personal shots at Joe Frazier. The two began wailing away at each other as the fight started trading their biggest blows. Ali began to employ the rope-a-dope early, but unlike Foreman, Frazier was able to get the timing down and began to take control of the fight. Frazier landed a big blow in the sixth round that staggered Ali against the ropes. The fight went back and forth when Muhammad Ali disjarred the mouthpiece from Frazier in the 13th round with a punch that would have floored a lesser boxer.

 Both fighters were on fumes in the 14th round as Joe Frazier’s face was swollen to the point where one more big blow could result in death, and Muhammad Ali was reaching a point of overexertion and dehydration that could cause his body to shut down. As Ali came to his corner before the final round, he asked Angelo Dundee to remove his gloves. On the other side of the ring, Joe Frazier was pleading with his trainer Eddie Futch to finish the fight. Futch overruled and singled the referee that the fight was over.

Both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier left a large part of themselves in that ring that day in Manilla. Frazier would suffer a knockout against George Foreman in 1976 and did not fight again for five years, battling Floyd Cummings to a draw in his final match. Muhammad Ali remained a fighting champion, defending his title successfully six times before losing to Leon Spinks in 1978.  Ali would reclaim the title seven months later but never had another win.