Friday, October 1, 2010
October 1, 1975: The Thrilla in Manila
QUEZON CITY, Philippines - This wasn't about boxing. It wasn't about the heavyweight championship. Not anymore. This was beyond personal. This was about one man who truly thought he was the greatest, and about an opponent who absolutely hated his guts.
Boxing is called the Sweet Science, but there was no science to what happened in the Philippines on October 1, 1975. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, both in the twilight of their careers, put on a display of power and brute force unlike anything that had ever been seen before.
Frazier didn't always hate Ali. In fact, Frazier petitioned the U.S. government to reinstate Ali and helped send him money while Ali was in boxing exile. It's possible, or even probable, that Frazier did this in part because he wanted a piece of Ali. He got that chance, winning their first matchup, a battle of unbeatens, in what was billed the Fight of the Century. Ali won the rematch easily, setting up their third and final match.
Leading up to the fight, Ali did his usual trash-talking through the media, including the now-famous line, "It's gonna be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the Gorilla in Manila." That's what hurt Frazier the most, that "Gorilla" line. That's what inspired the intense training. And that's what was going through his mind when he stepped into the ring that morning in the Philippines.
This fight didn't begin like most Ali fights. Gone were the days of him dancing around a slower opponent, sneaking in a quick barrage of punches while his opponent swung at air. Now, Ali was the master of the rope-a-dope, wearing down an opponent not by speed, but by perserverence, making them punch themselves out. Frazier had always been that way, often just standing in the center of the ring and pounding away at his opponents, beating them into submission with pure strength.
But, it usually took Frazier a few rounds to get going and, knowing this, Ali came out firing. There was no dancing, no waiting. He just stood there, flat-footed, and fired away at Frazier for four rounds. Frazier was obviously hurt by the punches, often staggering backwards, but he always kept coming forward, putting himself right in the line of fire so that he'd be in position to punch back. To everybody's amazement, including Ali's, Frazier began the gain ground, and by the sixth round, he was in complete control. It seems it was Ali who had been punched out, rather than Frazier.
At the beginning of the seventh round, Ali whispered into Frazier's ear. "Old Joe Frazier, why I thought you were washed up." Frazier answered, "Somebody told you all wrong, pretty boy." And so the brutality continued. There was no dancing, no ducking. Just punching. Strategy was thrown out the window as the two great champions took turns throwing everything they had at each other.
In the 10th round, the momentum returned to Ali's side. Frazier slowly started to tire, and Ali's started to land more direct shots to Frazier's face. Frazier's left eye started to swell shut, then his right, until only slits remained open. And yet he kept coming, refusing to go down, refusing to quit.
By the 14th round, both fighters were in survival mode. Frazier, who could barely see, was completely at the mercy of Ali's punches, but Ali was so tired he could barely lift his gloves, much less punch with any conviction. This had long ago stopped being a title fight; now, it was a matter of survival.
When the bell sounded at the end of the 14th round, Frazier had his head resting against Ali's shoulders, while Ali was leaning against the ropes himself, barely able to stand. Both fighters staggered to their corners. Frazier's camp, seeing the carnage that had occurred in the last round, told him the fight was over. Despite Frazier's pleas to continue for the last round, his manager, Eddie Futch, said "It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today." He then signalled to the referee to end the match. Meanwhile, in the other corner, Ali had told his team to cut off his gloves, saying he couldn't go on. With Frazier's team throwing in the towel, Ali was the winner, but only by a matter of seconds. When he was announced as the winner, Ali could barely stand, and had to drop to a knee to do the post-fight interviews.
After the fight, both fighters had nothing but awe for each other. Frazier was amazed at Ali's ability to take a punch: "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion." Ali's words about the fight have lived on as the ultimate summary: "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of."
Most of the quotes used came from from this story by Mark Kram, which may be the greatest article about a boxing match ever written, and is on the short list of greatest sports articles of all time.
October 1, 1932: CHICAGO - This much is known: With one out in the top of the fifth, and the third game of the World Series tied 4-4, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate to face the Cubs' Charlie Root. Root threw the first pitch, a strike. Ruth held up one finger. Root threw a second pitch, another strike. Ruth held up two fingers. Now here is where the confusion sets in. People who were there say Ruth either held up one finger, indicating that he had one strike left, or pointed at Root, saying what he was going to do with the next pitch. Still others, though, swear up and down that Ruth pointed to deep center field, to tell Root and the Cubs where the next pitch was going to end up. Well, we all know what happened next. Whether Ruth actually called his shot or not seems irrelevant now; the story has been told and retold so often that it is a permanent part of his legacy, and even if somebody definitively says that he didn't call his shot, it won't matter. To countless millions, that's what happened. And nobody can change that.