Our tribute to the late, great Joe Frazier continues, as Eddie Gonzalez remembers seeing the Thrilla in Manila for the first time, and how it changed his life as a boxing fan two decades after the fight took place.
It is going to become cliche for people to say that Joe Frazier is the man who got them into boxing in the next week or so. It will be said by many, and some will mean it and some won't. I'm not here to say that.
I'm 25 and I was born a little less than four years after Joe stepped into the ring for the last time. My grandmother got me into boxing. An immigrant Mexican woman who had come to make a good living in America, she always took me to her house for the weekends when I was young. My grandmother had a passion for boxing, especially the Mexican fighters who had come to power at the time. She loved Julio Cesar Chavez, but recognized he was on his way out, and had now gravitated towards a young fighter named Oscar de le Hoya.
Many conversations that happened in her living room on the Fridays and Saturdays I spent there watching boxing were about these fighters, and just boxing in general. There was always one phrase I constantly heard, one I didn't quite comprehend at the time. I had no clue of its origin or meaning. "The Thrilla in Manila."
Coming up in a household where it was always warned that children were not to interrupt adults for any reason, I never mustered up the courage to ask her what this was. Years actually passed before I finally gave in and asked. When I finally found out I was almost disappointed. This was pre-YouTube, so finding and actually seeing this fight everyone was so happy they had seen would be a task. It took a while but I finally found someone with a copy. You must remember, up until this time, Muhammad Ali was almost folklore to me. A living legend that everybody only said good things about. A superhero and a man I had often heard was the greatest boxer of all time. Up until this time (I was around 9 or 10) I had not actually seen an Ali fight.
But, for whatever reason, when I watched the fight, I gravitated towards Frazier. I watched the fight knowing no backstory other than "They didn't like each other," and was in awe.
What followed is well known by now, a brutal back and forth slugfest between two of the greatest heavyweights, and boxers period, of all time. The image of Frazier, sunk into his stool, head down and eye swollen will stick with me forever. I had just watched Superman and Batman fight to the (near) death. One of them actually won, but even more importantly one of them actually lost. The fight changed my life, no exaggeration. From that moment I knew I was a lifer, I knew boxing had become my favorite sport.
HBO's tremendous Thrilla in Manila documentary would later teach me the background of the fight, the tense real life animosity the two had for each other and the respect that they ultimately had to have as well. It was jarring to see the current (at the time) state of Frazier and his life. Both man suffered long term effects of their time in the ring. And in retrospect it had become obvious that both men had actually left it all in the ring. Neither was ever really the same.
In the documentary, Frazier, the man who I had gravitated towards when first watching the fight, was the central figure. It was here that I learned about the scathing remarks Ali made about Frazier, both in disdain and in promotion for the fight. It was here I learned that these remarks weighed heavily on Frazier and hurt him deeper than we ever really knew. It was here that I learned that Frazier was every bit as interesting as Ali. The old man with the slurred speech was not the man I had seen in the ring. Living in a small apartment above his gym was not the future I had imagined for the man I had come to know as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Such is life for many boxers. When the bells stop ringing, life changes.
Despite the fact that he didn't look the same, or sound the same, Joe was still, and is still, the man I saw in the ring that night. The man that was every bit Ali's equal. The man that almost made Ali quit on his stool. The man that had to be blinded, and betrayed by his body, and told he could no longer go on, to be defeated. He was, and always will be that legend to me.
Joe told the Associated Press recently that The Thrilla in Manila was "the greatest thing that ever happened in my life." I wonder if he knows that many other people share the same view.
Ali once said the fight was "the closest thing to dying that I know of." Now, too soon and too suddenly, Joe knows of the real thing.
Up goes Frazier.