When thinking of Muhammad Ali in the ring, the image that comes to mind is of a masterful boxer, fast and stylish, innovative and confident. Looking back at the Thrilla in Manila, one is reminded of other Ali attributes that perhaps were not so widely recognized -- his durability, grit and tenacity.
Ali, of course, stood up to brutal punishment against Joe Frazier in Manila. He won that fight not just on superior skill but on heart and toughness. In a give-and-take heavyweight championship war, Ali took Frazier's best and gave back more than his valiant rival could ultimately take.
For years, it is fair to say that people in the boxing trade thought of Ali as more style than substance, especially in his Cassius Clay days. The nickname that was bestowed on him by the media -- The Louisville Lip - suggested a talker and not a fighter.
Clay's loquacity disguised the authentic fighter's heart. Knockdowns suffered against the journeyman Sonny Banks and Britain's Henry Cooper suggested that Clay had fragility about him. Widely overlooked at the time was the fact that he got up to destroy Banks and, after going down at the end of the fourth round from Cooper's perfectly thrown left hook, Clay came back in the next round to overwhelm the bloodied Briton.
A difficult win over the smaller Doug Jones in March 1963 was seen as an indication that Clay was more pretender than contender. A former light-heavy title challenger, Jones fought hard and well. But while the decision was unpopular -- two of the judges saw this as a close fight, but the referee's scorecard gave Clay eight of the 10 rounds -- it might not have been as out of line as it appeared to many at the time. As those of who have studied the video have noted, Jones landed what seemed to be the harder punches, but Clay's combinations often seemed to have the last word.
Clay's win over Jones was damned with faint praise. The pundits of the time felt that Clay would be out of his league against feared champion Sonny Liston. "At times Clay looked like a novice," the Associated Press reported. "As for Sonny Liston, Clay is no more ready for him this year than Floyd Patterson was in the second minute of his title debacle last Sept. 25."
Reports of the time gave Clay no credit for either withstanding Jones' best shots or coming on strongly in the last two rounds. Clay had shown he could rally from adversity, as indeed he had demonstrated against Banks and would do so again against Cooper, but at the time no one seemed to notice.
When Clay went into the fight with Sonny Liston he was a 7-1 underdog. "This evening the loud mouth from Louisville is likely to have an awful lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat," Arthur Daley reported in The New York Times. That was the general opinion. "Clay seems too handsome, whimsical and bright to stand up to The Brute," was the prefight assessment of columnist Robert Lipsyte.
What happened in that fight perhaps wasn't widely appreciated at the time. Clay -- apart from the shaky spell when an abrasive substance got into his eyes -- bullied the bully. Liston was accustomed to opponents showing deference. Clay matched Liston's baleful stare during the referee's prefight instructions, all the while chewing on his mouthpiece as though he couldn't wait to get started. That night, Clay was not just the younger, quicker and more skilled of the two boxers, he was also the tougher man in the ring. I think that Liston knew this. "Liston ... took the easy way out rather than get a hiding," Colin Hart reported in Britain's The Sun tabloid when reviewing the first Clay-Liston fight and the rematch.
The extent of this remarkable champion's toughness and courage was demonstrated many times when Clay returned to the ring after his three-and-a-half year enforced layoff. By then almost universally referred to by his chosen name of Muhammad Ali, he weathered some tremendous onslaughts from Frazier in their classic contest in 1971, the first in the trilogy. When Frazier knocked Ali down in the final round it was with probably one of the most vivid left hooks ever thrown. Ali got up, though, and fought back. Many fighters might not have been able to pick themselves off the canvas after being felled by such a blow in the final round of such a punishing bout -- but Ali did.
No longer able to move with the swiftness of his earlier years, Ali increasingly had to call on strategy, intelligence, durability and old-fashioned guts to win his fights. He battled with a broken jaw against Ken Norton, of course, and fought well enough to convince one of the judges that he had won.
The famous win over George Foreman in 1974 saw Ali audaciously invite the bomber to keep banging. Seasoning and shrewdness played a big part in Ali's rope-a-dope win that night -- but so did his durability. In the end, he outpunched the puncher. "Ali beat him at his own game, and was convincing in doing it," the Associated Press reported.
Ali stood up to the bludgeoning blows of Earnie Shavers, outfighting as well as outsmarting the big hitter.
It was the third meeting with Frazier, though, the epic 14 rounds of bitter, back-and-forth fighting, that defined Ali's resilience and the deep resources within him. "Whatever else might one day be said about Muhammad Ali, it should never be said that he is without courage, that he cannot take a punch," Mark Kram reported from ringside for Sports Illustrated.
Frazier was relentless and even looked as though he might be on his way to winning as he pounded Ali on the ropes and in a corner, especially in the sixth and eighth rounds. But Ali endured and prevailed.
The Thrilla in Manila, then, was a confirmation of Ali's character as a fighter, and viewing the tape of the historic contest serves as a reminder that he wasn't only one of boxing's greatest fighters but also one of its toughest.