Thrilla: An exhausting, excruciating epic

Editor's note: Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of "The Thrilla In Manila," the final installment in the legendary Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy. In honor of this fight and in anticipation of Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones III on Saturday, ESPN.com explores boxing's -- and other sports' -- great trilogies this week.

They were stripped bare, painfully vulnerable to each other's brutality.

The torrent of a thousand punches in the sweltering heat, preceded by the erosion from too many remorseless years, left them naked with nowhere to hide.

That's the way it had to be.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier willingly had done it to themselves. Blood welled beneath the skin, and it sprayed amid the spittle. Their lungs heaved in search of oxygen. Their legs, no longer concrete pilings, threatened to crumble.

It would take weeks to recover physically. But most of the damage they inflicted would prove eternal, forever following them, shadows growing longer with the setting sun.

Yet even if Ali and Frazier could have foreseen the years of torment they had coming, neither would have yielded that day. They trudged onward through the agony and exhaustion, each hoping to remain upright just one moment longer than his opponent while praying the merciful end would come soon.

They were two legends with too much pride -- Ali's buoyed by peacock arrogance, Frazier's derived from red-eyed hatred -- to waver when pitted against the other.

Thirty years ago, Ali and Frazier completed their historic heavyweight trilogy in such a gripping, primal fashion it changed them forever.

"The Thrilla In Manila," held Oct. 1, 1975, ended not with fists raised in exaltation, but with two battered men slumped on their stools. Venerable trainer Eddie Futch would not let Frazier leave the corner for the 15th round, needing only the gentle pressure of his elderly hand to keep the mighty fighter from standing. Ali, on the verge of quitting himself, learned the news and wilted.

"We got it on," Frazier said, his voice sounding weary at merely reminiscing. "The fight itself was a tough fight for both of us. It was hard."

Witnesses described it with terms generally reserved for war. Famed British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney called the bout "40-odd minutes of unremitting violence," and "an exchange of suffering."

"This fight could make a legitimate claim to being the greatest fight of all time, maybe not in terms of social significance, but in terms of great action between two historic fighters," said Thomas Hauser, author of "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times."

"I don't know if there's ever been a greater fight."

With such sustained ferociousness, many of the wounds inflicted turned out to be permanent. Some are readily apparent. Some dwell beneath the surface.

"I'm sure I never saw a fight where two guys took as much punishment as those two did that day," said longtime Associated Press boxing reporter Ed Schuyler. "After that fight, as fighters, neither one was ever worth a damn."

Ali's deterioration was the most obvious. Parkinson's syndrome, believed to be caused by the accumulation of punches absorbed over the years, has incapacitated the once-effusive showman. He's a tottering man of 63, barely able to communicate.

He endured some hellacious trauma during his career, especially toward the end. His former doctor and cornerman, Ferdie Pacheco, called those final fights "slow murder." Pacheco insisted the Thrilla In Manila was the worst pounding of them all.

"It was at the very top, the tip top of a slow murder," Pacheco said. "Do you think after the beating he took that day in Manila he went home happy and had chocolate ice cream? He goddamn near died. It's the reason he's a shambling, neurological wreck."

Frazier moves along rather well for a 61-year-old former prizefighter. Aside from a hitch in his stride, the pain's not so evident.

Frazier hurts every time he thinks of Ali. His animus still rages within. It's a consuming, ugly bitterness he has carried for decades, the result of the myriad hurtful things Ali has said. Ali insulted his intelligence, his character, his lack of black pride.

"Truth is, I'd like to rumble with that sucker again -- beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus," Frazier wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "Smokin' Joe."

"Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren't going so well for him. Nope. I don't. Fact is, I don't give a damn. They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."

There was a publicized meeting between Ali and Frazier at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. They supposedly reconciled.

But the notions of spite and forgiveness apparently are at odds in Frazier's heart.

Last week, in an interview with ESPN.com, he said: "I do get on my knees at night and ask God to make Ali better."

But Frazier also spoke of how God purposefully afflicts those who don't live justly, a belief he related to Ali.

"I asked Joe Frazier earlier this year about Ali's declining state," Hauser said, "and he replied, with a sense of satisfaction, 'I did that to him.' "

The Thrilla In Manila wasn't supposed to be an epic display. It was viewed more as nostalgic than historic. Both fighters had seen better days, their legendary first meeting a tiny dot in the rearview mirror.

Four and a half years had passed since their "Fight of the Century" in Madison Square Garden, where a bulldozing Frazier revealed the seemingly invincible Ali was, in fact, fallible. Frazier entered their first fight as champion, having defeated Jimmy Ellis a year earlier. Ali, 43 months removed from the ring for refusing induction into the military, was seeking a title the public believed was rightfully his.

But the story line was more complicated than that.

The socio-political climate in March 1971 was turbulent, and Ali had become a cultural symbol with his outspoken beliefs on Islam, civil rights and Vietnam. He paid a monumental price for making such a controversial stand on the war, but his sacrifice made him a beacon for the disenchanted masses, particularly black America, which viewed him as a lightning rod for change.

Ali's platform, however, was changing from a podium to a square stage surrounded by ropes. He no longer needed to make ends meet by speaking on the college-lecture circuit, gigs that paid so scantly Frazier quietly slipped Ali cash to pay bills during the layoff.

Now Ali was returning to boxing's spotlight, and he quickly transformed Frazier from friend to foil. It mattered little how Frazier had supported Ali's quest to regain his boxing license. Now Frazier was the enemy, and in Ali's world, that meant he was a target for humiliation before the first of their three classic bouts.

Ali called Frazier ugly and ignorant and, most disturbingly, an Uncle Tom. Frazier, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, was deeply wounded by Ali's ridicule, which was accepted as fact and isolated Frazier from the black community. Ali somehow had succeeded in making a fight between two proud African-American men a matter of black and white.

"Throughout a lot of the black community, he was an object of derision and scorn because of the way Ali treated him," Hauser said. "It was cruel."

The hatred grew intensely within Frazier. He was unable to compete with Ali's eloquence, but he had a left hook that could do the talking for him.

Frazier, with loathing in his heart and thunder in his Everlast gloves, punished Ali for the things he said. Ali won the first two rounds before he discovered he was overmatched. Three rounds with Jerry Quarry and 15 more with Oscar Bonavena clearly weren't enough preparation for Frazier's masterful onslaught.

By the fifth round, Frazier was taunting Ali, and even though Ali's punches kept scoring, his smiling foe continued to march forward. Frazier pulled away in the final five rounds and would have finished the job in the 11th had the ropes not held Ali in the ring. Frazier punctuated the finest victory of his career with a perfectly-timed left hook that swiveled Ali's head and rendered him supine.

Frazier won a unanimous decision, but he left part of himself behind that night. A diabetic with a history of high blood pressure, he spent nearly two weeks in the hospital because of exhaustion and kidney trouble.

"Frazier was never the same after his first fight with Ali," said HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, a former Philadelphia Daily News and New York Post columnist. "He fought the best fight of his career in that fight."

Frazier's reign lasted only two more fights. He beat Terry Daniels and Ron Stander, but lost his title to George Foreman in Jamaica. Foreman annihilated Frazier inside two rounds. The six knockdowns looked like slapstick pratfalls, but they weren't comical given the concussive force behind Foreman's sledgehammer mitts.

Ali, meanwhile, won his next 10 bouts before Ken Norton broke his jaw and won a split decision.

The sheen of their rivalry had dulled by the time Ali and Frazier fought again in Manhattan. As significant as their first bout had been, the 1974 rematch reduced any interest in seeing them fight a third time. With only the minor-league NABF title on the line, Ali almost stopped Frazier in the second round and won an otherwise uneventful decision.

The Thrilla In Manila? It was met with shrugs. Many major newspapers declined to staff the event, a revealing statement for the time.

"It was the third fight. They had both been beaten," Merchant said. "If the fight was as significant as it may seem in hindsight, it wouldn't have been held in Manila. It would have been the Thrilla in Chicago."

But Manila was the latest exotic locale with a government willing to give Don King an exorbitant sum in exchange for the sort of exposure only Ali could deliver. Besides, Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos had a brewing civil war to stave, and he hoped an Ali fight would keep the rebels quiet for a while.

Ali was installed as a 1-to-2 favorite. Many boxing insiders, particularly those in Ali's camp, considered it an even bigger mismatch.

"We had been told Joe Frazier was not only hurt, but broke," Pacheco said.

"We watched him fight George Foreman, and Foreman bounced him around like a basketball. So pitiful. It showed there was nothing left of Joe Frazier, so we thought we would give him a good-bye fight that would give him some money.

"We thought we were doing him a favor."

The Ali camp found itself bracing for a potentially larger clash in the weeks preceding the bout.

Ali traveled to the Philippines with Veronica Porche, whom he would eventually wed. The only problem was that he was still married to his second wife, Belinda, who had stayed home with their children.

Porche (mother of women's boxing star Laila Ali) had been Ali's mistress for about a year. They met during the prefight promotion for "The Rumble in the Jungle," Ali's dramatic victory over Foreman in Zaire. Belinda Ali harbored suspicions about her husband's infidelity, but it wasn't until Manila that the situation erupted.

Ten days before the fight, Ali attended a reception at the presidential palace with Porche, his parents and trainer Angelo Dundee. Marcos complimented Ali on his lovely wife. Ali not only failed to correct the president, but he also began to introduce Porche as his wife later in the evening.

Newsweek reported the story. Belinda Ali bolted for Manila and stormed into her husband's hotel room, where Dick Schaap was conducting an interview for "The Today Show."

"Belinda said 'Either she goes home on the next plane, or I go home on the next plane,'" Pacheco recalled. "Ali said, 'Good-bye.'

"It was a huge distraction. He thought Joe Frazier was the least of his problems. He had no worry whatsoever. He did a lot of publicity that was funny and hardly any hard work. He just sort of [expletive] it away."

Ali had approached Manila as a rendezvous of sorts. He enjoyed the company of his mistress, avoided strenuous workouts and reveled in making more tacky jokes at Frazier's expense.

Ali didn't harp on Frazier's being an Uncle Tom this time. That was so 1971. Ali instead compared Frazier to a primate with one of his trademark prefight poems:

It will be a killa

And a chilla

And a thrilla
When I get the gorilla

In Manila

And, perhaps emblematic of their rubber match, Ali pulled out a black rubber gorilla.

"This is Joe Frazier's conscience," Ali said. "I keep it everywhere I go. This is the way he looks when you hit him."

Ali began to punch the little doll.

"All night long, this is what you'll see," Ali said, eliciting laughter. "Come on, gorilla! We're in Manila! Come on, gorilla! This is a thrilla!"

Frazier didn't find Ali's stunt humorous. It only galvanized his disdain.

"I saw it as promotional hype, but Joe took it as personal invective," King said.

"He took it as character assassination. It was so deeply imbedded. Joe wasn't playing the role. He was living the role. He was infuriated.

"He took it as a personal insult. It persecuted him in his life."

King admitted he feared Frazier's hatred of Ali would threaten the show in the days leading up to it.

"Many times I thought the fight was going to happen for free," King said. "I thought we'd have the Thrilla in the Gym or anywhere else we would meet."

The Thrilla In Manila happened on schedule, at 10:45 a.m. (to accommodate U.S. television) on a steamy Wednesday morning in Quezon City, about six miles outside the capital.

The air conditioning in Araneta Coliseum was useless. The sun would nearly peak during the fight, and with no breeze coming off the South China Sea, the reported temperature was 107 degrees.

"The heat was as intense as any fight I've ever been in," Pacheco said.

"The heat in Manila is an 'I'm about to drown you in a monsoon' type of heat. Oppressive. I had a hard time breathing. Not only were all the seats filled, all the aisles were filled and there people crammed in the rafters. I don't know if you could squeeze in one more person. It was body to body."

The first few rounds were indicative of the matchup most had predicted. Ali was dominant. He wobbled Frazier in the first round and twice more in the third. Frazier was on the verge of hitting the canvas each time, yet somehow he remained erect.

The fourth round marked the beginning of a momentum shift. Perhaps Ali's decision to play footsy rather than put in extra roadwork started to catch up with him in the sauna that was Araneta Coliseum. Maybe all of those insults that spurred Frazier to train harder for this go-round helped him find momentum.

"Most of [Frazier's] fights," wrote Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated, "have shown this: You can go so far into that desolate and dark place where the heart of Frazier pounds, you can waste his perimeters, you can see his head hanging in the public square, may even believe you have him, but then suddenly learn that you have not."

Frazier began to pummel Ali, pinning him in a corner or along the ropes. Frazier thumped away at the champ's midsection and set up his most searing round, the sixth. That's when Frazier's illustrious left hook wailed away on the reeling Ali unlike any other time in the fight. Somehow, Ali made it to his corner at the bell, and for the first time he rested on his stool.

Frazier remained in control through the 10th round. Grave concern began to set in among Ali's cornermen.

"He thought he was dying," Pacheco said. "He was at the ends of exhaustion. He was having trouble staying awake between rounds."

But then Ali summoned that special something from deep within, just as he had done when ointment temporarily blinded him against Sonny Liston, when he broke his jaw against Norton, when he took a thrashing yet shocked Foreman anyway.

Ali started to land power shots, while Frazier's strength dwindled to near-nothingness. At the end of the 12th round, Frazier's face looked like a topographical map of Appalachia. His eyes resembled keyholes. His mouth leaked blood.

"Joe Frazier fought with such fury," King said. "Only the magnificent skills and talents of Muhammad Ali, being tired to the Nth of his degree of physical prowess, could overcome it."

Frazier's legs were gone already by the 13th round. A booming Ali punch sent Frazier's mouthpiece spinning into the crowd. Ali landed so many power shots, Futch could only maintain hope Ali wouldn't be able to lift his arms for the 14th.

Futch was wrong. The 14th round was even worse for Frazier. Ali peppered his near-blind rival. Nine straight rights crashed into Frazier's misshapen head. Futch hardly could wait to hear the next bell, to get his fighter safely back to the corner, where he would stay. No more.

"Joe was defenseless," Hauser said.

"He was taking punishment. There was no way he was going to win the fight, and I think Eddie wanted to spare Joe the humiliation of being knocked down or knocked out. They fought 41 rounds, and Ali never knocked Frazier down, and I think Eddie wanted to maintain that."

Three decades later, Frazier doesn't resent his late trainer's decision in the slightest. After all, he reasoned, Ali was ahead comfortably on the scorecards and a Frazier knockout of Ali was unlikely given his impeded vision.

"One more round, my eggs might break," Frazier said. "Eddie Futch knew the deal better than I did. When he said 'No,' I agreed with him. God bless him for that."

In the opposite corner, Ali was equally drained. Back in 1966, Cleveland Williams managed to hit him only three times over three rounds. Frazier tagged him with 440 shots.

"Everyone remembers Ali afterwards could hardly get off his stool because of the effort he gave," Merchant said.

"He had long ago established he wasn't just another pretty face, but it was a reminder of what was going on inside his body while he was entertaining us."

The timing after the Thrilla In Manila would have been perfect for each to retire from the sport for good, thankful to have survived such a grueling test, yet mindful of retaining what precarious health he had left.

Alas, neither could walk away.

Frazier, thankfully, fought only twice more. Eight months after Manila he tried to avenge his embarrassing loss to Foreman but got knocked out again. Frazier then retired, only to come back for one last forgettable hurrah, a draw with Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings.

Ali's career continued, destined to end miserably. He fought 10 more times over the next six years, losing to Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and, finally, Trevor Berbick.

"There are certain points in time where you can look back and say 'That's when Ali should have retired,'" Hauser said. "He clearly should've retired after Manila. When you've taken a beating like he had taken in Manila and you know you're not the fighter you once were, that's the time to get out."

It's a shame, really, that the Thrilla In Manila wasn't the last chapter in their boxing lives.

Having left every ounce inside the ring that day 30 years ago, there really was no way they could have given anything more -- not to themselves, not to each other, not to us.

"Only fighting each other could have brought that much effort out, at a time in their careers when fighters, given all the punches that had landed on them, generally don't want to go that far," Merchant said.

"Neither guy wanted to yield. It was the third fight of their trilogy, and it was that important."

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.