It was, quite simply, a time when boxing mattered.
Not that it was merely interesting. Or simply popular. Or mildly fascinating. But it mattered, featuring some of the most compelling athletes of the age and reflecting some of the deepest and most profound emotions of the human condition.
There is a reason that boxing over the years has produced much of the greatest sportswriting, just as there is a reason the sport is now an afterthought in the American conscience.
So when Joe Frazier died last week at the age of 67, and Comcast added the “Thrilla in Manila” to its free On Demand package, I had to take a trip back in time and watch the 1975 fight in its entirety.
This, after all, was the fight that led Bill Simmons to write this week on Grantland, “For sweeping drama, clashing styles, mutual hatred, historical significance and sheer brutality, nothing else approached the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ The fight eventually ruined both men, only neither of them cared. They were fine with the stakes.”
Muhammad Ali, of course, is one of the most significant personalities in the history of American sports. At a time when boxing would attract some of the most athletic of specimens — one of the many ways in which the sport falls short today — Ali was perhaps the most athletic of them all.
But his influence went well beyond his skills. He essentially forged the model for the modern athlete as a braggadocio with his flamboyant patter and his outspoken attacks upon social injustice. Think of an attention hoarder the level of Terrell Owens to the third power, plus with something interesting to say.
But the truly interesting facets of Ali can be found when you dig past the top soil and through the limestone and shale and reach the bedrock. It is there that you find that his outrageousness was fueled by his insecurity, manifesting itself as nothing short of cruelty and bullying.
Ali spent years characterizing Frazier — and other opponents — as an “Uncle Tom” or comparing him with gorillas or apes. It’s a viciousness for which he would be vilified today, and for which he should have been vilified back then.
And nobody brought it out more than Frazier, because nobody scared Ali more than Frazier.
As Simmons wrote, “Once upon a time, on a sweltering night in the Philippines, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier tried to murder each other. This happened legally, which somehow made it OK.”
The fight actually occurred in the morning, but we’ll let that slide. Because what Ali and Frazier produced was some of the most compelling theater in sports history.
As Frazier relentlessly moved forward in his low-crouching bob-and-weave style, it called to mind something Apollo Creed says during the fight scene in “Rocky”: “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show.”
No, Frazier didn’t know. It was personal, and it might have been the ultimate test of human resolve.
Mark Kram, in his seminal account of the bout for Sports Illustrated — one of history’s great pieces of sportswriting — quoted Ali as saying: “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.” And he was the winner — triumphant when Frazier’s corner wouldn’t let their battered fighter answer the bell for the 15th round.
Maybe we have lost our attraction to such gladiatorial pursuits. Maybe we have evolved beyond such barbaric conflicts. Or maybe, more likely, we simply don’t have the kind of fighters who can produce such drama these days.
Mike Tyson, the only compelling heavyweight of the past 35 years, never could have summoned the internal will that was demanded by the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Frazier never won another fight after that morning in Manila. Ali never was the same. They alternated between enmity and reconciliation over the decades.
And now Frazier is gone, calling to mind a time when boxing was important.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at email@example.com. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian”