In Boxing, Everybody Loses
While watching TV the other day I happened upon a boxing documentary. It was the 2008 HBO film "Thrilla in Manilla," chronicling the third and final battle between Heavyweight champs Muhammad Ali and Smoking Joe Frazier. Immediately, it struck me how very anachronistic boxing had become. It's just not the sort of thing you stumble across on network TV anymore--except the celebrity version--having given way to the more accessible global phenomena of Mixed Martial Arts.
Back in the 80s boxing was everywhere, and Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas "The Hit Man" Hearns and "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler were household names that frequently glowered out at you from the cover of SI. Even if you weren't a fan, you'd usually end up catching a bit of one of their fights on Wide World of Sports when nothing else was on.
Boxing was mainstream and it bled into the culture regardless of whether you actually liked it or not. Sure it was a bottom-feeding blood sport that was at best economical exploitive, and at worst, racially so, but it was on, and thus it had a fan base.
However, after the retirement of Ali in 1981, boxing lacked a charismatic heavyweight who could really seize the public imagination. And then in 1985, in the monstrous form of Mike Tyson, the sport was saved, sort of. Tyson knocked the shit out of everybody he fought. He was terrifying, and his violence was so forceful and naked in intent that it was irresistible, especially to sheltered middle-class white kids, for whom Tyson was the embodiment of both everything they feared, and wanted to be.
But Tyson was savior and destroyer of the sport. At the best of times, boxing was an unpredictable venture for advertisers, as they never knew how long a fight would last. However, when Tyson was in his prime, they did know--about 30 seconds. And so in spite of the immense public appetite for Tyson, networks really couldn't secure any advertising dollars to broadcast his fights, and suddenly, with armies of people just dying to see his fights, Pay-Per-View became a viable delivery system for boxing. However, this also made it the exclusive purview of a narrow band of fanatics, and in so doing, lost an entire generation of people who might have become accidental fans just by repeated exposure to the sport.
And so, if you're like me and you still want to watch boxing from time to time, you're left with virtually nothing, which is why coming across "Thrilla in Manila" was such a gift.
Joe Dower's documentary is brutal and often difficult to watch, but it's an utterly mesmerizing story and I couldn't stop watching.
Muhammad Ali is one of the most beloved and venerated men of the last century. Beautiful and as fluidly articulate as a poet, he exploded like light into the world. It was simply impossible not to love him, and of course it was Ali who defeated Joe Frazier back in 1975, in what many describe as the greatest fight the world has ever seen.
Ali, always the good guy, needed a villain to fight, and the unwitting Joe Frazier was to become this villain. With the backing of the Nation of Islam, of whom Ali was a member, a racial narrative was constructed to be the hinge upon which this drama swung. Frazier was framed as the white man's stooge, with Ali calling him an "Uncle Tom." In this fictional portrait, Ali was the "real black man" while Frazier, in spite of his roots growing up in South Carolina and the grim streets of Philadelphia, was depicted as some sort of pretender to his ethnicity.
To make matters worse (for Frazier) by 1975, when the fight took place, Ali was considered a hero of anti-war politics for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War back in 1967. However, at the time he took this anti-war stance, Ali was reviled and seen as anti-patriotic. His license to fight was revoked and he was cast into a professional limbo. During this time, Frazier defended Ali's position, petitioned to have him reinstated and even gave him cash, and that Ali would turn on him with such unflinching cruelty, was too much for Frazier, who simply did not have the verbal tools to defend himself against Ali's assaults.
"Thrilla in Manila" uses archival footage of the event, as well as interviews with all the key players (save Ali) as they, like shell-shocked Greek warriors who have returned from Troy, recount the terrible glories they witnessed. But it's really a story told by Joe Frazier, and the portrait of the man--who was 63 at the time the film was made--that emerges is positively heartbreaking.
The fight took place under punishing heat, with each man battling back and forth for 14 rounds. Frazier was actually laying a brutal beat-down on Ali during the middle rounds, but soon his eye began to swell shut, rendering him virtually blind, something Ali took vicious and merciless advantage of, but still, Frazier kept coming.
Even now, almost 35 years to the day the fight took place, it's still a shocking and disquieting thing to watch. The fight did not feel remote, but was vivid and horrible, and even though I knew the outcome, I still found myself flinching, unable to process the amount of abuse these men were going through. Honest to God, watching the footage made me feel like I was culpable in some way to a suicide.
Frazier, nearly blind from the beating he had received, was prevented from returning for the 15th round by his corner, and the decision went to Ali, who raised his arms in triumph and then collapsed on the canvas.
Now suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, Frazier has thick and slurry speech, and the lopsided face of a fighter. The interviews with the present-day Frazier that provide context throughout the film, are hard to understand, and subtitles would have provided clarity, but it's probably for the best that the damage that boxing has wrought upon him was made so vivid.
In one passage we watch Frazier as he looks at film of the epic fight, and he just doesn't seem present. His eyes cloudy, his mouth agape, he seemed like a lost and broken man, somebody who still only sees the white whale that long since eluded him.
Vindictive and bitter, Frazier chooses to see Ali's Parkinson's as a kind of divine retribution, one that the Lord administered through Frazier's own fists. His unappealing antipathy was such that he told reporters back in '96, when Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta, that he wanted to push him into the flames.
Ali, willfully cruel, exploited the vulnerabilities of a man who actually wanted to be friend, and has been lavished in riches and venerated as a saint. Now having descended into an almost elegant silence, we remember only Ali's beauty and electricity, while Frazier, the noble loser of that great fight, rattles on, making himself less and less sympathetic as the years wear on.
At the time of the film, Frazier lived in a room (the he referred to as his dungeon) above his boxing gym in Philadelphia-the same one he originally trained in for the epic match-- having lost his money in a series of mismanaged real estate deals.
In 1976, just one year after the Frazier-Ali fight, the movie Rocky was released. Saturated in a compelling bathos that managed to adorn the rugged streets of Philadelphia with a poetic dignity, Rocky was a Cinderella story in which defeat was a moral victory and everybody was a winner. However, in the real world of boxing, as documented by "Thrilla in Manila" we see that everybody actually lost, and the fight itself, a defining and extraordinary moment in the lives of both men, did little to improve them, but instead diminished them, serving as a cautionary tale to those who would hope to achieve such greatness.