AP Sports Columnist
It was, Muhammad Ali would later say, the closest thing to death he had ever known.
He and Joe Frazier had gone 14 brutal rounds in stifling heat of a Philippines morning before Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch mercifully signaled things to an end, his fighter blind and battered and feeling pretty close to death himself.
It was the final time the two fighters would meet in a trilogy that transcended the sport of boxing. The last meeting would take place in the most unlikely of places, and be a fight so epic it would live up to its name.
It was 40 years ago, Oct. 1, 1975, and the “Thrilla in Manilla” was just that. Neither fighter gave an inch as Frazier relentlessly pursued Ali, and Ali responded by unleashing the fury of his fists on the oncoming challenger’s head.
“They told me Joe Frazier was washed up,” Ali said to Frazier at one point.
“They lied,” Frazier growled, throwing yet another left hook at a target he could barely see.
The fight was for the heavyweight title that Ali won a year earlier from George Foreman in another fight with a name. If the “Rumble in the Jungle” was Ali’s finest hour — at least in his late career — the defense against Frazier was surely his most gutty performance.
Ali’s business manager, Gene Kilroy, was watching from ringside, fearful for the health of both fighters.
“I was thinking to myself, why don’t they just ban boxing now?” Kilroy said.
The president of the Philippines had welcomed the two fighters to his country, and Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were among the 28,000 crowded inside the steamy Araneta Coliseum to watch the biggest sporting event the nation had ever hosted.
A fight of a different sort had broken out in the days before the bout when Ali’s wife, Belinda, arrived unexpectedly after reports surfaced about the champion squiring a 20-year-old named Veronica around town and introducing her as his wife. She barged into Ali’s hotel suite and exchanged words with him for about 15 minutes before heading back to the airport.
Ali’s domestic issues hadn’t prevented him from training hard for Frazier. He knew from their first two fights — this was the rubber match — that there was never any quit in the former champion, despite his knockout loss to Foreman two years earlier.
Frazier would be especially relentless this time, angry with Ali for calling him a “gorilla” and belittling him as an Uncle Tom.
“He knew that Frazier would never be washed up against him,” Kilroy said. “If Frazier was 60 he would have still been ready to fight Ali.”
Ali came out throwing big punches, hoping to stop Frazier in his tracks. He buckled Frazier’s legs twice in the first round, and was giving him a beating through the early rounds.
But Frazier began finding the mark with his signature left hook, snapping Ali’s head back. He began backing Ali up, taking the fight to him, and by the end of the 10th round, Ali sat exhausted on his ring stool, his head bowed and seemingly ready to quit.
“Ali took terrible punishment,” said retired Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., who was ringside. “In the sixth round, he hit him with a hook that almost made it look like his head was on a swivel. Joe just wouldn’t stop.”
Somehow, Ali took the punches and remained upright. Somehow, he found a way to turn the fight back in his favor.
By the 14th round, the big right hands Ali was landing had made Frazier’s face almost unrecognizable. Frazier’s punches no longer had their zip, but even with his eyes almost completely swollen shut he continued throwing left hook after left hook, hoping one might find its mark.
Finally, Futch told Frazier he couldn’t go on. Frazier briefly protested, but Futch wouldn’t budge, knowing what one final round might bring.
In the other corner, Ali got up and briefly held his hands up in victory. Then he collapsed on his stool, finally finished himself.
“God knows what might have happened if they hadn’t stopped the fight,” Kilroy said.
Neither fighter was what they were five years earlier when Frazier beat Ali in the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden, though it didn’t matter that morning in Manilla. Both dug deep into somewhere they had never been before to put on one of the most memorable heavyweight title fights ever.
Unfortunately, it came at a great cost. Frazier would fight ineffectively just two more times, and Ali was a shadow of himself even as he continued to fight on.
“It was the last hurrah for both of them,” Schuyler said. “They both should have quit after that fight.”
Frazier died four years ago, still bitter about the way Ali treated him. Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s Syndrome from taking too many punches, attended the funeral.
Last month, they unveiled a long overdue statue of Frazier in Philadelphia, and Kilroy went to the ceremony. He and Marvis Frazier, son of the late champion, went to Frazier’s grave and laid a wreath inscribed with a message from Ali.
“To Joe Frazier from Muhammad Ali,” it read. “Rest in peace, Joe, until we meet again. Next time we’re not going to fight, we’re just going to hug each other.”