By David Forsmark
On issues ranging from Hurricane Katrina and Iraq to Election 2000, HBO's documentaries aren't exactly known for toeing anything resembling a conservative line. But the cable network’s latest offering, a film by British director John Dower, Thrilla in Manila, strikes a knockout blow to the graven image of the Left’s greatest sports icon, Muhammed Ali.
How thoroughly does Thrilla in Manila take Ali down? How about this line: "Ali was the mouthpiece for a religious group that had the same beliefs as the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan."
Biff! Bam! Boom!
What makes this even sweeter is the fact that the voice of HBO sports is Bryant Gumbel, the leftist shill who infamously labeled Joe Frazier "the white man’s champion."
Ali has been all but canonized these days, but Thrilla reminds us this plaster saint was once one of the most divisive men in America — and deservedly so.
Ali’s famous conversion to the Nation of Islam led to his declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and he began giving speeches agreeing with the KKK on interracial marriage. Ali famously made the Fight of the Century more than just a simple boxing match; he relentlessly condemned Frazier as an Uncle Tom, "the enemy," and made audiences take sides based on racial politics.
Thanks to the media’s lapdog approach to Ali, the audiences picked their side for every reason except boxing: As narrator Liev Schreiber states: "If you were rooting for Muhammed Ali, you were black, liberal or young, against the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement. If you backed Joe Frazier you represented white, conservative America."
As one of the brightest talking heads in the film, Sunni Khalid of WYPR notes, "We were all convinced that Joe had to be an Uncle Tom. Why? Because Ali said so."
This was ironic on levels both personal and political. For the media to let Ali get away with this was troubling enough. Ali was a member of a violent, racist, segregationist group, not an outwardly integrationist movement as the NAACP.
The Nation formed Ali’s entourage and his public image. According to Khalid, "Elijah Muhammed was in charge, they ran a hierarchical organization, nobody said or did anything unless it was approved from headquarters."
Over footage of Ali cheering a racist rant from the Nation's leader, Khalid reports, "They even fed him the famous lines about ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’" This charge is smugly confirmed on camera by Nation spokesman Abdul Rahaman. who takes personal credit for the line—and now sports Ali’s championship ring on his finger.
"It was the ultimate manipulation of anyone I’ve ever seen," declares Freddie Pacheco, whose arrogant presence in the film personifies Ali’s corner but who also is bracingly candid at times.
The film replays an interview Ali gave to a British television reporter, in which Ali declares, "You are fighting a spiritual holy war when you face me now!"
"What about when you’re fighting Joe Frazier," the bemused reporter asks, "Is that fighting a holy war?"
"Yes, sir! Because he’s the Uncle Tom!" Ali shouts.
"Oh, he’s not an Uncle Tom," the reporter chides, vainly trying to introduce reason to the discussion.
Ali will have none of it. "He’s the other type Negro, he’s not like me," Ali shouts to the now stunned white interviewer. "There are two types of slaves, Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me. … That’s what I mean when I say Uncle Tom, I mean he’s a brother, one day he might be like me, but for now he works for the enemy"
But as one of Frazier’s camp, Dave Wolfe, points out, "Joe was the working-class black person Ali claimed to be speaking for, Ali never worked a day in his life except at being himself."
It was Frazier who lived and trained (and still does) in the neighborhood called "The Badlands" in Philadelphia. It was Frazier who grew up tilling the fields in a segregated South Carolina county where the local bank would later not even cash a small check for him when he returned home as the heavyweight champion of the world.
All of this was known to the media, but the reporters nevertheless played along, eager to get the next Big Quote from Ali, or, like spotlight pimp Howard Cosell, seeking to accrue fame and glory by approximation. They allowed, as Schreiber notes, Ali to "consistently" use "the politics of race to demean Joe Frazier."
According to son Marvis Frazier, this led to bomb threats against their home and constant police protection. "Everybody and their sister used to beat me up because I was Joe Frazier’s son."
But the betrayal is even deeper and more shocking than a casual observer might gather. During Ali’s three-year suspension from boxing for his refusal to be drafted, Frazier, who had become champ during that time, lobbied to get Ali's boxing license back and had even gave him money. Frazier was even generous about Ali’s draft dodging, Wolfe says, adding, "Joe once said to me, ‘If Baptists were not allowed to
fight, I would not fight."
Frazier wanted Ali back in the ring so he could prove himself a worthy champion. He even cooperated with Ali in staging some of their raucous confrontations just to build up the public's interest and put pressure
on the boxing commissions. But as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s ban from boxing, the incidents turned serious and ugly, as "Ali restorted to racial abuse."
And so the stage for their first fight was set. Ali -- hero of the antiwar crowd and icon of the black power movement - would make his triumphant return and become king of the sports world, advancing his
causes would be advanced immeasurably.
But the deposed champ was up against a man whose beginnings were so humble he made Ali look like a child of privilege and who never demanded handouts to keep him in kingly style. Frazier -- a humble
champion who was good to his investors and cognizant of boxing's traditions -- got in the way of the historically inevitable storyline and won the greatest fight of modern times.
So the Left mobilized to do to Joe Frazier the man what Muhammad Ali the boxer could not do in the ring: destroy him as a man. Shameless idiots like Bryant Gumble wrote that "Joe Frazier is the white man's
champion," while Cosell made a career out of serving as Ali's journalism pimp and jester.
By the time the two would meet in Manila for their ultimate confrontation in 1975, Ali was king of the media. His racist attacks reached new lows while the press corps giggled along.
"The language of racial superiority shaped Ali’s attacks on Joe Frazier, and in Manila, his relentless use of the word gorilla took on a sinister tone" Schreiber says.
It began at a press conference when Ali began his familiar rhyming sessions. "It will be a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila," he boasts, then whips out a rubber gorilla that he called "the soul of Joe Frazier" and began beating on it. But it was more than just words, it became a full-fledged theme that spread out to T-shirts, dolls and even men in costumes sparring in Ali’s ring.
"Ali portrayed Joe Frazier as inferior, not only as a boxer but as a human being," the film offers, showing clips of Ali using such terms as "Flat nose, ugly pug, can’t dance, ignorant" and the ubiquitous,
But Thrilla in Manila is not just a social document -- it's a terrific sports film as well. Viewing the Manila fight with Frazier as he watches the footage for the first time is a riveting experience.
A little-discussed aspect of the fight will surprise many boxing fans. Thrilla raises significant doubt whether Ali could have come out for the 15th round if Joe Frazier’s corner not stopped the fight.
Interviewees from both corners and the footage itself seem to confirm this controversial assertion. But the reason the fight ended this way is even more relevant than the fact that it did, and it highlights the
differences between the Ali and Frazier camps.
While Frazier argued vehemently with his corner that he wanted to go out for Round 15, the people who cared about Joe Frazier as a person — particularly his trainer, Eddie Futch, who had seen eight men die in
the ring — threw in the towel.
When he finished the 14th round, Thomas Hauser, Ali’s official biographer tells film maker Dower, Ali told his trainer to cut his gloves off, that he was done, Pacheco says flatly that it was "the Muslims" who demanded their symbol return to the ring no matter what the cost to his person.
At the end of the film, Frazier’s continuing contempt for Ali is covered, with boxing writers and friends regretting that Joe will do such things as point to Ali in his current state and say with satisfaction, "I did that," as proof that ultimately he won the fight.
Here is where the film does not quite complete the circle of the story. The media’s sorry role is only indirectly covered.
We see Ali sitting around spouting racist garbage as reporters laugh. and rarely does anyone challenge him. Media bias even leaked into the play by play. When Frazier unloads on Ali’s jaw, the announcer
exclaims, "Oh, Ali slipped!" With a chuckle, Frazier comments, "Slipped on what? Slipped on a left hook."
To this day, Frazier has to watch a man who spent years in a highly publicized racist campaign against him lionized as a hero and humanitarian.
While Ali has made some private bids for reconciliation after his public acts of humiliation, which Frazier rejected, the media has continued the Ali storyline, minus the gorilla dolls. Virtually the only exception is Ghosts of Manila, a terrific book by the late, great Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram (which the film gives limited credit to)
While Ali still is showered with such honors as lighting the Olympic torch, Frazier is barely acknowledged in his hometown of Philadelphia. Although Ali may possibly have been the worst sport of any major sports champion, Sports Illustrated incredibly named him "Sportsman of the Century" (over Babe Ruth, who all but created modern professional sports). Frazier -- who, on points, has to be considered dead even with Ali in their three fights -- doesn't even make the top 100 list.
If the list were just about sports, than the man who battled the top athlete to death’s door—and did it, as both Kram and Thrilla reveal, despite the astounding fact that he was nearly blind in one eye for his whole career and never should have been cleared to fight—should at least rate a mention.
Why the accolades for Muhammed Ali? Ali was the person most responsible for ruining his sport, Don King would be nothing without him. What is he a symbol of? Bad sportsmanship? Taunting an opponent? The Nation of Islam? Anti-miscegenation? Racial hatred?
Ali is no Jackie Robinson; in fact, he was quite the opposite. Frazier is what Americans look for in their champions, so much so that Sylvester Stallone lifted elements of Frazier's humble story directly for Rocky. But as a lasting tribute to media fecklessness, in Philadelphia there stands a statue of the fictional Rocky, not of Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
But while everyone seems to describe him with the word "bitter," Frazier comes across as anything but. Joe seems completely at peace with his justified contempt for Ali as a man. In that way, Frazier is a throwback to a pre-therapeutic age of manliness when everyone didn’t have to have a group hug in order to be content with the order of things.
That’s appropriate, since Joe Frazier was also a throwback as a champion — a gracious, good sport who respected his sport and his opponent -- and who was unprepared for an age where heroes were created by a media agenda instead of by an individual’s actions.