HBO’s fascinating Thrilla in Manila knocks Ali down and picks Frazier up

On Saturday, HBO debuted a new documentary that explores Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, from friendsihp to feud, through the lens of their final confrontation. The film, Thrilla in Manilla, which repeats often this month and next, is described by the network as “a tale of personal betrayal that was stoked by the racial politics of 1970s America.”

John Dower’s documentary, narrated by Liev Schreiber, ends up knocking Ali down a few pegs, if not off his pedestal, and is definitely an argument in favor of Frazier; its tagline is “Time tells a different story,” and the story here is not necessarily that Frazier is a better fighter, but that Ali is less of the champion that history has made him out to be. Still, it fails to answer the intriguing question posed at the beginning about why Ali has been so elevated by history and Frazier mostly forgotten.

Frazier now lives in the same building where he trained for that fight, in a run-down looking apartment, and he’s clearly still resentful about the final fight (it was stopped by his corner even though Frazier wanted to fight; Ali apparently was about to stop it himself). His brother plays Frazier’s cell phone voice mail message for us, which directly references the fight more than 30 years later: “Yeah, Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, I’m the man who done the job, he knows, look and see.”

The documentary uses interviews with people who were present for the three fights, from Ali’s ring-side doctor to Imelda Marcos—and also, notably, with Frazier himself. They explore the fascinating and horrifying racial politics of the fight, including Ali’s taunting of Frazier for being a gorilla and “Uncle Tom.” There’s even archival footage of Ali, a member of the Nation of Islam, discussing his appearance at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

But the most interesting parts are about their relationship: they were friends until they became bitter rivals. Before the three epic fights, when Ali was stripped of his license because he didn’t go to Vietnam, Frazier lobbied on Ali’s behalf—to Nixon, even—and also lent him money. The documentary points out that Ali apologized in a newspaper interview earlier this decade, but Frazier clearly still feels stung.

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