If the riveting boxing documentary Thrilla In Manila were fiction, it’d be derided as hopelessly melodramatic and wildly implausible. The details seem too good and too colorful to be true: a working-class real-life Rocky who used to train by punching giant slabs of meat and running up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum Of Art squaring off against a dazzlingly verbal genius whose Nation Of Islam-derived views on the importance of separating races led him to deliver a well-received speech at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Manila’s elements would be too over-the-top for fiction, so it’s a good thing they're all true.
John Dower’s film tells the racially charged story of the legendary “Thrilla In Manila” title fight between Joe Frazier, a hard-working galoot backed by a group of primarily white businessmen, and Muhammad Ali, the preeminent boxing icon and the face and voice of the Nation Of Islam. Ali and Frazier were once friends; Frazier backed Ali’s bid to get his boxing license back after Ali was blackballed for refusing to fight in Vietnam, and he supported Ali financially during the lean years. So it understandably stung when Ali resorted to the ugliest kind of race-baiting as the cornerstone of an aggressive pre-fight campaign of merciless psychological warfare. Ali derided Frazier’s intelligence, mocked his appearance, accused him of being an Uncle Tom, and constantly compared him to a gorilla, often with the aid of props. What should have been a spirited competition between allies quickly devolved into a brutal death match.
Given the bad blood, it’s no surprise that the fight itself was one of the bloodiest, most brutal, and greatest championship bouts of all time, a 14-round slugfest in which Frazier kept hammering away despite essentially fighting blind in the final rounds. To the press Ali so brilliantly manipulated, it was a fight for the future of black America between two men who represented antithetical viewpoints on African-American progress. Frazier was a proponent of assimilation and hard work; Ali endorsed separation and black supremacy. Battered but proud, Frazier emerges as the film’s tragic hero, a good man dealt an awful hand who has never stopped shadow-boxing past injustices he can neither forgive nor forget. Ali and Frazier barely made it out of the “Thrilla In Manila” alive, but the physical cost of the fight paled in comparison to the psychic scars both champions incurred.
Key features: Fascinating deleted scenes, including a heartbreaking monologue from Frazier’s son Marvis about fighting Larry Holmes.