Sunday, April 12, 2009

Documentary Tells a Tale of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ Tape

Joe Frazier’s face, so expressive in showing sadness, astonishment and anger, is the star of John Dower’s new documentary “Thrilla in Manila” (HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern), a look back at the third fight in the Frazier-Muhammad Ali trilogy.

Watch that face in this 90-minute film, which is Joe’s story.

Watch him watch the 14-round epic for the first time in the modest apartment he lives in above his gym in Philly. He has to look up from a chair to watch the tape.

His postwealth quarters are modest, but at least a level better than those that Morgan Freeman’s trainer character inhabited in the gym in “Million Dollar Baby.”

It took Dower months, starting in late 2006, to persuade Frazier to watch the tape.

“He’d never give me a reason for saying no,” Dower said from England on Friday. “It got frustrating. He eventually got sick of me. I’d been to the gym so many times that he finally agreed. It was a big moment. But the morning he was going to do it, his car broke down on the freeway and he had to get a lift to the gym from the police.”

Sometimes, Frazier just stares, interested and riveted, experiencing the bout in a way that is so different from being in that ring on the brutally hot morning of Oct. 1, 1975, against a friend-turned-enemy in Quezon City in the Philippines.

“They talk about great actors, that it’s in their eyes,” Dower said. “I saw a look in his eyes, a feeling, ‘My God, what if I’d done this differently.’ ” In those eyes, you see him look at Ali, his tormentor, who, through their fights cruelly called him an Uncle Tom, called him ugly, called him a gorilla. It hurt. Still does. It’s all in Smokin’ Joe’s eyes.

“All the crazy things he said about me,” Frazier says. “I tried to take him out.”

When Frazier sees the bout turn in his favor after Round 4, satisfaction spreads over his face. The eyes, a little red, light up. He’s beating Ali up.

He loves it. “Whoo!” he says.

At some point, Dower says, Frazier forgot that anyone but Ali was in the room.

Joe boasts that his sledgehammer punches were hurting Ali’s kidneys and liver.

He hears Larry Holmes, another champion, say Ali’s punching was overrated, that being hit by Joe was like being jolted by electricity.

He hears Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s famous Fight Doctor, call him “dumb.”

Joe doesn’t flinch at hearing Pacheco run him down. He’s heard worse.

“Joe couldn’t have survived by being dumb,” Dower said.

He sees his own right eye close. He hadn’t had more than partial vision in his left for years. Now he sees himself, mostly blind and bloodied, fighting Ali on instinct.

“He can take him out,” the British fight announcer says of Ali.

“Nah,” Frazier says, “he couldn’t take me out.”

After the hellish 14th round, Ali wants to quit, end the hell. Frazier doesn’t.

“No man,” he says to the televised image of his corner. “Let me continue.”

But his trainer, Eddie Futch, prevails. It ends. Frazier watches as Ali raises his arms in weary, dehydrated triumph, then collapses. But Joe looks satisfied that he inflicted so much punishment that he might have hastened Ali’s Parkinson’s.

You see that in his eyes and his sometimes garbled voice that save for the loss, he likes the way the Thrilla came out. Mean justice: he can speak, he doesn’t shake. He won.

“He doesn’t gnash his teeth all day about Ali,” Dower said. “This is a good-time guy. He’s out partying, still asking women for their phone numbers. He still drives his car too fast in a very dangerous way. He’s a good-time guy. But he’s angry about Ali.”

Eight years ago, I interviewed Ali in his Manhattan hotel room around the 30th anniversary of his first fight against Frazier. I asked him to apologize to Frazier. He did. I called Joe and relayed it to him. Joe accepted. But it didn’t take for more than a few weeks. Joe didn’t accept it any more than he did the one Ali made right after the Thrilla, when he told Frazier’s son, Marvis, how sorry he was for how he’d humiliated him.

Why, Smokin’ Joe asked Marvis, didn’t Ali apologize to his face?

That face, which hides nothing.

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