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From Frazier and Ali to Manny Pacquiao

SAN FRANCISCO—That year, I was for Muhammad Ali.

In 1975, he seemed more brilliant and exciting in the ring than Joe Frazier. He was also flashier and more entertaining.

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I never got to see the two of them in person when they were in Manila. But like other children and adults, I got swept in the Thrilla in Manila craze.

Frazier died this week. My own image of him had changed through the years. Actually, so did my image of Ali.

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It was only after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area that I came to appreciate Ali not just as a sports hero, but also as a Civil Rights icon.

Ali lost his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, in a war he considered unjust.

“No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” was his famous quote.

He lost his title, and nearly ended his then promising boxing career.

By the time he and Frazier met in Manila, Ali had regained his title, and was back on top.

Frazier, on the other hand, had lost his title in a stunning defeat at the hands of George Foreman – whom Ali had knocked out in another classic fight in Zaire.

So in the Thrilla in Manila, Frazier was cast as the bad guy, the kontra bida, the supporting player.

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Ali taunted him, insulted him, mocked him. He called Frazier a gorilla. And many Filipinos laughed at his jokes and his taunts.

I even remember reciting Ali’s poem about beating up on the gorilla in the Thrilla in Manila.

As news accounts have recalled, Frazier was deeply hurt by the attacks. For in fact, they were unfair and uncalled for.

And they even highlighted a contradiction in Ali’s image.

“Gorilla” was also how white racists called African Americans. And here was a Civil Rights icon hurling the same insult at an African American who was darker than him.

And while Frazier was known to have been one of the few who offered Ali help, including money, after he was stripped of his title, Ali portrayed Smokin Joe as an “Uncle Tom.”

Yet another low blow.

For Frazier may not have been a prominent spokesman of the Civil Rights movement. But he also endured racism and the poverty that racism brought about in the American South.

To be sure, Frazier was no saint. He publicly ridiculed Ali’s when he was struggling with Parkinson’s disease. When a feeble Ali, his hands shaking, lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Frazier later joked that he wished he had been there to push Ali onto the fire.

But Frazier and Ali later made peace.

“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said,” Ali was quoted as saying. “Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”

It’s a striking coincidence that one of the greatest boxers of the 20th century passed away just as the greatest fighter of the 21st century is about to step into the ring for another much-anticipated showdown.

Joe Frazier was a heavyweight champion and contender when boxing’s greats were dominated by, well, heavyweights.

Today, it’s the smaller fighters who dominate the sport. And it’s a Filipino who is the reigning “heavyweight” of boxing.

Manny Pacquiao was born three years after the Thrilla in Manila. But he is somehow linked to the historic showdown at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.

Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, later also worked with Freddie Roach, who is now Pacquiao’s trainer.

Roach was himself a fighter, and Futch was his trainer. According to a story in the Daily Mirror, Futch became worried about the beating Roach had taken in his career. He advised Roach to retire — but Roach refused.

He lost most of his next fights. Later, Roach also fell ill to Parkinson’s – the disease that also devastated Ali.

“It was probably the wrong choice to keep fighting, but I don’t regret it,” Roach told The Daily Mirror.  “You know what, I wasn’t ready to retire. Boxing’s a very addictive sport and it’s hard to stop.”

It’s perhaps a good sign for Pacquiao that his trainer once was trained by a man who knows when it’s time for a fighter to quit — a trainer who knows how to protect his fighter.

For Futch played a little known, but very critical, role in the Thrilla in Manila, according to accounts of the fight.

After the 14th round, with Frazier having a hard time seeing, Futch signaled to the referee to end the fight. Frazier wanted to keep going.

But Futch told Smokin Joe, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today.”

And that turned out to be true.

For, certainly, even as we cheer a new boxing great in Manny Pacquiao, many of us will never forget two other boxing greats who once brought thrill to Manila.

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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TAGS: Boxing, Joe Frazier, Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali, Sports, Thrilla in Manila
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