Apr 13, 2009
The new HBO Sports documentary Thrilla in Manila would on the surface seem to be something akin to bringing a HoneyBaked ham sandwich to a banquet. The title, of course, refers to the last of the three epic boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975. Considering that Ali himself has been the subject of over 300 books along with numerous feature films and documentaries, one wonders what else there is to say that hasn't already been said?
Well, you can put those concerns to rest because Thrilla in Manila not only adds to the burgeoning list of material about Ali, but the film gives us another angle with which to observe Ali's reign. It just so happens that the new angle is the privileging of Frazier's point of view this time around. Like Mary J. some years back, if you could look in Frazier's life and see what he sees, it would understandably look quite different than the view afforded from Ali's vantage point. This shift in point of view gives us a new lenses through which to view Frazier, Ali, the fight, and that time period in American history.
To say that Muhammad Ali is an American hero these days is like saying that water is wet. Since his renaissance lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the former Cassius Clay has experienced an unparalleled love fest with the American public. The excellent documentary, When We Were Kings (1996) won an Academy Award, Will Smith starred in the Michael Mann biopic Ali (2001), and over time America began to reconsider the legacy of a man who was once one of the most hated men in the country for his refusal to enter the Vietnam draft. Ali went from one of the most hated to one of the most loved though. The fact that Parkinson's disease has robbed him of his ability to use his tongue in a critique of American racism is gone, along with the charisma and utterly engaging personality, yet many people have come to view Ali almost like he were a god. I think it is fair to say that Ali is one of the America's greatest living heroes now.
Yet, in spite of the contemporary love affair with the "Greatest of All Time," Thrilla in Manila demonstrates that there were many chinks in Ali's armor. Ali used Frazier as his verbal punching bag outside the ring, engaging in the worst kind of racial abuse, questioning Frazier's blackness and otherwise clowning him as an Uncle Tom. Ali always had the advantage of charisma to go along with his impeccable boxing skills. He used this charisma to promote himself and his fights quite well. Frazier, inarticulate on a good day, never had the ability to match Ali's telegenic presence and suffered immensely in this regard. Ali was the articulate one who exploited Frazier's inability to respond in kind. Normally this would not be an issue. Boxing is as much psychological warfare as it is physical, so the ability to psyche someone out is like a good left jab, another weapon in the arsenal. This along with the role that the verbal dexterity of signifying plays in the oral tradition itself and Ali comes out on top every time.
Yet it was the nature of Ali's taunts that made this exchange with Frazier so disturbing. Ali, who represented himself as the ultimate black man through his links with the Nation of Islam, criticized Frazier as someone who was simply not black enough. Further he said that Frazier was an Uncle Tom and in reality a pawn of the proverbial "white man." This is the equivalent of citing someone for racial treason. All this in the interest of selling a fight.
Thrilla in Manila is good because it allows us to see and hear Frazier. His lingering bitterness makes that much more sense now. The outgoing message on Frazier's cell phone voice mail where he mocks Ali's illness and claims to be the reason for Ali incurring this illness says it all. Frazier feels that Ali is now paying the price for all those years of verbal abuse.
This all helps to paint a very different picture of Ali than the one we have become accustomed to seeing. In the end this is a good thing. I love Ali as much as the next person and I always have. But much of the commentary about him lately borders on hagiography. Ali was no saint. No one is a saint, for that matter. Yet Americans like their heroes to be perfect, superhuman, without flaw. It's hard for a lot of people to reconcile Ali's charisma, his boxing superiority, and his defiant refusal to go fight a corrupt war in spite of the punishment, with his more human qualities. There's a cruelty that comes across in Ali's disdain for Frazier. This is the kind of cruelty that stands out even more as one becomes aware of just how unkind Ali was to Frazier in his remarks. Like 'Pac on "Hit 'Em Up" Ali went far outside the lines of acceptable trash talking in his many racially tinged comments about Frazier, especially his mocking of Frazier's more extreme features, like the shape of his nose, for instance. Racists had long said that black people were descendants of apes and here was Ali calling Frazier a gorilla, while playing with a toy gorilla for the cameras.
Frazier now seems like a man content with his lot in life. He lives in the back of a funky boxing gym in Philly and seems to have little other than his spirit left. Yet he does seems at peace with himself. The subject of Ali gets him wound up, but this all seems justified to me. Some, who embrace a more religious perspective, might feel as though Frazier is suffering because of his bitterness and that he needs to let all of this go in order to be truly happy. I disagree. The fact that Ali's name, as Biggie might say, "taste like ass," when Frazier speaks it is real. I'm sure that thoughts of Ali suffering really feel good to Frazier at some level. You can be judgmental about this if you choose, but such feelings are more real than a lot of people want to admit. Frazier comes across as though, in spite of Ali's 2 to 1 advantage in their fights, that he got the last laugh. I think it's sometimes unrealistic to forgive and forget, though I can understand how this ideal is appealing to people. Frazier was wronged and in light of his own religious beliefs he feels strongly that Ali is reaping what he sowed.
Issues such as these gives Ali's overall story a much more well rounded dimension than simply praising him all the time. Ali is a human being with flaws and warts just like everyone else. Everything he did wasn't cool, just because he did it. His treatment of Frazier, in spite of the fact that Frazier had helped him out financially when he was out of boxing, as well as supporting his reinstatement to the sport, was beyond reprehensible. It's time we get beyond treating people as though they were superhuman. We need to see historical figures for who they are, not who we want them to be.
The contradictions that defined Thomas Jefferson, who while authoring the Declaration of Independence could own slaves and father several children with one of those slaves, Sally Hemmings, are the same type of human contradictions that recognize Martin Luther King Jr's immense contributions to humanity without denying the fact that he loved to get his freak as though he were a NBA player on a road trip. Ali could be an anti-Vietnam War protester, a conscious black man, along with being charismatic and a great fighter, while being an asshole towards Frazier, engaging in some of the same racial politics that he himself was criticizing others for. Ali was an exploitative hypocrite, a race-baiting manipulator, and an incredible human presence, all at the same time.
I'm not making Frazier a saint by default either. I realize that Frazier was easier for mainstream America to digest at the time. A poor, uneducated southerner from the depths of South Carolina, Frazier was about as non-threatening as one could be in an era when militant groups like Ali's Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party reigned in urban black communities. Yet those in mainstream America who embraced Frazier were using him too. These people didn't care about Frazier as much as they hated Ali. Frazier just happened to be the pawn who allowed them to couch their hatred of Ali in a convenient, yet ultimately disposable figure. It's like Frazier was everyone's whupping boy and he didn't have the ability to defend himself; at least not until you stepped into the ring with him.
One of the many interesting points made in Thrilla in Manila involves the drama in both fighter's corners before the 15th and final round of the fight. It seems like if Eddie Futch, Frazier's legendary trainer, had waited just a bit longer, Ali's corner might have thrown in the towel themselves due to the fighter's exhaustion. Imagine that. How different would history have been if Frazier had won the closely contested rubber match between the two fighters? Would Ali's legacy still be treated as we treat it today or would Frazier be remembered as the superior of the two? Who knows really, but like most history, the slightest alteration of facts often creates an entirely different historical record.
Regardless, I came away from this documentary gaining more respect for Frazier, while losing some measure of respect for Ali. It's hard not to like Ali. I mean the man is in a class by himself. But as we add more and more perspectives to our historical understanding of his legacy we come closer to a more thorough three-dimensional representation than the limited hagiography that has been masquerading as the real deal for too long now. That being said, you can't talk about Ali without talking about Frazier and so it's about time the other man in the ring that Manila morning finally gets his props too. Ali is still The Man, no doubt, but thanks to Thrilla in Manila and other broader representations of the record to come, we can at least say that though Frazier may not be The Man, he is indeed The Man sitting next to The Man.