In HBO's Sports and Documentary Films latest film, Thrilla in Manila, Director John Dower depicts boxing's greatest rivalry in a way people have never seen. It looks at the famous Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier rivalry from Frazier's perspective in a transparent representation of the fighter's tumultuous relationship with his better known rival. Dower takes a deep look at how Ali and Frazier started as friends and colleagues with mutual respect for each other only to transform into bitter rivals, leaving two men with severely injured minds and bodies.
In the early 1970s, the Ali/Frazier rivalry was imbued with the significance that we now give to Yankees/Red Sox, Duke/North Carolina, and Michigan/Ohio State. The Ali/Frazier rivalry from 1971 to 1975 consisted of three fights that many believe should have ended with each going 1-1-1 but instead concluded with Ali winning the third bout after the referee called the fight following the 14th round.
(In 1988 the International Boxing Federation changed boxing to 12 rounds instead of 15 citing health issues of the fighters although many believe it was changed to allow for more time for advertisements).
John Dower felt a responsibility to tell the other side of the Ali/Frazier rivalry which many only remember as the Ali show due to his media friendly personality and catchy phrases like, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee". This film shows the other side -- how Ali took his promotional tactics way too far, ruining the great friendship he once had with Frazier and hurting his family in unimaginable ways. Ali used his religion, race, and political agenda against Frazier in an attempt to get in his head and win the mental battle that is so important in competitive contests.
Although an athlete's mind game tactics are acceptable in some cases, Ali took it too far and caused Frazier and his family many hardships. He attacked Frazier's intelligence, physique, and most importantly, accused Frazier of abandoning his own race -- something strong black men in the 70s took very seriously. It was difficult for Frazier to fight back because he was a simple man, with no formal education or natural ability to shine in the public spotlight.
I commend John Dower for making such a vivid film that shows behind the scene footage of how two very different men dealt with fame in a vastly changing world. I'm a big boxing fan but after watching this film, I have a new appreciation for both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
"Thrilla in Manila" airs on HBO Saturday, April 11th at 8:00 PM ET