Amazing documentary premiering on HBO Saturday, April 11th. Thrilla In Manila, directed by John Dower, tells the story of the third and final bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier from Frazier's point of view. Not since the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, which presented Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with George Foreman in Zaire, have world heavyweight champs in documentaries seemed so compelling for a general audience.
And I couldn't help but feel, watching the doc, that the fight outside the ring between these two gentlemen, which turned racial, ugly, and eventually ended their friendship, was more about Ali understanding promotion and marketing, and less about who Frazier is. It's known that Frazier helped Ali out early in his career with money, that Frazier went to Richard Nixon, then president, to help Ali get his boxing license back after Ali became a conscientious objector during the War in Vietnam.
It's not known, and it's more surprising, to try to understand, as this doc does, why Ali went after Frazier so personally and publicly, even making race an issue between them. Look for my upcoming "Third Screen" with director John Dower for that. Frazier is a man who will not discuss what is long gone, even though the press continues to try and fan the flame of their feud even today.
But the real star of this documentary, in addition to Smokin' Joe Frazier, is justice. Frazier's story has never been told. Still a dashing figure, full of fun and proud of his family -- 11 children, 26 grandchildren, and half a dozen great-grandchildren -- I found him much more at peace with life than the documentary may lead you to believe. It was a pleasure to hear from the man himself.
Third Screen: Watching you in this documentary, my thought was that this is a film about justice. Justice for what it means to be a heavyweight champ, from your perspective rather than the better-known one we get from Ali.
Frazier: I think he just didn't give respect. To the world, to his mom and dad when he changed his name, though I'm pretty sure he'd disagree with that. He had his own way for so many years. He was always talking.
Third Screen: What did you think of each other at first?
Frazier: That first fight, he thought I was a pushover. He thought he was going to just walk in and take over, you know?
Third Screen: Did he really think that, or was that just part of his act?
Frazier: No, he really thought that. He thought I was just put there by the numbers. I proved myself to the world. I proved myself worthy of the championship. I wasn't afraid of him. I wasn't afraid of his noise. He tried to make me look bad anyway he could. He won two out of three. But you look at it now, you know who won 'em all.
Third Screen: Why do you say you've won 'em all?
Frazier: I'm loved. I'm one of God's men and I love all God's children. I try to walk in the right way, and do what He allows me to do. It wasn't a white thing, or a black thing. It was about how to be a man.
Third Screen: You were friends. You helped him with money. You stood by him and respected him when he stood on his religious principle and would not go to Vietnam. Were you sorry you did that after he began to taunt you and come after you for publicity?
Frazier: No. Look. People wanted to see a good show. They wanted to see a good person put it on. That was it for me. Him saying no to the draft? I respected that, but I didn't understand it. I wanted to go bad back in '57, '58. I tried to get my age up to go in the service. I was from South Carolina. Beaufort. It was a big Marine base and I loved it. I used to go and see the guys march. And I would have loved to serve because it's all about orders. Strict. You know what I mean? It wasn't about what you wanted to do. It was rules and regulations you had to abide by. And I grew up with that, with mom and dad, sisters and brothers. I knew how to live under rules and regulations. That's why I'm here today, because I didn't mind the sacrifices. Or the gym. I could stay away from the women, too.
Third Screen: So I guess you won't be running away with me?
Frazier: Thank you. No. I could stay away from the girls. No problem. Because number one, I know what it takes to be a man. I'd say a man can put the heat on when he calls it, or when he needs it. You sacrifice. I mean, you have to go to camp for seven, eight weeks. And no problem. I was living at home with mom at that time, and we were all good kids. No problem.
Third Screen: When you look at boxing today, how do you feel about it?
Frazier: I did a fine job in the boxing world. But I've also learned to be a fine man. It comes from being with your family. I love being a man. I love my family. Today? I don't think it's boxing. I don't know what to call it. I've seen guys on the floor, beating each other up.
Marvis Frazier: Pop's talking about ultimate fighting.
Frazier: Yeah, ultimate fighting. There isn't but one way in a boxing fight. One way. Knock the man out or he knocks you out. People who are calling the shots in the game today -- how do they do that if they don't participate in the sport? How are they going to know, when these guys knock each other around, what that feels like? These things have to come from the guy who's been there. The people on the outside can sit and talk all night and all day long, but they can't get the job done.
Third Screen: You told me what it means to be a man. What does it mean to you to be a champion?
Frazier: Same thing. Same thing.