Former heavyweight champion of the world Joe Frazier joins The Takeaway with a look back at one of the most brutal fights in boxing history. On Saturday, HBO will air the documentary "Thrilla in Manila" an analysis of the fight and the racial politics that surrounded it. John Dower, the director of the film, will also be a guest.
Click through for the transcript!
Here's one fan's tribute to the great fight:
Todd Zwillich: Femi, it is time for Smokin’ Joe Frazier, former heavyweight boxing champion. He’s the central figure in a documentary called “Thrilla in Manila,” and that’s going to air on HBO tomorrow night. The film is a look back at one of the most brutal rivalries in the history of sports, that’s between Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Femi Oke: The Rumble in the Jungle.
Todd Zwillich: No. The Rumble in the Jungle was in Kinshasa. That’s George Foreman. You’re about to learn this is the Thrilla in Manilla. These are different fights, but we’ll probably touch on that as well. We’re talking about three fights that took place between 1971 and 1975 culminating in the Thrilla in Manila. The film was told, though, from Frazier’s point of view. And it was the first time gotten his perspective. We’ve gotten Ali’s perspective in a lot of films and a lot of books. But it also doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of one of America’s idols, Muhammad Ali.
Recording of Muhammad Ali Interview: Now you’re fighting a spiritual holy war when you’re fighting me now.
Interviewer: When you’re fighting Joe Frazier is that a spiritual holy war?
Muhammad Ali: Yes sir.
Muhammad Ali: Because he’s the Uncle Tom.
Interviewer: He’s not an Uncle Tom.
Muhammad Ali: He’s not? Then why’s he insist on calling me Cassius Clay when even the worst of my white enemies recognize Muhammad Ali. He’s the other uptight Negro. He’s not like me. There’s two types of slaves. Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me. That’s what I mean when I say Uncle Tom. See, he’s a brother. One day he might be like me. But as of now, he works for the enemy.
Todd Zwillich: Smokin’ Joe Frazier himself joins us now from Philadelphia. And, from London, we’re joined by John Dower the director of the documentary that appears on HBO tomorrow night. Mr. Frazier, can I call you Joe?
Joe Frazier: Call me “Smokin’ Joe”
Todd Zwillich: Can I call you Smokin’ Joe?
Joe Frazier: Why not?
Todd Zwillich: It’s my honor.
Joe Frazier: How you been?
Todd Zwillich: I’ve been very well, thank you, champ. Smokin’ Joe, you say in the film that Ali is now being paid back for what he said and what he did in those days and that God wrote it down and is paying him back. Do you really believe that?
Joe Frazier: Sure.
Todd Zwillich: Why?
Joe Frazier: Because, number one, he runs around and says “I am The.” Now you see, you can be “the,” but there’s only one “The,” the Lord above, you understand? We can be “the” but we can’t be “The.” Very seldom we use that name in a sentence on TV speaking about The. It’s the. So therefore he jumps around saying “I am The greatest.” And the lord marks it down. You and I don’t pay attention, which I do, but most people don’t take in what he’s saying.
Todd Zwillich: The film is really the first time, Smokin’ Joe, that we’ve gotten your perspective on this rivalry with Ali. And you’ve been waiting to tell your story. If there’s one thing that Ali was good at, in addition to a jab, it was telling his story. So why’d you wait so long to tell yours?
Joe Frazier: I was busy fighting. I was busy fighting and raising my kids, you know what I mean? And getting in shape and doing what I have to do to get the job done. And that’s why it took me as long. But he talks and talks and talks. My daddy tell me, the wagon can go down the road empty, but what’s in it? An empty wagon.
Todd Zwillich: Like you, he was heavyweight champion of the world. I guess he gets to talk a little bit, but maybe not as much as he did. John, in London, can I turn to you. I’d like you to bring us back to 1975 and remind us what the Ali/Frazier fight in the Philippines was all about. Just how big a deal to the world it was at the time. Can you describe that?
John Dower: It’s interesting actually. Good morning, by the way. It’s interesting that your co-presenter, and a lot of people make this misconception, immediately said “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Femi Oke: Duh! I know, I’m sorry.
John Dower: No, no, no. Don’t worry. A lot of other people do it, you’re not alone. But because of the Muhammad Ali mythology the great fights stop there. The Michael Mann film about Ali stopped at Rumble in the Jungle. And of course we have “When We Were Kings” which is about that fight. So people kind of…that final fight in Manila is glossed over. And one of the reasons, as we show in the film, is that Ali technically won it, but it was a close run thing. I think it is one of the most extraordinary fights of all time. Possibly the most extraordinary sporting contest of all time. And we thought, somebody has to make a film about this, so we’re going to do it.
Todd Zwillich: One of the things that’s so interesting about the Ali/Frazier rivalry is the way that it reflected on the cultural conflicts at the time. And Ali certainly was a master of capitalizing on that in the 1970s. Let’s listen to a clip that captures what Ali was about at the time.
Muhammad Ali: They told me I was going to fight in Manila. It’ll be a thrilla and a killa and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manila.
Narrator: And then he whipped out a little rubber gorilla which he said the soul of Joe Frazier. .
Todd Zwillich: John, you spent a lot of time in this film really calling Ali to task for what you say is racism and also a betrayal of his friend Joe Frazier. Can you explain why you went so hard at Ali?
John Dower: Let me be clear. I don’t want people to get the impression that we set out to make a film that trashes Muhammad Ali. We didn’t. We, unashamedly set out to make a film that told the story from Joe Frazier’s point of view. But in the process of doing that I think we showed a side of Ali that has kind of been forgotten and swept under the carpet. I mean, Ali has been turned into this kind of wooly saint. And part of the reason, if we’re going to be blunt about it, is because he’s become ill. He’s become kind of benign. I think what this film does remind people is that in his treatment of Joe Frazier, which I personally and I’m sure many others find abhorrent, that he was a more complicated and complex character.
Todd Zwillich: Champ, Smokin’ Joe, I watched the film and saw how badly Ali did treat you in public. But he got under your skin and got you to fight back with words. He’d show up at your practice and get under your skin. Isn’t it possible that he was just trying to psych you out and he was just such a big personality that he was trying to psych you out in front of the whole world?
Joe Frazier: I guess that’s his way of handling himself along with his opponent. And that’s what we were at the time. I didn’t pay any attention to it at the time. I went on and did my job the best as it could be done. I went on and got myself in shape that I can go. So I really don’t pay attention to what he’s saying, you know what I mean? My daddy told me if a wagon go down the road making a lot of noise, it’s got to be empty. So therefore these things that he would put together on the time that he would perform together and rhyming were talk. So I didn’t pay that much attention to what was going on.
Todd Zwillich: It seemed like with you leading up to the fight in ’75 that it was almost the same setup as Foreman in Kinshasa in ’74. It was like a wrestling match. You had the face and the heel. Ali was the face, he was the “good guy” in front of the world and Foreman was the heel. And he tried to make you a heel in the same way.
Joe Frazier: We look at this the same way that everyone else does. Go and get the job done and pay no attention to it. He said he was handsome than most everybody else in the whole world. I’ve seen a lot of fine guys, you know? I’ve seen ugly guys do a little better than he does.
John Dower: People do excuse a lot of Ali’s behavior.
Todd Zwillich: John we’ve got to wrap. But I encourage everyone to watch this film tomorrow night.