"Thrilla in Manila" is Disturbing Propaganda

April 26, 2009

HBO's recently released documentary about the famous third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier has been hailed by numerous critics as a great piece of work.

I beg to differ.

The documentary is essentially a mouthpiece for Joe Frazier's perspective of the rivalry and as such is effective propaganda. Many people unfamiliar with the history of the two fighters have been surprised to learn that Ali in fact had a cruel streak regarding Frazier. Yet this is hardly mindblowing information to real boxing fans.

First off, I will readily agree that the documentary is entertaining. But I would contend that any decent documentary on this subject would be. The Ali-Frazier rivalry and the fights have a unique place in boxing that is perhaps unmatched.

What I find disturbing are the lengths to which the documentary distorts history to serve its agenda of bashing Ali and placing Frazier in the role of helpless victim.

The documentary chooses to focus on the suffering of Frazier, who was unfairly cast as an "Uncle Tom" sell out and even derided as a "gorilla" by Ali. That's fine and there are few who can't sympathize with Smokin' Joe about those comments. However, by making only a minimal effort to put into context how hated Ali was by much of White America for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, it suggests it was irrational from his perspective to view a Frazier victory as representing white interests. Ali certainly fanned the racial flames of the fight, but they were their to begin with.

In the late 60's and early 70's the Black Power movement, on the heels of the powerful and biting rhetoric of Malcolm X in the early 60's, began to make an impact on American society. This movement, while not going as far as the Nation of Islam's call for racial segregation, emphasized black pride, black ownership, and black defiance of white cultural standards. This view grew out of the frustration at the limited progress realized by the nonviolent protests of the early Civil Rights era.

To Ali, Frazier, who was supported by a conglomerate of white businessmen, was an unwitting tool of the white establishment. In his eyes, Frazier could have made greater efforts to reject this role but was not politically conscious enough to do so. In a less volitaile time, this might be okay. But in the political climate of the era, to not stand up against authority was considered cowardly and obstructing a progressive agenda. Further, Frazier's inability to speak and think articulately and freely was viewed as representing an old image of a docile, compliant African-American.

I will give credit to the documentary in that it correctly points out that Ali was overwhelmingly supported by black people and liberals while Frazier was supported by the white establishment. However, it does a disservice by suggesting that because Frazier himself grew up in an impoverished black neighborhood, that many Black Americans were simply deluded into thinking his success could represent white interests.

Clearly, Frazier did not deserve to be labeled an "Uncle Tom" or become an object of derision within his own community. However, it was a militant time period in the civil rights era before their first fight and the times as much as the fighters helped shape the tensions over perceptions of "true blackness." To roundly condemn Ali without some nuance is tantamount to condemning a significant part of American history without understanding it.

Beyond this, there were simply several factual problems with the documentary:

1. The narrator repeatedly intones false facts regarding the trilogy of fights. First, he states plainly that in the first fight, "Frazier dominated Ali." A totally absurd claim that helps perpetuate an all too prevalent myth about this fight that Ali was merely a shadow of his former self and that Frazier beat him around the ring.

Although Frazier had the two biggest rounds (11 and 15), Ali arguably won more rounds. I have reviewed the fight several times and would have scored the rounds 8-6-1 for Ali. To suggest that Frazier "dominated" is ludicrous and by stating it as if it is fact, Ali is made to look like a fool in the documentary when he suggests that he really won the fight. In fact, he was making a debatable but reasonable argument.

2. Another problem is the portrayal of the Thrilla in Manila fight itself. The documentary chooses to poll several journalists who all had the fight even or very close going into the final round. It is suggested that Frazier "dominated the middle rounds" after a quick Ali start.

This too is false. Ali largely outclassed Frazier in the final fight. Frazier showed tremendous resiliency and heart. He also landed many good body shots. But he was clearly behind by the 15th round and would have needed a knockout. (After numerous viewings I could never give him more than 5 rounds.) By suggesting otherwise, the documentary makes it seem that Frazier's legendary trainer Eddie Futch may have made an error not letting Frazier out of the corner.

Futch's decision was rational not only because Frazier was nearly blind by that point and taking brutal punishment, but because he knew his fighter was significantly behind. There was no point to simply sending Frazier out there to take a beating when he would certainly need an unlikely knockout to win.

3. Finally, the documentary suggested that Ali was not sincere in his belief that Frazier was a sell-out and that he used that angle largely to drum up support from the black community and hype the first fight. Yet ironically in an effort to show how Ali criticized Frazier for his political ignorance before the first fight, the documentary chooses to show a clip of Ali on a talkshow in 1974, three years after the first fight.

This is significant, because while Ali can be criticized as wrongheaded and even cruel at times towards Frazier, he was also sincere in his belief. The 1974 clip shows that he felt, rightly or wrongly, that Frazier was a tool of the white establishment long after the first fight when he had no real need to hype a fight.

Beyond all of these concerns, it is interesting to note that the documentary does not care to include other complexities of history. For example, after the first fight a rumor existed that Frazier had died from injuries sustained in the bout. When told, Ali was devastated and said, "If that's true, I will never fight again."

For all its faults, "Thrilla in Manilla" is watchable theater due to the subject matter. Just don't use it to write in any history books.

Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. hbo tried to be soooo clever with its frazier angle, when a more balanced story would have brought out his human side anyway. who produced that flick, the GOP?


We encourage all intelligent, passionate comments. Please refrain from any ignorant, racist, or offensive rants.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...