Thrilla in Manila: Muhammad Ali’s fight that united a country


In one legendary fight, Muhammad Ali was temporarily able to unite a torn country putting its best face forward to the international community. 

MANILA: In the busy shopping area of Cubao, north Manila, an ageing mall sits in a corner, almost engulfed by the high rises around it.

Dated calligraphy on the front spells out Ali Mall, dedicated to one of boxing’s greatest champions, Muhammad Ali, who in 1975 travelled to Manila to fight Joe Frazier in what would later be remembered as one of the best boxing matches in history.

The boxing match – better known as Thrilla in Manila – not only united the country’s sports fans, boosting the legacy of the sport in an already boxing-crazed country, it also put the country in the international spotlight at a time when it was suffering from three years of martial law and crackdown by then president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

 “The time of the event was important for Marcos,” said Ronnie Nathanielsz, the government liaison for Muhammad Ali during that fight. “He (Ali) told the newsmen gathered in Malacanang, during a courtesy call by Ali and Frazier, that the reason he wanted this fight here was to show the world that there is peace and order and that the economy was doing well, the people were content and in his mind that achieved his purpose.”In 1972, the Philippines was put under military authority imposed by Marcos to quell a rising wave of violence allegedly caused by communists. During this period, Marcos took control of the legislature and closed the Philippine congress.

Most media outlets were either shut down or operated under tight control. Numerous human rights abuses against Marcos rivals were committed. It led to a decline of support for Marcos and an uprising, which eventually concluded in a peaceful revolution in 1986 and his ultimate downfall.

It was during this time when Marcos’ iron grip not only meant a repressed population but a deteriorating international reputation. By hosting the final trilogy match between two boxing greats, Marcos managed to unite a country under turmoil and rehabilitate his image on the world stage – if only temporarily.

Boxing, along with basketball has long been one of the most favoured sports in the Philippines ever since American soldiers brought over boxing gloves during their occupation. The archipelago has produced a number of boxing greats such as Gabriel Elorde, Nonito Donaire and of course, Manny Pacquiao.

It seemed only natural to Marcos, a former amateur boxer himself, to host what was promised to be a big crowd puller. During one of his visits to the US, Marcos struck a deal with promoter Don King to bring the bout across the Pacific.

The Araneta Coliseum was packed to the rafters with almost 27,000 people.

“It was really war,” said sports commentator Al Mendoza. “You could really feel it … like you were hit yourself. We were really like packed sandwiches. Despite tight security people came in droves.”

Internationally, it was watched by more than 700 million people. Local and international press, including renowned penman Norman Mailer, flocked to the events leading up to the fight.

The fight was a struggle for both fighters. They slogged in an airless, sweaty arena. It was a brutal 14 rounds, nearly killing both boxers, and only ended when Ali scored blows on Frazier, swelling the former champion’s eyes not allowing him to see.

“I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city,” Frazier said afterward.

Muhammad Ali emerged as champion cementing his legacy as one of the world’s greatest.

“It was a battle between a boxer and slugger,” said Mr Mendoza. “Frazier kept on plodding and attacking. There was no surrender and no back pedal.

“Muhammad Ali was a boxer who danced and circled his foe. It was a perfect match up but in boxing, as always the winner would always be the box, the dancer.”

Of the two fighters, Muhammad Ali was always the favourite in the Philippines. People were drawn to his charisma and principles as well as his skills.

“When we were coming to Manila on a Philippines Airways DC10, he peeked out of the window when the plane was coming down and he said, ‘it’s a beautiful country’.

“And when he came down and he got a fantastic reception and the motorcade drew by the streets he said, ‘these are beautiful people, I must work out with them today’. And that afternoon he worked out at the Folk Arts Theatre.

“Every time he worked out there, on a daily basis there were 5,000 to 6,000 people who paid to watch.”

Until now, boxers across the country remember his prowess, including boxing champion Manny Pacquiao who led the way in paying tribute to the Ali.