“What we saw in Quezon City, capital of the Philippines, in midweek represented a shining flood of that purity. To say so is not to claim that the third and last meeting of Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali would leave all who witnessed it ready to embrace the values of the prize-ring. Those 40-odd minutes of unremitting violence must have had the opposite effect on many. They would recoil from the thought that two men who were formidable in so many ways should seek to express themselves through an exchange of suffering, and especially they would wince at the sight of Frazier, his marvellous body reduced to a dilapidated, lurching vehicle for his unyielding will, reeling blindly in the murderous crossfire of the world champion’s final assaults.”
That beautifully crafted piece of writing described the extraordinary spectacle of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ by The Guardian’s greatest sports observer, Hugh McIlvanney, who we sadly lost this year. Before we arrive to that unrivalled heavyweight duel, we must first straighten out any confusion that was left behind following Muhammed Ali’s exile from boxing in 1967 for draft evasion.
As mentioned in previous articles before there were breaks in the linear timeline but what makes this hiatus, so scandalous is Muhammad Ali was stripped because of his views away from the ring and not because he was calling it a day due to father-time. Robbing us of his prime years.
Both boxing governing bodies decided to remove Ali as their recognized heavyweight champion which effectively meant that Ali was no longer the Lineal Champion.
The WBA arranged an eight-man elimination tournament which included all the top contenders to the throne, except for Joe Frazier who turned down the opportunity.
On August 5, 1967, Jimmy Ellis (23-5, 11KOs), beat Leotis Martin (24-1, 14KOs) by a ninth-round knockout while Thad Spencer (31-5, 14KOs) outpointed Ernie Terrell (39-5,18KOs) on the same card in Houston, Texas.
Hard hitting Argentine Oscar Bonavena (30-3, 25 KO’s) traveled to Frankfurt and outpointed German Karl Mildenburger (52-3-3, 19KOs) before Jerry Quarry (24-1-4, 14KOs) won a close split decision against Floyd Patterson (46-5-1, 35KOs) in Los Angeles, California.
In Louisville, Kentucky, it was the home fighter Jimmy Ellis that produced a career best performance to win a unanimous decision against Bonavena, while in the other semi-final Quarry beat Spencer by a twelfth-round stoppage. On April 27, 1968, Jimmy Ellis won the vacant WBA heavyweight title by majority decision over fellow American Quarry in Oakland, California.
The WBC stated they would only recognize a fight between New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) champion ’Smokin’ Joe Frazier – won against Buster Mathis in 1968 – and a suitable contender for their world title to be put on the line.
Like when Floyd Patterson’s trainer Cus D’Amato tried to avoid Sony Liston in the early sixties, Angelo Dundee refused to entertain a unification bout between his fighter Jimmy Ellis and Joe Frazier, but like the decade before it was just a matter of time. It took 2-years before the fight was eventually signed with both heavyweight straps and the lineal title up for grabs. On February 16, 1970, ‘Smokin’ Joe became the 21st lineal heavyweight champion when he made light work of Ellis at Madison Square Garden. Dundee refused to let Ellis out for the fifth round following two knockdowns in the fourth.
Although Frazier was considered as the official number one in the heavyweight division the imminent return of the former champion Muhammed Ali bought his status into disrepute. In his first defense Frazier stopped arguably one of the best Light Heavyweight’s in Bob Foster after just 2-rounds, while Ali returned with two wins against credible opponents Quarry and Bonavena.
Ali and Frazier set a date for their first encounter in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, budded ‘Fight of the Century’. With all the marbles on the table and their undefeated records on the line it was Frazier that won a close unanimous decision after putting Ali down in a memorable last round with his trademark left hook.
Frazier made two more successful defenses against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander before agreeing to face a 24-year-old George Foreman who had a record of 37-0 and 34 knockouts on January 22, 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica. The ‘Sunshine Showdown’ lasted only two-rounds with Frazier being knocked down six-times in the second-round before referee Arthur Mercante put an end to the one-sided beat down.
Big George’s first defense was in Tokyo, Japan against Puerto Rican Jose Roman which only lasted 2-minutes. His next defense was on March 26, 1974 against Ken Norton in Caracas, Venezuela. Once again Foreman stopped the bout in ruthless fashion, a knockout in just two-rounds ended the ‘Caracas Caper’.
Muhammad Ali would be Foreman’s next opponent who had remarkably won 13 of his last 14 fights in a 3-year period since defeat to Frazier in 1971. The former champion’s only loss came against Foreman’s last opponent Norton by split decision, but he gained revenge 6-months later. On January 28, 1974 Ali evened the score with Frazier at Madison Square Garden by unanimous decision setting up a meeting with champion Foreman.
In Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974, in a fight dubbed as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, a 32-year-old Ali was on yet another mission to shock the world like he did 9-years earlier against Liston. While the media worried for Ali’s health, Ali adopted the “rope-a-dope”. A tactic used to tire out your opponent while taking punishment, which seemed ridiculous and dangerous considering Foreman’s punching power but ended up being genius move. Muhammed Ali became the second man in lineal heavyweight history to retain the title when he stopped Foreman in round 8.
After the heroics in Zaire, Ali defended his titles against Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle and Joe Bugner before agreeing to a third and final meeting on October 1, 1975 against Frazier, famously known as ’The Thrilla in Manila’. In sweltering temperatures of 100 °F (38 °C) Ali and Frazier produced one of the greatest 14-rounds of heavyweight boxing you’ll ever see that at times defied belief. The fight was stopped when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch pulled his fighter out before the final round, despite protests from Frazier.
Muhammed Ali retained the title for six more bouts until February 15, 1978, when he lost to 6-0-1 Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks by split decision in Las Vegas. On September 15, 1978 in New Orleans, Louisiana at the age of 36-years-old Muhammad Ali became the first heavyweight champion to retain the lineal title for the third time. After the historic victory Ali, announced his retirement from boxing leaving the title vacant once again.
Check out the next installment of The Lineal Heavyweight Championship Timeline from 1979-1990. Don’t forget to listen-in to the Talkin Boxing with Billy C Show and follow me on Twitter@JohnnoSE23