“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”
1975 was a year of change for me, dad and Ali.
Ali changed his religion from The Nation Of Islam to mainstream Sunni Muslim.
Dad became a self-employed man at 44. He opened up his first seafood stall outside a pub in Essex.
Me? I changed from drinking Light and Bitter to Lager…
It was also the year that The War in Vietnam ended. The North took the South and the Americans left. It seemed Ali was right all along.
As one war ended another one started. The UK was at war with Iceland. Over Cod!
The film Jaws was released and an American gangster called Jimmy Hoffa went missing.
Oh, and a certain lady called Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative party.
The one thing that remained the same was boxing. Ali kept fighting and me and dad kept watching.
He took five months off then had three fights in 1975. He won them all but didn’t look that impressive. I was beginning to think that the gruelling fights with Frazier and Foreman had taken their toll.
Then the news came that he was to fight Joe Frazier for the third time. In the Philippines!
A date was set for 1st October 1975.
During the build-up Ali came up with a poem to sum up the fight. “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that Gorilla in Manilla.”
The papers loved it and the fight became known as The Thrilla In Manilla.
Me and dad had a long discussion about the fight one night while mum was at bingo. I believed Ali would win easily.
“Frazier’s only had two fights since Ali beat him eighteen months ago. He won them both but they were weak opponents. He’s not the same fighter since Foreman destroyed him. I see Ali beating him in eight rounds.”
Dad wasn’t so optimistic.
“Yeh but look at Ali. He’s had more fights but hasn’t looked impressive since he beat Foreman. I think it goes the distance but Ali wins on points.”
So we were both sure Ali would win, but not convinced that it would be a great fight.
Boy…were we wrong.
Another sell out at the cinema in Ilford. Dad had coconut ice and I had the sherbet bon bons. It was just like old days. As the Master Of Ceremonies introduced them, they both looked in great shape. Ali was taller and heavier that Frazier with a big reach advantage. But everyone knew that Frazier could hit and hit hard.
When they met in the centre of the ring for the referee’s instructions you could hear Ali taunting Frazier.
“You aint got it no more Joe, I’m gonna put you away.”
Frazier took no notice. He just smiled and as he walked back to his corner he muttered.
The bell rang and they came out quickly. Frazier was always a notoriously slow starter and Ali jabbed away with his left scoring good points. He then threw two or three right hands in quick succession and Frazier had no answer. Ali won the first two rounds easily. In the third he tried the tactic that had worked against Foreman, where he leaned against the ropes and encouraged his opponent to hit him, hoping he would tire. Now known as the Rope a dope, Frazier was ready for it and landed hard solid hurting punches to Ali’s body. This continued for the next three rounds.
In the sixth, Frazier caught Ali with a tremendous left hook, Ali slumped back on the ropes, he was quickly hit with another left and looked like he might go down. But he didn’t and the bell rang for the end of round. Seven and eight were hard, gruelling rounds for both fighters, each throwing and landing big accurate shots. At the end of the ninth Ali looked visibly tired as he walked back to his stool. He told his corner “Man this is the closest thing to dying!”
In the tenth and eleventh we watched as both men gave everything they had. Frazier’s eyes were swelling and it was obvious that he couldn’t see some of the punches that Ali was throwing. Ali was tiring, he’d thrown hundreds of punches but Frazier just wouldn’t go down. In the thirteenth and fourteenth Ali piled on the pressure, hitting Frazier with everything he had. Punch after punch landed cleanly into Frazier face, but he just kept coming back. Before the bell rang for the start of the fifteenth it was obvious that Frazier couldn’t continue. His trainer signalled to the referee to say his fighter wasn’t coming out for the final round. Frazier was begging him to continue. But the fight was over.
Once again me and dad had witnessed history being made. We’d just seen the greatest Heavyweight Boxing match the world had ever seen.
At home drinking tea at 6am before we both went to work having had no sleep, we were now sure that it was time for Ali to retire. He’d done it. He’d “Shook up the world.” Just like he said he would all those years ago. There was no one left to beat. He was without doubt “The Greatest.” and had nothing more to prove.
We just prayed that he agreed…