His metaphysical baggage by now lashed down to a handy place in his mind after a numbing 21-hour trip above a world that seems to have assigned him a regency never before known by a fighter, Muhammad Ali sits in the presidential suite looking out at the great ships of the world anchored in Manila Bay. The sun punches up slowly over the water, and the beauty of the scene is not lost on this man whose mind wanders forever and confusingly between the poles of simpleton and primitive genius. "Just look at those ships," he says, "think of all the monsoons they must have fought through to get here, all the mighty oceans that could have snapped them in half." "My, my," he says softly. "Ain't the world somethin'. Too beautiful for an ignorant and ugly man to be king of."
A day later, with the wind and rain whipping against the windows of another hotel suite across town, Joe Frazier, the man who would be king, lies on his bed, trying to articulate the hurt that has burned through his heart and mind for so long that the words come in spasms. And if words could consign a man to everlasting hell, Muhammad Ali would be damned right that very moment. Frazier tries to find control, tries futilely to reach back for equilibrium, leaning on country Baptist teachings and his own clear and gracious nature, which sticks out, oddly moving, like a common dark stone on a white mantelpiece. "I don't want to knock him out here in Manila," he finally says. "I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I'll stand back, give him a chance to breathe, to get up. It's his heart I wants."
So after a long five years that have seen two fights between them (the first a brilliant drama), that have seen Ali become an instrument of international politics and economics, have seen the proud foot soldier Frazier manhandled in the second fight, perhaps the rawest of sports feuds will come to a public end when Ali and Frazier meet for the third time next week in Manila. Listen to Ali about the fight, and the firmament is ablaze. Listen to Frazier, and you feel the sun on an open field that has to be worked, touch the blisters on his hands.
It is a proposition of the heart and blood for Frazier, an offering to Allah and another chance to light up the lives of the world's disenfranchised for Ali, but beyond all of this is that most unromantic of motives—money. If the bout goes 15 rounds, Ali will receive $4 million for 45 minutes' work, and Frazier will get $2 million. The revenue from closed-circuit television will surely break all existing records. As Promoter Don King says, "This ain't just a sportin' event. This here is a dramatic contribution to the world's economy. Waiters will be waitin'. Bartenders will be tendin'. The brothers and sisters gonna be buyin' new clothes. Why, I got enough people on my payroll alone for this here happenin' to buy a jet plane, and go back and forth to New Orleans up until the year 2000. Jack, this is the ennnnnnd."
September 28, 1975
When the sun comes up in Manila on Oct. 1 (in New York it will be 6 p.m., Sept. 30), thousands will have been camping overnight outside the Coliseum. The top ticket costs $300; the lowest price, for a bleacher seat, is $2. A crowd of 28,000, the largest for any athletic event in Philippine history, is expected, and what it will see at 10:30 a.m. will be a rare thing: two of the most luminous heavyweights in ring history in the kind of showdown that seldom comes once in a lifetime, not to mention thrice. There is nothing contrived here. This is not an electronic toy conceived in network boardrooms and then sent out and made to look like a dramatic sporting conflict.
Even so, it is doubtful that Ali and Frazier will match their first fight, a masterpiece of courage and talent and high tension that left one damp with sweat and tingling many hours later. Never before had two big men given so much so artfully and completely. And no one will ever forget the sight of Ali, finally crumbling under one of Frazier's cruel left hooks, his feet kicking high toward the ring lights. The knockdown hurt Ali's chances for a decision, and in the end Frazier, his face looking like a gargoyle's, was the champion. Frazier spent days in the hospital, and it was rumored that he would never be the same again. He did not do much to refute those rumors in his second meeting with Ali.
No title was at stake in January of 1974, but still the private limousines were parked two deep around Madison Square Garden, and the crowd came with the first fight exploding in its memory. No one cared that Ali had lost to Ken Norton once and barely beaten him another time, or that George Foreman had knocked down Frazier six times in two rounds. In this fight, Ali walked a thin line between ring generalship and slovenly style. Clinching whenever he could (he started 114 of them), Ali found a way to disrupt Frazier's attack. But there was not much of the old Joe visible. His thrilling aggression was gone, the ceaseless bob and weave almost nonexistent, and had the referee not blundered, thinking the bell had sounded, and prematurely separated them, Joe might have been knocked out in the second round. His lance had clearly dropped near to the ground. Was he through? Maybe not, but he was near the end.
Since then, Frazier has fought a total of 14 rounds in two fights, Ali 49 rounds in four fights. "He ain't in no shape for a man like me," says Ali. Yet, Frazier looks very sharp in his daily workouts in the Folk Arts Theater, a beautiful structure that juts into Manila Bay. Every day about 2,000 people pay the equivalent of $1.25 to watch him snort and hammer his way through an assortment of sparring partners. The crowd always seems stunned by his animalism, by the toughness of his 217 pounds. Then Frazier goes to the ring apron and fields questions from the Filipinos before singing into the mike: You tried to shake it off/Ooh, but you just couldn't do it/'cause there was a soul power in my punch/and like a good left hook I threw it/one minute you were standing so tall/the next second you began to fall.
Ali hears that Frazier sings at his workouts and he says, "Are you kiddin'? That man can't sing. He's the only nigger in the world ain't got rhythm." That kind of talk has finally and irrevocably eroded Frazier, but nothing has disturbed him more over the years than Ali's recent taunts. Over and over Ali shouts, "Joe Frazier is a gorilla, and he's gonna fall in Manila." The gorilla label, with all its inherent racism, stings. Frazier glances at a picture on his dresser. "Look at my beautiful kids," he says, plaintively. "Now, how can I be a gorilla? That's a dirty man. He's just like a kid when you play with him. He don't wanna stop, and then ya gots to whup him to make him behave. That's what this jerk Clay is like. Well, I guess he gonna talk. Ain't no way to stop him, but there will come that moment when he gonna be all alone, when he gonna hear that knock on the door, gonna hear it's time to go to the ring, and then he gonna remember what it's like to be in with me, how hard and long this night's gonna be."
The condemned man, Ali, is not hurrying through any last meal. Indeed, he seems to be preoccupied by his appeal to the masses. "My personality has attracted the world," he says. "My personality has gone so far 'til America can't afford me anymore. The American promoters can't have me no more 'cause they can't bid against so many countries. My personality and the power that Allah has given me has gone so far out that America is cryin' and the Garden is dyin'. When I was a little boy, I used to say, 'Daddy, one day I'm gonna make $4,000 on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.' Can ya imagine—$4,000! That's what I pay my cooks for a bonus. No nation can contain me anymore."
Or, if bored by his universal radiance, Ali will begin speechifying. The monologues are dead certain to clear a room. Especially when the subject is Allah. Through the years he has put together about 10 speeches, most of them written by the kitchen light of his fight camp. He listens to tapes that carry his messages: "He is beyond the reach of range and time...He sees though He has no eyes. He created everything without a model, pattern or sample." Ali turns down the volume. "I get this in my mind," he interjects, "and I have real power over Joe Frazier. I can whup him. Allah knows if I win, I'll keep doin' His preachin' for Him. That's why I win all the time. I'm using my fame to talk about this man. The world's mystified by me. It likes to be mystified. You know, stuff like Batman and Robin, Dracula, the Wolfman, Mary had a child without a man.
"I train myself spiritually. Frazier's fightin' for money. I'm fightin' for free people. How many suits I got? One, two maybe. No watch, no ring, one pair of shoes. I've got Eldorados and Rolls-Royces, but I don't drive 'em anymore. Where's a man's wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If you don't think I'm wealthy, go talk to Joe Frazier and try to carry on a conversation. He's illiterate. I spoke at Harvard. They wanted me to be a professor of poetry at Oxford. I'm shockin' the world. But even I, Muhammad Ali, don't amount to nothin' more than a leaf in the wind. Ain't nothin' yours, either. You own nothin'. Not even your kids. You die, and they will be callin' somebody else Daddy when your wife remarries."
It is endless, this religious backwater through which all his listeners must wade. It is as if he believes that being the heavyweight champion is not enough and that the Filipinos want much more from him. The simple truth is that they want nothing more than to gaze upon him. Each day more than 8,000 of them shove their way into the theater to watch him work. Thousands more line the streets when he goes to an official function, and at 5 in the morning—an hour after the end of the curfew but still pitch dark—bands of them accompany him on his roadwork, creating a charming scene of tenacious, small men trying to match the giant stride for stride along the boulevard by the bay. Once he stepped into a hole and he turned and shouted, "Watch out for the hole." He ends his running on the steps of the Hilton, and there he sits in the dark in a gray sweat suit and black boots, tilting a large bottle of orange juice to his mouth. The sweat drops off him as he leans back on his elbows. He looks at the faces around him, listens to the heavy silence. "Look at their expressions," he whispers. "Ain't no man worthy of that kind of love."
At this time, he is likely to talk about boxing. He can feel his body, listen to its music as he tries once more to make it reach for the high note of condition. "You been watchin' my gym work?" he asks. "Don't pay any attention to it. I'm nothin' in a gym. I just use it to experiment, you know that. This fight is goin' to be won out here in the mawnin', and on that heavy bag. I hadn't worked on the heavy bag for a long time, until George Foreman in Africa. I kept hurtin' my hands all the time. They've never been in the best of shape, and the bag I had was brutal on 'em. Ya hit that old bag with a baseball bat and the bat breaks in two. This one is especially made in Mexico, and it's easy on the hands. It got me sharp for Foreman, seemed to give me strength. I never let it out of my sight now. I sleep with it in my room. My men carry it personally on and off planes. I am strong, and I kin feel it all hummin' inside me. That heavy bag has done a miracle. I got my punch back."
He sits there for a long time, and then retires to his room. He is alone now, meaning that the rooms are not filled with the moochers and odd characters he has picked up during his career. He does not like to be alone. He needs his audience to abuse or charm. But now he is alone, except for his man, his mute body servant from Malaysia. Ali looks over at him, and says, as if he were an old sergeant major out of Kipling, "Look at him, he's so obedient. Always says 'yes-sir, yessir.' He'll go fetch anything for you. He'll even take your shoes off for you. He's civilized."
Ali arises and picks up a large book that has been written about him. "I haven't read 10 pages in all the books written about me. I can't read too good; a bad speller, too. I read one page and turn it and get tired. I just look at the pictures. I know that sounds dumb." He reads for a long minute, following each word with his little finger. "Oh, I wish I could read better." The frustration of a child is in his voice, and then it turns to anger as he is asked about the gorilla tag that he has pinned on Frazier. "The way I've been talkin' black power," he says, "nobody can get on me for bein' ignorant or racist. Why does he call me Clay? That's my nigger slave name. He's insultin' my name and my religion. He ain't nobody. I made him. Now he's just an old has-been. He envies me. When he was a kid, I was the champ. He's an old man now, long before his time, and I'm still the champ."
Frazier has avoided any personal collision with Ali. His trainer, Eddie Futch, does not want his man ruffled. Frazier and Futch refuse to be suckered into public exchanges with Ali. They think of nothing but the fight. Futch is particularly concerned about the choice of referee. It is sure to be a bitter issue. "It's the most vital aspect of the bout," says Eddie. "I want a referee who's goin' to let my man fight. I want one who's goin' to break Ali every time he starts leanin' in and holdin'. Give us this, and Joe Frazier will once more be heavyweight champion of the world."
Neither man will offer a prediction. Frazier never has and does not intend to start now: "I don't believe in predictin' I'm gonna knock a man out, because if you tell me you're gonna push me out that window at midnight, I'm gonna sit there and watch you along about 11:59." Ali says, "I'm too old for that stuff now. This is a serious fight. I'm goin' to be classical. None of this Russian-tank stuff, none of the rope-a-dope. I got too much at stake here. I got $16 million in fights waitin' for me."
Too many questions preclude a private choice. Can Ali once more orchestrate his body to his will against a man who has always tested both severely? Is he really in shape? Has he maintained the form he showed against Joe Bugner in Malaysia last July? Some close to him say no, say that women and the problems that come with them have seriously disrupted his concentration.
What about Frazier? Is this gallant man finally at the end of the line? Can he summon up one last measure of his old self, the kind of Frazier who made the heart pump wildly and the hands clammy?
For both Frazier and Ali, a sense of finality creeps into their words as the bout nears. "This is a big gatherin'," says Frazier. "And I don't like big gatherins. It's like when we were all back home in South Carolina, and all of us, all the relatives, would be havin' a fish fry in the backyard, and everybody would be laughin', but my momma would be sittin' there lookin' sadly out. She didn't like big gatherins. Big gatherins mean death."
Lost in a long silence, Ali comes out of it and suddenly says in a barely audible voice, "I'm goin' to have another test soon. It's time. Things have been goin' too good lately. Allah must make me pay for my fame and power. Somebody may shoot me, who knows? I might be kidnapped and told to renounce the Muslims publicly—or else. O.K., shoot me, I'll have to say. I feel somethin' out there. My little boy might die. He might get run over by a car the day before the fight. Allah's always testin' you. He don't let you get great for nothin'. It ain't no accident I'm the greatest man in the world." Then he looks at those ships in the bay, and who knows what wondrous and strange things are gliding through so unpredictable a mind. Only this is certain now: ahead lies the hatred of Joe Frazier, and Ali must journey through it. And it is a trip that few men should wish to make.
'FLAMBOYANT EVENTS...HAVE THEIR PLACE'
President Ferdinand Marcos had greeted Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in his private study, a cool, dark place in the Malaca√±ang Palace. After talking to the two fighters, the president consented to a private interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Mark Kram. He sat behind a big desk, wearing a barong Tagalog, the traditional long Philippine shirt made of banana and pineapple fibers. He said some people were waiting, but there was no need to hurry. It was two days short of the anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the Philippines. The fight—the use of sport to project the image of his country—was important to the President.
Do you have any critical thoughts about Ali vs. Frazier, Mr. President?
No, I intend to remain quiet about the two fighters. They look good, and Ali seems slimmer than I thought. I can't believe he is 229, as the reports say. Can he be really going down to 220?
You look in fine shape yourself, sir.
Well, I exercise every day, and I have to. I was very active when I was in college, and then, too, the doctors insist that I exercise. I don't feel well if I don't exercise.
Have you clone any boxing yourself?
Yes, as a flyweight and then as a bantamweight. I wrestled, too.
Are you especially fond of any one sport?
Well, I was a national champion in shooting. I won the championship when I was 16 and kept it for many years. My shooting got me in trouble. I was once charged with murder, but was acquitted.
What do you think of Ali? Do you think he transcends sports?
Yes, yes. My wife was watching television carrying the interviews with Ali. When I came into the room she said, "You know that Muhammad Ali, he doesn't act like a boxer or athlete. He is brilliant in his repartee. He would make a damned good politician."
Do you see Ali as a kind of a symbol of the Third World?
Yes, no matter what one says, Ali symbolizes success in that part of the world which sees white men as colonial and the like. The old voices against colonialism are all over Asia again because of the Vietnam debacle, and Ali symbolizes a continuing protest against this racism and dominance because of color and birth. And while this may not be fascinating to the Western world, it is to Asians a highly charged matter.
Do you think the Philippines will benefit greatly from holding this fight?
We have benefited already. The fight publicizes our country. Many people do not know where the Philippines are and don't know what the situation is here. They think that the military runs the government, tanks are on the streets. Have you seen any tanks? They think people are arrested on any pretext. That there is oppression, tyranny and the civil government is nonexistent or inoperative. That there are no judges. But whatever you fellows say, you must see that the fight can be held here in peace and order.
In the hotel lobbies they used to shoot each other. The airport you came through, they tried to burn that down. They tried to burn down city hall. They kidnapped someone every day. Nobody, no visitors get hit over the head in Manila anymore. Under martial law we are very strict with criminals.
Do you have a scheme for a series of events, such as this one and the $5 million Fischer-Karpov world-championship match?
No, the fight just fell into place. Fischer is a friend, and we played chess long before he was a champion. I learned to play in prison.
How did you do against Fischer?
I stalemated him once.
Will you be satisfied with what you get in return for your government's $4 million investment in the fight?
Actually, the investment will be recovered, and beyond that we will have this publicity, but it is not just the common crowd-getting type of publicity. It is the word of truth about the Philippines. Undoubtedly martial law connotes something oppressive, and therefore always meets with antagonism from people who don't understand that under our system, martial law has been utilized not as a weapon of the status quo, but a weapon of reform, which of course is anathema, an outrage to the classical constitutionalist. Martial law here was proclaimed at the insistence of the people. I sought their advice.
Will you try to get more events like this?
Well, frankly, the economic technicians don't look with favor on flamboyant events like this. But I have always maintained that they have their place in the scheme of things in our development plans.
Thank you, Mr. President.
The people who had been kept waiting were seven cabinet ministers. Four were fired and three retired as soon as they entered the room, in a major move by President Marcos against corruption in the government.