I hate professional boxing, and I hate the people who rhapsodize about it (Norman Mailer, I’m talking to you.) But Thrilla in Manila is one of the most gripping documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s a compelling story about character more than anything else, but it’s also a revealing historical document about racial politics in 60s-70s America.
I grew up worshiping Mohammed Ali as a beautiful symbol of righteous Black Power. Watching this film, I was distressed to learn how wrong I was. But people like to say that for every door that closes, a new one opens. I have a whole new hero now, Joe Frazier, who knows everything there is to know about betrayal and revenge.
If you’re as senile and ignorant as I am, and you don’t know who won the celebrated bout in Manila, this film is almost unbearably suspenseful. The actual fight is terrible to watch, much worse than a cockfight or dogfight, to my Girlie sensibility. I don’t know why people are willing to pay big money to watch two men brutally try to destroy each other. It’s pretty fucked up.
But for me, Smokin’ Joe Frazier is clearly the moral victor of this piece, and I salute him for his soul, his dignity, and his refusal to forgive. He’s a man after my own heart.