MANILA, Philippines — The epic 1975 Thrilla in Manila focused the world’s attention on boxing greats Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
But for the host, Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, it was a way to distract from a brewing revolution in a nation stricken by poverty, corruption and insurgency.
Eleven years later, Marcos fell victim to the “people power” uprising and died in exile.
Marcos brought the fight to Manila to show he was in control of the Philippines during opposition to his 3-year-old martial law government. Communist rebels were recruiting at universities, and Muslim insurgents were gaining ground.
Just weeks after the fight, workers at a liquor factory, La Tondena, staged the first illegal strike in open defiance of his one-man rule.
Marcos paid for many international events during his first decade of military rule, and attempted to beautify Manila by boarding up squatters’ shanties that lined the roads where visitors passed.
A year before the Ali-Frazier fight, Manila hosted the 23rd Miss Universe pageant. That was followed by the Thrilla in Manila, which went down in history as one of the most brutal fights in boxing.
The Marcos government paid for the extravagant fight purse and other expenses.
Ali was promised $4.5 million, including $3 million from the government of a country where the annual salary of 70 percent of the work force was less than the price of an upper box seat — then $133 — at the Araneta Coliseum in suburban Quezon City.
Ronnie Nathanielsz, a veteran boxing commentator who worked for the Information Ministry, said Marcos “wanted to show that the Philippines was stable, they had no peace and order problem, and the country was moving forward economically.”
“He succeeded, actually, because there were hordes of newsmen who came here and spent about two-three weeks in the Philippines,” he said.
Ali’s antics and frequent taunting to irritate Frazier, even in front of Marcos at the Malacanang presidential palace, received publicity around the world.
Nathanielsz said Frazier, who died on Monday after a brief battle with liver cancer at age 67, took all the verbal abuse from Ali.
“You could sense the bitterness within him over the abuse he suffered at the mouth of Ali, not the hand so much, but the mouth,” he said.
Nathanielsz recalled Ali poking fun at Frazier with a toy pistol. Ali kept screaming outside Frazier’s Hyatt hotel window to wake him up in the middle of the night and make him come out. When Frazier appeared on his hotel room balcony, Ali pointed his toy gun and screamed, “I am going to shoot you.”
“Ali was sort of mean to him and you felt a little sorry for Joe Frazier because he was such a nice man, he was a really nice man,” Nathanielsz told The Associated Press.
Ali won when Frazier could not answer the bell for the 15th round, and Ali retained the heavyweight crown.
“The surprising thing was after the fight he was quite gracious to Ali. I recall him saying, ‘My man fought a good fight,’ referring to Ali,” Nathanielsz said. “The sad thing about that fight was both Ali and Frazier suffered so much that their careers went down.”