I got rid of HBO after the final season of “The Wire,” and that’s left me desperate to see the new HBO documentary, “Thrilla in Manila.” “Thrilla” tells the story of the third and final bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a war of attrition that Ali won in the narrowest sense of the term.
Although I generally try to avoid holding forth on movies I’ve never seen, “Thrilla” sounds like a much-needed revisitation of Ali the man. I couldn’t care less about Ali’s refusal to report for military duty–no one can sensibly blame a black man in the 1960s for not risking his life in a dubious American war–but I do fault Ali for his vicious, immoral treatment of Frazier. From what I’ve read, “Thrilla” exposes this ugly side of Ali.
Despite the fact that Frazier had supported Ali–even supported him financially–during Ali’s excommunication from boxing in the late 60s, Ali mercilessly attacked Frazier on racialist grounds during the run-up to the fight. People need to remember that Ali called Frazier, among other things, an “Uncle Tom,” “the other type of negro,” and a “gorilla,” among other grim pejoratives. Ali later dismissed his words as part of the theater of the sport, but that’s a dodge–they were part of the sport because Ali made them part of the sport. Ali was a great fighter and a civil-rights pioneer, and with time he became a considerate human being. There’s no need to make a saint of him.
On the other hand, Frazier doesn’t come off too well when he says God gave Ali Parkinson’s because he was rude.