The Thrilla Continues to Thrill

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The fight — striking in its brutality, merciless in its exposing of the truth that both fighters were seriously diminished — went 14 rounds before Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, told his man that he had nothing to be ashamed of, but that he had no business going out for the 15th.

Over the years the fight has prompted the usual sportswriting mix of exhausted hyperbole and intermittent eloquence. It was an unmatched test of wills. It was an exercise in prosecutable malfeasance that left Ali and Frazier permanently damaged. It was the last act in a blood feud involving two black men and matters of race and respect.

For the 16-year-old standing ankle deep in the Garden’s river rapids of Harry M. Stevens beer, the fight was an extended blur during which he juggled the dual fears of Ali losing and being tossed out by a cop. It was hard to see the screen, and the fighters — thicker, slower, stylistically shot — fought in mauling, episodic bursts. It all ended in confusion before the final scheduled round, including the agonizing decision by Frazier’s cornerman and Ali’s collapse onto the canvas....

The chance to revisit the fight was prompted by the forthcoming HBO premiere on Saturday of the documentary “Thrilla in Manila,” directed by John Dower. Fearing what might become of my memory, I pulled A. J. Liebling’s “Sweet Science” from a home bookshelf, where it had sat, like so many other books, proudly displayed and mostly unread. In it, Liebling talks of his decision, in 1951, to return to writing about boxing.

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