Smokin’ Joe, Manila and an unrepeatable trip

Following the death of Joe Frazier this week, BARRY NEWCOMBE, the SJA Chairman, recalls one of the great sporting moments of the 20th century

The sad death this week, from liver cancer at the age of 67, of Joe Frazier brought to mind one of the greatest sports events of the 20th century, the “Thrilla in Manila”, an exercise in sports journalism that those who were there on that sweaty morning will never forget, and that those who were not could never imagine.

When they were kings: Joe Frazier, left, was picked off by Muhammad Ali whenever he came forward during their Thrilla in Manilla

For the British contingent attending the Thrilla, the third and final match between Muhammad Ali and Frazier, for the world heavyweight title in October 1975, the mission began at Heathrow with a flight to Chicago, then a second flight to San Francisco, which landed just before 7am London time, where in Fleet Street my Evening Standard employers of the time were opening up for the day.

I remember being exhausted, jet-lagged and ready to crash into bed. But as we entered the hotel one massive news story was about to stare into our tired eyes. The President of the United States, Gerald Ford, had been threatened in the street with a gun. A woman was responsible, the President was alive, and San Francisco was crackling with tension.

I told the Standard news desk where I was and what had happened and what I hoped to find out. I soon found myself in the helpful hands of the San Francisco Police Department, whose spokesman gave me chapter and verse of what had taken place between Ford and the woman, named Squeaky Fromme. Ford would later say: “I went to shake her hand and instead of a hand to be shaken there was a gun pointing at me.”

Ford’s secret agent grabbed the gun and prevented Fromme, who was protesting about the state of California redwood trees, from pulling the trigger. And that, basically, was that.

I filed every word of the story by phone and slept briefly, knowing that another long day was coming up.

It would be no surprise to anyone that the British press on the road know how to enjoy themselves and the boxing writers, led in this instance by Colin Hart of The Sun and Sydney Hulls of the Daily Express, by lunchtime had settled into a fish restaurant in San Francisco Bay, killing the hours before the night flight to Manila. By all stretches of imagination, it was a magnificent lunch.

On we went, trans-Pacific, halting at Honolulu, and then on to Manila, the passenger list heavily reinforced by people who were not going to the Philippines for a sun tan. They all wanted to be at the biggest heavyweight contest the world had known, Ali against Frazier, Mk3.

A US poster for what ESPN has rated as the fifth greatest sports event of the 20th century

Manila arrived, heavy with humidity, and we had four days before Ali and Frazier would touch gloves in their morning showdown on October 1 which would be on American television at prime time, thanks to the international date line, effectively on the previous evening, September 30.

At dinner on Saturday night, one of the British press group fell asleep at the table. Another motioned to a table a few rows away where we could change places and leave the sleeping visitor to rest. Of course, when the sleeper awoke, he found himself at a table of complete strangers, much to our delight.

But the fight beckoned. A day out in the islands around Manila City did nothing to dispel the huge tension. The press was briefed to be in their seats early for the showdown and it was then that we found that the stadium was not air conditioned. That made our working conditions almost intolerable; for the two fighters, it would be a test of their fitness and endurance like nothing that might encountered elsewhere.

At fight time, the atmosphere was immense, in all possible senses. Ali and Frazier kept raising the levels of intensity which they had been setting round by round until, after 14 rounds, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch signalled that he wanted his man to quit. The Thrilla in Manila was over, Ali was still world champion. And the big writing task began.

The British press contingent left the next day, bound for Hong Kong before heading home. A few months later, I went to see Frazier at the gym he used in Philadelphia. He had no regrets about the finish against Ali, but he said he would like another shot at him. It never happened.

SJA WORKING LUNCH: Baroness Grey-Thompson on the 2012 London Paralympics. Thu Nov 17: click here for booking details