His metaphysical baggage by now lashed down to a handy place in his mind after a numbing 21-hour trip above a world that seems to have assigned him a regency never before known by a fighter, Muhammad Ali sits in the presidential suite looking out at the great ships of the world anchored in Manila Bay. The sun punches up slowly over the water, and the beauty of the scene is not lost on this man whose mind wanders forever and confusingly between the poles of simpleton and primitive genius. "Just look at those ships," he says, "think of all the monsoons they must have fought through to get here, all the mighty oceans that could have snapped them in half." "My, my," he says softly. "Ain't the world somethin'. Too beautiful for an ignorant and ugly man to be king of."
A day later, with the wind and rain whipping against the windows of another hotel suite across town, Joe Frazier, the man who would be king, lies on his bed, trying to articulate the hurt that has burned through his heart and mind for so long that the words come in spasms. And if words could consign a man to everlasting hell, Muhammad Ali would be damned right that very moment. Frazier tries to find control, tries futilely to reach back for equilibrium, leaning on country Baptist teachings and his own clear and gracious nature, which sticks out, oddly moving, like a common dark stone on a white mantelpiece. "I don't want to knock him out here in Manila," he finally says. "I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I'll stand back, give him a chance to breathe, to get up. It's his heart I wants."
So after a long five years that have seen two fights between them (the first a brilliant drama), that have seen Ali become an instrument of international politics and economics, have seen the proud foot soldier Frazier manhandled in the second fight, perhaps the rawest of sports feuds will come to a public end when Ali and Frazier meet for the third time next week in Manila. Listen to Ali about the fight, and the firmament is ablaze. Listen to Frazier, and you feel the sun on an open field that has to be worked, touch the blisters on his hands.
It is a proposition of the heart and blood for Frazier, an offering to Allah and another chance to light up the lives of the world's disenfranchised for Ali, but beyond all of this is that most unromantic of motives—money. If the bout goes 15 rounds, Ali will receive $4 million for 45 minutes' work, and Frazier will get $2 million. The revenue from closed-circuit television will surely break all existing records. As Promoter Don King says, "This ain't just a sportin' event. This here is a dramatic contribution to the world's economy. Waiters will be waitin'. Bartenders will be tendin'. The brothers and sisters gonna be buyin' new clothes. Why, I got enough people on my payroll alone for this here happenin' to buy a jet plane, and go back and forth to New Orleans up until the year 2000. Jack, this is the ennnnnnd."
When the sun comes up in Manila on Oct. 1 (in New York it will be 6 p.m., Sept. 30), thousands will have been camping overnight outside the Coliseum. The top ticket costs $300; the lowest price, for a bleacher seat, is $2. A crowd of 28,000, the largest for any athletic event in Philippine history, is expected, and what it will see at 10:30 a.m. will be a rare thing: two of the most luminous heavyweights in ring history in the kind of showdown that seldom comes once in a lifetime, not to mention thrice. There is nothing contrived here. This is not an electronic toy conceived in network boardrooms and then sent out and made to look like a dramatic sporting conflict.
Even so, it is doubtful that Ali and Frazier will match their first fight, a masterpiece of courage and talent and high tension that left one damp with sweat and tingling many hours later. Never before had two big men given so much so artfully and completely. And no one will ever forget the sight of Ali, finally crumbling under one of Frazier's cruel left hooks, his feet kicking high toward the ring lights. The knockdown hurt Ali's chances for a decision, and in the end Frazier, his face looking like a gargoyle's, was the champion. Frazier spent days in the hospital, and it was rumored that he would never be the same again. He did not do much to refute those rumors in his second meeting with Ali.
No title was at stake in January of 1974, but still the private limousines were parked two deep around Madison Square Garden, and the crowd came with the first fight exploding in its memory. No one cared that Ali had lost to Ken Norton once and barely beaten him another time, or that George Foreman had knocked down Frazier six times in two rounds. In this fight, Ali walked a thin line between ring generalship and slovenly style. Clinching whenever he could (he started 114 of them), Ali found a way to disrupt Frazier's attack. But there was not much of the old Joe visible. His thrilling aggression was gone, the ceaseless bob and weave almost nonexistent, and had the referee not blundered, thinking the bell had sounded, and prematurely separated them, Joe might have been knocked out in the second round. His lance had clearly dropped near to the ground. Was he through? Maybe not, but he was near the end.
Since then, Frazier has fought a total of 14 rounds in two fights, Ali 49 rounds in four fights. "He ain't in no shape for a man like me," says Ali. Yet, Frazier looks very sharp in his daily workouts in the Folk Arts Theater, a beautiful structure that juts into Manila Bay. Every day about 2,000 people pay the equivalent of $1.25 to watch him snort and hammer his way through an assortment of sparring partners. The crowd always seems stunned by his animalism, by the toughness of his 217 pounds. Then Frazier goes to the ring apron and fields questions from the Filipinos before singing into the mike: You tried to shake it off/Ooh, but you just couldn't do it/'cause there was a soul power in my punch/and like a good left hook I threw it/one minute you were standing so tall/the next second you began to fall.
Ali hears that Frazier sings at his workouts and he says, "Are you kiddin'? That man can't sing. He's the only nigger in the world ain't got rhythm." That kind of talk has finally and irrevocably eroded Frazier, but nothing has disturbed him more over the years than Ali's recent taunts. Over and over Ali shouts, " Joe Frazier is a gorilla, and he's gonna fall in Manila." The gorilla label, with all its inherent racism, stings. Frazier glances at a picture on his dresser. "Look at my beautiful kids," he says, plaintively. "Now, how can I be a gorilla? That's a dirty man. He's just like a kid when you play with him. He don't wanna stop, and then ya gots to whup him to make him behave. That's what this jerk Clay is like. Well, I guess he gonna talk. Ain't no way to stop him, but there will come that moment when he gonna be all alone, when he gonna hear that knock on the door, gonna hear it's time to go to the ring, and then he gonna remember what it's like to be in with me, how hard and long this night's gonna be."
The condemned man, Ali, is not hurrying through any last meal. Indeed, he seems to be preoccupied by his appeal to the masses. "My personality has attracted the world," he says. "My personality has gone so far 'til America can't afford me anymore. The American promoters can't have me no more 'cause they can't bid against so many countries. My personality and the power that Allah has given me has gone so far out that America is cryin' and the Garden is dyin'. When I was a little boy, I used to say, 'Daddy, one day I'm gonna make $4,000 on the
Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.' Can ya imagine—$4,000! That's what I pay my cooks for a bonus. No nation can contain me anymore."