Cycling up Haverstock Hill in Belsize Park on a late July day in 1966 I saw a crowd waiting outside the Load of Hay pub. Word was out that Muhammad Ali, in town to fight Brian London, was coming to do some sparring in the gym that adjoined the pub.
As a 16-year-old sports nut I raced home, picked up an envelope and pen and got back to the pub just as the great man arrived, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, with his entourage in tow. I pushed forward to get his autograph. He was quite simply the most perfect looking human being I have seen before or since.
Some years later, as the sports reporter on a student newspaper, I covered his third and most brutal fight with “Smokin Joe” Frazier. 41 years on I still have the feature I wrote at the time entitled When the Thrilla in Manila Came to Kilburn. In those pre-Sky days big fights were beamed live to a few selected cinemas around the country.
It was 1am when two friends and I rolled up at the Art Deco Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn High Road which seated a massive 4,000. After making our way past some formidable looking bouncers we joined an incredibly excited audience. As a prelude to the main event they were showing a replay of the Ali-Foreman “rumble in the jungle” in Kinshasa, where Ali had wrested his heavyweight crown from a seemingly invincible George Foreman. The crowd were reacting as if they had never seen this particular epic before and when Foreman hit the deck like a sack of spuds they went mad.
After three distinctly underwhelming fights on the undercard we got down to business at 3.45am. Ali received a pretty lukewarm reception from the Filipinos when he climbed into the ring. He didn’t look the least bit fazed and went into a mock sobbing routine as the boos rang out. Frazier, the underdog, got a big reception in Manila, but in the Gaumont, “Smokin Joe” supporters were fairly thin on the ground.
The physical disparity between the two men was enormous. Ali was tall and superbly proportioned whereas Frazier appeared squat, chunky and faintly ludicrous in his knickerbocker shorts. The first few rounds were all Ali as he whipped punches into Frazier’s bobbing head almost at will, patted and pawed his forehead and claimed his man when the mood took him. In between rounds he stood in his corner conducting the crowd in his familiar “Ali, Ali” chant and kept up a friendly banter with President Marcos, seated ringside. In Kilburn the consensus was that the fight wouldn’t go eight rounds.
But at the end of the fourth things began to change. Joe started “smokin” and landing a few bombs of his own. Frazier’s method was simple, its execution devastating. He came forward relentlessly at the Champion at a one paced jog-trot, oblivious to the countless blows raining down on him. His head bobbed incessantly from side to side like some demented clockwork toy as he cut off the ring and forced Ali against the ropes where he pounded vicious left and right hooks into his midriff. He seemed fuelled by a genuine animosity for the man who had denigrated him outside the ring for half a decade.
Ali, for his part resorted to the tactic that had proved successful against Foreman. Resting on the ropes, he protected his head with arms and gloves, waiting for his opponent to punch himself out. It didn’t seem to be working as the middle rounds went to Frazier. The seventh was particularly frightening. Three minutes of controlled savagery with both men dishing out and absorbing fearful punishment. At the end of this round Ali walked back to his corner on unsteady legs and sank wearily onto his stool, gulping for air and sniffing the time honoured smelling salts proffered by his second. The clowning with the crowd was over, he was getting more than he bargained for.
By the end of the tenth there was a nervous hum in the cinema. Ali’s supporters were getting anxious. It felt like this unbelievably tense contest was slipping away from him. It was then that Ali showed his greatness. Dredging up reserves of energy from goodness knows where, he came dancing out on his toes in the 11th round and scored heavily with stinging jabs to Frazier’s beleaguered face. He shaded the 12th as well and in the 13th, with his gum shield spinning out the ring, Frazier suddenly appeared very vulnerable and Ali was hitting him at will. At the end of round 14 with Frazier, both eyes grotesquely swollen, tottering blindly round the ring, his manager, Eddie Futch, did the only humane thing and called a halt to proceedings.
In the Gaumont the atmosphere was one of huge relief rather than the unalloyed joy that had greeted Ali’s dismantling of Foreman. Sitting on his stool in the middle of the ring an exhausted Ali said that this might be his last fight, that it was just too painful and he could get a heart attack. If only he had been true to his word and packed it in after this stupendous fight. He had been in the boxing wilderness for three years and come back and to beat his greatest foes in the heavyweight division and prove to everyone, if proof were ever needed, that he was the greatest boxer and probably athlete in sporting history.
The fight fans seemed a bit dazed as they spilled out onto the Kilburn High Road. They’d just watched a “thrilla in Manila.” An understatement, to be sure!