"We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men", so said an ageing Muhammad Ali when reflecting on the final, tumultuous battle with his old adversary Joe Frazier. This is the opening line in a truly remarkable, indeed a seminal book, on heavyweight boxing from Mark Kram, who was for eleven years the boxing correspondent of 'Sports Illustrated' magazine.
Kram's knowledge of the sport of boxing is second to none and throughout he displays a deep understanding, indeed affection, for the sport and its icons, and what motivated them. Much like the two main protagonists of this story (not biography as he is keen to point out) Kram does not pull his punches and is not blinded by his own personal feelings towards either Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali. Kram, for want of a better phrase, 'tells it like it is' about one of the most intensely felt rivalries in any sport, let alone the last true gladiatorial one.
He is equally uncompromising in his description of the public and private faces of both fighters, and what shaped their attitudes and beliefs towards boxing, and each other, as they progressed from humble beginnings towards the top rung of a sport that is as unforgiving as it is brutal. The end result is to make one re-examine the adulation that was (and still is) accorded to Muhammad Ali, and to question whether he was ever really what he seemed to be, and although Frazier is not without blemish he does come out of this examination by Kram with his integrity intact and his courage acknowledged.
Kram takes us in his almost poetic style through the lives of two of the greatest heavyweight fighters of the 20th Century, starting from where the two men are today, how they got to the top of their profession and what fuelled a rivalry that found its expression in the ring but which still burns to this day. Oh, there's also the fights, and what fights they were.
A Parkinson's stricken Ali today is just an empty husk of the explosive presence he once was, but still with enough hate to spit out to Kram that "Without me, Joe's nothin. He should stop usin' me, them fights for his fame." 'Smokin' Joe Frazier, for his part, as he sits in his Philadelphia gym complete with a huge picture of Ali on the canvas in their 1971 'Fight of the Century' taking up a whole office wall, reflects that Ali is a tin god adding that "I made him what he is" (i.e. famous, and sick).
Whilst a new film of the life of Muhammad Ali is hitting cinemas, and Will Smith tries to add to the hagiography of 'The Greatest', Kram's book and his description of the 'real' Ali is given to the reader like a bucketful of ice cold water. Kram, whilst acknowledging Ali's unparalled boxing talent, is vicious on the subject of the private Ali. Ali is disparaged as unheroic, racist, narcissistic, adulterous, insulting, hypocritical, easily manipulated ('..played like a harp by the Muslims..'), dense, frightened, boastful and above all cruel. Cruel to his opponents, both in and out of the ring (the scene where Ali tries to humiliate his old mentor Archie Moore in their fight is particularly revealing), cruel to his 'friends', cruel to the women in his life, but above all cruel to Joe Frazier. His rants and personal insults against his former friend Frazier, which included calling him an, 'Uncle Tom' (i.e. a white mans black), a coward and looking like a gorilla, wound Frazier to the very depths of his soul and created a bitter enmity that transcended boxing. By the time Kram finishes with Ali in this book, any hero worship that the reader might once have held towards the 'The Greatest' is made to seem sadly misplaced and even slightly obscene.
For me though, the actual fights themselves are Kram's tour de force, his prose turns three brutally hard fought duels into a kind of poetic ballet of pain, you are led through the fights by Kram in such a way that they take on a kind of Sam Peckinpah, slow motion aspect; deadly but beautiful.
In the so called, 'Fight of the Century' in 1971 we learn that 'Joe's head seemed stuck to Ali's gloves as rights and lefts, cringing rounds of volley, caromed off Frazier's head, then uppercuts, often used against low fighters, that jerked his head up as if it were being snapped up by a rope. His (Frazier's)face was melting into ruin...' This isn't sports journalism, this is a powerful report from a war correspondent.
In the 'Thrilla in Manila' we hear how, "Ali drew blood from Frazier's mouth with another lead right, and Joe tossed his head like a balky horse as he kept snorting and rolling in closer, ever so closer'. This passage from the epic struggle in the Philippines in 1975, which Kram himself describes as 'a kind of primitive art' is typical of the author's powerfully descriptive boxing prose.
The fast and almost contemptuous style of Ali, in contrast to the slower more workmanlike style of Frazier, produced fights on a par with the very best pugilist contests ever seen at any weight, never mind from the sports big men.
I suppose that Kram's book is ultimately about the winners and losers in this fascinating rivalry. The 'Thrilla in Manila' took a lot out of both men, but significantly is viewed by Kram as Ali's last chance to get out of the fight game before he suffered serious damage; he didn't heed the exit sign and paid the price. Frazier, for his part, effectively reached the end of the road in Manila too and even though he still resents the manner of his defeat (unfairly holding his honourable trainer Eddie Futch responsible) he was able to (on the whole) adjust to life as the proprietor of the Broad Street gym in Philadelphia.
So who CAN claim victory in, 'The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier' ? Well who ever really wins in this most punishing of sports ? but the last word I'll leave to Joe Frazier who states, "If you wanna know who won the three fights, well, just look at him now ?" commenting on Ali's descent into his own private hell of physical infirmity and torment. No quarter given or asked for in this long running contest then, and a comment that typifies how the 'Ghosts of Manila' will probably never be laid to rest.