Thrilla In Manila

Have you watched this movie on HBO?

I was flipping through the On Demand opportunities when I stumbled upon it.  I’d read a review, it stated that Muhammad Ali was an asshole, that Joe Frazier had been mislabeled.  I had an urge to see it.  But can you convince a woman to watch a boxing match, supposedly the most brutal of all time?

That’s one thing that really struck me.  The fight was ultimately ended by one of Smokin’ Joe’s handlers.  Asked years later, this gentleman said he had no regrets, he’d seen eight men die in the ring.

Eight guys?

What is it about boxing that makes us flinch, but leaves us unable to pull ourselves away?  Maybe it’s the primal level. Shorn of our educations, our wealth, our societal status, how would we fare?

Felice was riveted.  And so was I.  Because it was my era.

I can’t get over the fact that it’s 2009.  Something that happened in 1990 occurred almost twenty years ago.  We’ve been asleep, thinking the millennium just passed, but the twenty first century’s been plowing along for almost ten years.  Soon, it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the SIXTIES!  The most turbulent decade of the twentieth century, when the younger generation wrested control of our nation from the establishment, when everybody woke up and asked himself, what are the limits?

They showed that black and white footage from Vietnam. We used to watch it on the Admiral set in the living room, after my father had come home from work all wound up and was sipping a whiskey sour.  We became numb.  The body count was featured every night, but it was ultimately meaningless.  Other than to indicate we didn’t want to go, we couldn’t go, we had no beef with the North Vietnamese, was the Domino Theory truly valid?

That’s what Muhammad Ali said.  That he had no problem with the Viet Cong.  But it wasn’t his idea, the concept was fed to him by the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad refused to stand up.  I remember watching the footage on television on a family trip to Washington, D.C., just like I remember hearing Cassius Clay had knocked out Sonny Liston from the car radio on an early morning drive to Vermont.  We lived through this history, but it didn’t seem like history then.

But watching this footage you know it’s the past.  Everybody’s wearing clothes you used to see on the sidewalk.  Back when "Saturday Night Fever" was the rage, when we were finally breathing after the end of the war.

The seventies were a decade of release.  Derided at the time, barely focused upon today.  They were the years before MONEY!

That’s what Reagan ushered in.  The baby boomers stopped licking their wounds and went out to make their fortunes.  If anybody was in their way, they were losers.  And suddenly, we had a nation of winners and losers.  And today, the winners are whining, aren’t they ENTITLED to be winners?

I drove past Milken’s high school yesterday.  It was his lieutenant that brought down AIG.  Those trying to rehabilitate his image were wrong.  He was that bad.

But Smokin’ Joe was not.

Smokin’ Joe was just another dirt poor soul from South Carolina.  Who used the fighting game to pull himself up by the bootstraps, to a better life.

Joe was the one with the hard past, working in the fields from age 13.  Muhammad’s life had been comparatively easy.

But after being stripped of his boxing license, it was Frazier who lent Ali money.  But when he we was back in the game, Ali called Joe a "gorilla", the tool of the white man.

There were three fights.  All of them interesting historical episodes.  But what’s most fascinating is that Muhammad Ali ended up a legend, and Joe Frazier a footnote.

I too was susceptible to the hype.  I didn’t see Joe lose in Manila, but I wanted him to.  I was disappointed when Ali lost his comeback fight years before.  Because Ali and the press had convinced me.  Joe was the white man’s pawn, only Ali stood up for the plight of the African-American.

Years later, almost forty, with emotion stripped and hysteria dead, we can see that our perception back then was wrong.  Joe Frazier might not have been a saint, but Ali certainly doesn’t deserve his lofty perch.

Kind of like the Carpenters.  Loathed at their peak, but revered today.

Kind of the way Britney and Justin will be seen as irrelevant in years to come.  The same way Bon Jovi is a joke to everybody but fans.

Getting older is strange.  You feel no different, but in our youth-based society you’re shunted aside, deemed a has-been, thrown upon the scrapheap.  Your wisdom is not respected, because your skin is wrinkled.

Yet with so many years under your belt, you can see the changes.  The television and newspaper media that played into Ali’s hands?  Suddenly, they barely matter.  Who cares what the reporter has to say, out with his notebook trying to get the story.  Online is someone who LIVES the story, who can tell you the truth on instinct, no reporting necessary.

But the old guard wants to retain its power, via intimidation and subterfuge, if necessary.  Radio promotion men still want their spiff if your record is added to a station they control, even if they had no part in the transaction.  The fact that radio is on hot rails to oblivion?  Irrelevant, we’re going to hold on to what once was.

What once was.  Music drove the culture.  It was less about glitz than substance.  But the youth of today say what’s happening now is just as vital, that they don’t want to hear the old time stories.

But only by knowing the past can you understand the present.

As for Smokin’ Joe…  He takes solace in the fact that Ali’s got severe Parkinson’s and he’s still mobile and alert.  Joe’s not following the conventional wisdom, he’s not forgiving, he remembers.

All that pop psychology, about forgiveness…  Is it truly accurate?  Can you wipe from the map all the derision, all the pain?  I say no.  You try not to focus on it every day, but you retain that box you store your memories in, to open and peruse on an irregular basis, to remind you of man’s inhumanity to man.

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