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Monday, February 4th, 2002


The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier


A review by D. K. Holm

At the start of the 2001 holiday season, Michael Mann's biopic, Ali, with its popular lead actor (Will Smith) and Oscar-linked director, had the markings of a hit. Written by Mann with the credited aid of Gregory Allen Howard, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Eric Roth (the screenplay is available from Newmarket Press), the film sought out the same constituency who liked Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Norman Jewison's film about Hurricane Carter: a mature, educated crowd looking for alternatives to holiday hobbits and weekend wizards.

But, as they say in the movie trade, the film did not perform as well as expected, making, as of last count, only some $50 million on its $110 million budget, basically doing about as much business as the two preceding films based on significant African-American figures of twentieth-century American life. Which is too bad. Mann's movie is fascinatingly shot and edited, and orchestrates well its visual motifs to lend order to their version of Ali's life. Also, it is far from the idolatrous film that one might assume it to be. In fact, Ali comes across in some parts as anti-devotional, very much in the spirit of Mark Kram's excellent book Ghosts of Manila, which was published last June before hype for the movie swung into high gear.

Unlike the rather soft-hearted view of Ali from writers such as New Yorker editor and non-boxing expert David Remnick in King of the World : Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, Kram is an experienced boxing writer who covered Ali for eleven years in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Kram saw Ali up close, and his surface cynicism about the reputation of the man is leavened by a respect for the dignity of other fighters in a sport all too rife with corruption and compromise. "Current hagiographers have tied themselves in knots trying to elevate Ali into a heroic, defiant catalyst of the anti-war movement, a beacon of black independence," writes Kram. "It's a legacy that evolves from the intellectually loose sixties, from those who were in school then and now write romance history."

Kram is not one of those romanticize Ali. "Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived -- by the right and the left," concludes Kram, adding that "Ali was not about the anti-war movement; that was peripheral, a college-kid issue that he tolerated and used. He was not about the counterculture and certainly not women's rights." Instead, Ali was "no more a social force than Frank Sinatra. The politically fashionable clung to his racial invective as if it were the wisdom of a seer. Today, such are the times, he would be looked upon as a contaminant, a chronic user of hate language and a sexual profligate."

In his book, Kram's focus is on the friendship-turned-feud between "Smokin'" Joe Frazier and Ali, culminating in the "Thrilla in Manila" title bout in 1975. Frazier, it seems, brought out the worst in Ali. The Ali team advertised Frazier as an Uncle Tom who fraternized with whites, and Ali literally called him "ugly," as well as ridiculed his manner of dress and his gait, which earned him the sobriquet "gorilla." Today, Ali maintains that the jarring jargon of this harassment, inspired by the tactics and tricks of pro-wrestlers, was designed solely to create more interest and revenue for the fight. Nevertheless, Frazier was, and reportedly continues to be, deeply hurt by what he perceived as Ali's successful efforts to turn black Americas against him.

Reminding us of Ali's harshness isn't the only icon-busting aspect of his brief book. Kram also maintains that Ali's conversion to the Muslim faith was little more than an orchestrated PR move by the cult leader Elijah Muhammad. Kram also details Ali's womanizing, and notes that several of Ali's characteristic traits were manufactured for him, such as his "fight" poetry; the rhymes themselves were actually conceived for him by corner man Bundini Brown.

Kram's book isn't all trashography, however. He is very good at evoking the mood and atmosphere of early '60s boxing arenas and training gyms, where the smack of gloved fists against heavy leather is the sound of men learning to cope with a profound state of fear, which is the essence of boxing. And his contemporary portrait of Ali and Frazier in their fifties, kings in decline, is poignant.

But what Kram does best is bust icons. Like the work of Frederick Crews on Freud, and Christopher Hitchens on Mother Theresa, Kram doesn't allow the reader ever to see the subject of his book quite the same way again.

Powell's employee D. K. Holm is also co-host of the movie review television show Film at Eleven, and maintains its website,

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