The “Thrilla in Manila” – the famed final bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, held on Oct. 1, 1975 – did more than just change the world of boxing; it altered the landscape of professional sports broadcasting. (The bout aired in the U.S. on Sept. 30 because of time-zone differences.)
The fight came at an interesting time in both fighters’ careers. They first squared off in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, a bout commonly called the Fight of the Century. Frazier won that fierce battle but lost the rematch three years later. Ali then defeated Joe Foreman in a different classic event, 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle, earning back the heavyweight title.
Still, by 1975, both Ali and Frazier were in their 30s, a time when most fighters begin to see their skills diminish. Each man knew that a defining victory against the other would further cement his boxing legacy.
There were many other subplots at play leading into the Thrilla in Manila. For starters, the men held drastically different public images. Ali was considered a counterculture icon, largely due to his refusal to enlist when drafted during the Vietnam War. The champ was cocky, brash and charismatic. Conversely, Frazier was a quieter man, far more buttoned-down and reserved.
These polarizing characteristics caused a great schism among boxing fans. The young, liberal population gravitated toward Ali, who was also overwhelmingly supported by black America; on the other side, the white, conservative public leaned toward Frazier.
Watch a Press Conference Prior to the Thrilla in Manila
The differences in their fan bases led Ali to accuse Frazier of being an “Uncle Tom,” just one of the many verbal barbs thrown in the lead-up to each of their fights. The two men, who were once friends, became bitter enemies over the years, as Frazier took personal offense to much of Ali’s trash talking.
Watching all of these elements collide was legendary boxing promoter Don King. Famous for his revolutionary marketing ideas, King saw an opportunity with the third Ali Frazier fight. Sensing the behind-the-scenes drama, the pedigree of the fighters and the enticement of a “deciding fight” between the two athletes, King recognized the bout had broad mass appeal.
At this point, boxing had experienced various types of broadcasting, everything from network TV to closed-circuit television. The pay-per-view concept had been tested on smaller fights to marginal success. When HBO, the pioneering cable network that launched in 1972, offered to buy broadcast rights to the Thrilla in Manila, King jumped at the opportunity. The revolutionary agreement made HBO the first television network in history to deliver a continuous signal via satellite.
Watch Training and Interview Footage From the Thrilla in Manila
The mass media attention was perfect for Ali, who spent the weeks leading up to the fight mercilessly taunting Frazier. Ali infamously referred to his opponent as a “gorilla,” an insult that only further enraged Frazier. The title “Thrilla in Manila” even came from one of Ali’s poetic taunts: “It’ll be a thrilla, and a killa, and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila.”
More than 500,000 people paid to watch the Thrilla in Manila in their homes – a then-record for the largest pay-per-view audience. What they witnessed was one of the greatest fights in boxing history, as Ali and Frazier battled fiercely for 14 rounds.
The two men traded blow after blow, at various points dishing and receiving brutal punishment. Conditions were also unbearable, as the fight took place in more than 120-degree temperatures. The bout was so intense that Ali believed it was “the closest thing to dying.”
Still, it was Frazier’s corner that eventually ended the battle. Swelling was so bad around the fighter’s left eye that he could barely see (he already had limited vision in his right due to an accident 10 years earlier.) Trainer Eddie Futch called the fight – against Frazier’s wishes – giving Ali the victory.
Watch Post-Fight Interview From the Thrilla in Manila
Among boxing fans, the Thrilla in Manila would be talked about in hallowed tones for generations. Among broadcasters, it marks a pivotal moment.
The pay-per-view model has since become commonplace for major boxing matches, as well as UFC, wrestling and many other marquee events. As a source of revenue, the format has brought billions of dollars to various athletes, promoters, distributors and sporting organizations.
The adoption of pay-per-view has even influenced technological evolutions in the new century, most notably streaming. Leagues such as the NBA and MLB now allow fans to purchase individual games via their respective streaming properties, bringing the pay-per-view concept into the digital age. A 2017 industry study predicted that “every sport will move to a pay-per-view model eventually,” adding that “sports fans will pay 99 cents for, say, the last two minutes of a football game, the way you buy a song on iTunes.”
Watch the Thrilla in Manila in Its Entirety