In the first of an exclusive new series, SecondsOut.com’s Ronnie Nathanielsz documents the run-up to the classic Thrilla in Manila on October 1, 1975. No—one will ever forget that sweltering evening in Manila, where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier finalised a trilogy that will be forever etched into boxing folklore. Ronnie was Ali’s liaison officer for that final, epic clash with “Smokin’ Joe” and the two became firm friends. Here he recalls the very beginning when he was sent to Honolulu to meet with Ali and accompany him back to Manila.
By Ronnie Nathanielsz: Muhammad Ali flew into Honolulu shortly after midnight on September 13 en route to Manila for his third meeting with "Smokin Joe" Frazier and, for the first time, he played it straight.
There was going to be no rope-a-dope, no Russian tank, no nothing. "Just beautiful boxing. 15 rounds of dancing," said the world heavyweight champion.
He said he was prepared to go 15 rounds and beat Frazier "real bad". Then he burst into rhyme, "If I see an opening, without a doubt I'll take him out."
Ali said: "I'm not predicting any round, but I am too good for him." Informed that Frazier threatened to "take the rope and tie it around the dope" Ali quipped, "He's improving. He's learning how to talk!"
The champion stressed that he did not dislike Frazier but without him, Frazier would be nothing. "He wouldn't earn a million dollars," said Ali. "I've made all these fighters because I am the greatest and I am the champion."
Ali said he was eagerly looking forward to visiting the Philippines and meeting "all the nice people there. I've heard so much about your beautiful country."
Ali flew in to a typical Hawaiian welcome with hula girls and garlands. The following day Ali motored into town and stopped by at a shooting of the top-rated TV series "Hawaii Five-O" starring popular actor Jack Lord.
The shooting stopped as the champion arrived and the cast and crew crowded around Ali who, upon seeing Lord, remarked: "You are pretty, but not half as pretty as me."
Later in the day at the Kahala Hilton, Ali told a news conference: "It is impossible for Joe Frazier to go the distance." Even though he predicted that the "Thrilla in Manila" would be far more exciting than their first two encounters at New York's famed Madison Square Garden where Ali lost the first, but came back to win the second by unanimous decision.
Ali said former heavyweight champion George Foreman "is twice Frazier. I'll do it better and I'll do it my way. This time I'm ready and I'm in shape and I predict that - what I should have done the first time - I'll do this time. And that is to be his complete superior in ability. I will outclass this man. I will be too fast and it won't go the distance, but I won't predict the round,” said Ali.
“It is impossible for Frazier to go the distance. He is too easy to hit and I'll hit him like I hit Foreman. Foreman killed Frazier and I laid out Foreman. He won't stand much of a chance after the first two rounds. I'll always be a step or two ahead of him," added the champion.
"When I meet Frazier, the world will stop,” said Ali. “Sixty-eight nations will see it live on TV. Two billion people will watch the fight."
Trainer Angelo Dundee, who had been with Ali for 14 years, predicted that Ali would "box Frazier silly and take him out by the eighth or ninth round."
Dundee revealed that Ali needed something to "generate his interest in the fight and this time it's Manila and the thought of meeting new people he had heard so much about. This cheers him up. He's like a kid, always looking for new things to do.."
Even as Ali and his entourage were preparing to leave Honolulu aboard a Philippine Airlines DC-10, Joe Frazier's camp requested 12 passes so they could send a group to Manila International Airport to welcome Ali.
"It is just to remind Ali that Joe is already here and is eagerly awaiting him," said Frazier's public relations officer Patty Dreifuss.
"It's his game, so we play his game," said Dreifuss' associate Morty Holtzer.
The psychological war between the two fighters began as soon as they signed the contract with Ali predicting: "It will be a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila."
Next: Ali in-flight to Manila