BY A strange coincidence, we were being interviewed by Jim Gomez of the Associated Press around noon (Manila time) about the famous “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier since I was Ali’s government-appointed Liaison Officer.
Gomez informed me that Ali was in bad shape and he wanted my insights since I was close to him and developed a strong friendship with the man they called “The Greatest.”
It was a lengthy conversation and when it was over, Gomez thanked me for the time and the thoughts.
Hardly five minutes had gone by when my phone rang again and Jim informed me: “Ronnie when we were talking, Ali passed away.”
I was utterly distraught because only the previous night, I was going through my stories on the “Thrilla,” which would be included in a book I am writing titled “Reflections of 50 years in the Philippines” and was scanning through my library of photographs with Ali, bringing back a flood of memories of an incredible human being in a cherished era.
We were flooded by calls both from at home and abroad regarding our memories of the “Thrilla in Manila” and at times, had to hold back the tears as we reflected on a good and decent man, who touched the lives of millions in the Philippines and around the world.
We remember having first called Ali, while he was training at his camp in Deer Lake camp in Pennsylvania during the “Morning Show,” hosted by Tina Monzon Palma on dzHP “The Sound of the City” in Manila. To my utter surprise, it was Ali who picked up the phone and after I introduced myself, we had a long interview in which he said he would love to fight in the Philippines and that he wanted to take on Frazier and George Foreman on the same night, one after another.
He asked us to give his love to the Filipinos and his Muslim brothers and promised to visit the country.
When Louie Tabuena and the First Lady Imelda Marcos met with promoters Don King and Bob Arum and finalized the deal, President Ferdinand Marcos asked Louie to report to him which he dutifully did and informed him that it would cost $10 million for the purses of the two fighters and that King would take care of everything else, including air fares of the entourage of both boxers, hotel accommodation and everything else.
Marcos said “let’s do it,” and clearly, Mrs. Marcos had a major impact on the decision because she was aware how much the publicity would mean for the country in the midst of some rumblings in the western media about martial rule.
When Ali and his girlfriend at that time, the statuesque Veronica Porsche paid a courtesy call on President Marcos and the First Lady, Marcos looked at Veronica told Ali: “Your wife is beautiful.”
Ali immediately took one glance at Imelda Marcos and quipped: “Mr. President you haven’t done too badly yourself,” and everybody enjoyed a hearty laugh.
President Marcos told the media moments later that he wanted the “Thrilla in Manila” so he could “show the world that the country was peaceful, we have no peace and order problems, the economy is doing well and our people are content.”
Ali embraced the president and told me in his hotel suite that he respected President Marcos very much. Their bond was strengthened by the fact that Marcos himself was a boxer during his college days and was an ardent fan of the sport.
I remember the fight itself before a jam-packed Araneta Coliseum, which was re-named the Philippine Coliseum on instructions of President Marcos, who wanted the country’s name to gain international recognition.
Ali, who was hammered by Frazier with thunderous body shots in the middle rounds, wanted to quit and in fact asked Bundini Brown to untie the laces of his gloves, which was, I believe somewhere in between the championship rounds of 10 to 14.
But Dundee pushed Ali back onto his stool and told him, “sit down, you are going to finish this fight.”
He did and the rest is history.
His rapier-like jabs almost totally shut the left eye of Frazier, who couldn’t see the right hand of Ali as he continued to pepper him with right straights. This promoted Frazier’s esteemed trainer Eddie Futch to tell referee Sonny Padilla to stop the fight because Joe “couldn’t see Ali’s right hand” and he didn’t want to see him go blind and end his career.
Ali said moments later: “It was the closest thing to dying.”
But in the context of the times and what he had done for the Philippines, his memory as “The Greatest” would never die.