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Ghosts of Manila

The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
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When Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier in Manila for their third fight, their rivalry had spun out of control. The Ali-Frazier matchup had become a madness, inflamed by the media and the politics of race. When the "Thrilla in Manila" was over, one man was left with a ruin of a life; the other was battered to his soul.

Mark Kram covered that fight for Sports Illustrated in an award-winning article. Now his riveting book reappraises the boxers -- who they are and who they were. And in a voice as powerful as a heavyweight punch, Kram explodes the myths surrounding each fighter, particularly Ali. A controversial, no-holds-barred account, Ghosts of Manila ranks with the finest boxing books ever written.

HarperCollins; June 2009
240 pages; ISBN 9780061956683
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Title: Ghosts of Manila
Author: Mark Kram

Chapter One

Only his face remained as I remembered it. Eight years had elapsed since I had seen him spiral through the final, perilous years of his career, and even at age forty-two it still held at bay any admission of destruction. There was no zippered flesh, no blistered or pulpy ears, nor eye ridges that drop into sagging eaves; the nose remained agreeably flat without distended bone or hammered spread. Always the centerpiece of vanity -- this face, so instantly transportable into world consciousness -- it was betrayed only by his eyes, his words. Where once his eyes publicly spilled with tumbling clowns, they were now a dance hall at daybreak. Where once the words streamed in a fusillade of octaves, they were now sluggish and groping.

Three years removed from the ring at this stage of his steep physical decline, Muhammad Ali was living in L.A. in the gated community of Hancock Park, amid sculpted shrubbery and swishing fronds in high trees. It was said that among his occasional dinner guests were Clint Eastwood and Orson Welles. That would figure: Ali bad always loved a good Eastwood picture, drawn with unbridled wonder to showdowns on dusty Old West streets; Welles appealed to him less as a film colossus than as a hammy fat man with a bag of magic tricks. Just a question about Welles and the illusions he performed brought a smile to Ali, who eased himself up on his toes in an effort to levitate. "See it, it's scary, ain't it?" he asked. But he remained earthbound, and soon enough he stopped, short of breath, his left hand afflicted by a spooky tremor -- the same hand that he used to whip out in four thousandths of a second.

Ornate Middle Eastern furniture lay in deep pools of shadow, giving the house an uneasy stillness broken only by the whisper movement of his manservant Abdel and the wild squawking of Ali, Ali, Ali by a couple of scam-eyed parrots on the veranda. "Can you shut 'em up?" Ali asked Abdel, apparently weary of hearing himself addressed in such ridiculing decibels. Boxing seemed to bore him on this day, and he waved off any allusion to it with a grimace, as if he were Tom Thumb being asked about his pituitary gland. Getting back into boxing at any level would lead people to believe that he was needy for fame. Ali was beyond that at this point, said that he had become a missionary for the Muslims to the poor and irreligious. Headquarters for him these days was a Louis IV desk the size of a jet wing.

Slowly, he stood up from behind it and showed what he had been writing, barely legible copying from a Sufi tract that, in so many words, said: Forget the past, follow your true nature. What was his true nature? "To save heathens like you," he said. He smiled, then suggested a tour of the house that began on the top floor. Ali switched on a dim light, revealing a long room of memorabilia. In one dark corner crouched a tiger with yellow eyes peering out, a six-foot-long, handcarved gift from Deng Xiaoping. "Good little man," he said. "Leader of China. No bigger than my nose. He asked me when I'm gonna quit. Didn't have an answer. He said, 'Mountains can't grow any higher.' He was right."

Dusty fight posters dangled from the walls in the humid air. A stray, cracking boxing glove rested palm up on a packing crate in a thin ray of sunlight, its laces falling limply. Ali stood by a brilliant red and white robe on a hanger, stroking it gently. In a sudden gesture of respect in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley had taken the robe off his back and given it to Ali, saying, "From one king to the king." Ali kept his fingers on the robe and said, "He a kind fella. Elvis dead now. Bein' too big killed him, I think." He moved over to a pile of photographs on a crate and picked through them: Elvis, with his own troubles in his eyes; the president of Egypt, Gamal Nasser, in a white suit, a little on the hefty side, yet easily passing for an exotic young contract player at MGM; and John Wayne, against whom Ali always measured his own fame. When he came to a shot of Idi Amin, the butcher of Uganda, he pulled back in horror, then told of a bizarre incident, maybe true.

Amin believed himself adroit in the ring. Ali was the guest of honor in Uganda, and they were having dinner at a long table filled with people: Ali at one end, Amin seated at the other with a dwarf at his side. Ali remembered: "He's feedin' this dwarf soup with a spoon, stops and hollers over the table, bangin' his fist." Guests cowered, the silverware jumped. Amin boomed: "I want to fight the great Muhammad Ali!" "Over and over again," Ali continued. "I get to kiddin', say he must've had a nightmare. Then, he goes under the table, opens a case and dumps all this cash. Must've been a half million. But I wasn't goin' to count. Then, he say, 'You a champion or a coward?'" The next thing Ali saw was Amin pointing a gun at him, saying, "Now, what you say, Muhammad Ali?" The dwarf scooted, everyone else dove under the table. "Nobody there now. Just me and him. I'm mad and scared at the same time. I whup this bag of fat, and he gonna kill me for sure. Why not? He already kill everybody in the country. It just dead quiet now. Like John Wayne goin' into a saloon. I'm just lookin' at that gun, my heart poundin', then suddenly he drop the cannon right in the soup in front of him, and the soup splashes all over his uniform...