Books: Ghosts of Manila

(Image / Harper Perennial)

In the early 1970’s Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought a series of three bouts, with Frazier winning the first in 1971, Ali the second in 1974, and again the third in 1975. That final fight was held in the Philippines and to some measure inspired Mark Kram’s 2002 book, Ghosts of Manila.

Vince Lombardi was rumored to have seen Ali at his height and muttered, “linebacker,” which is telling of the difference between today and the era in which both men reigned. In 2013, a young Ali likely would have pursued a career in the NFL, not boxing, as the pinnacle of the sports world in the US.

Joe Frazier might not have elicited the same reaction from Lombardi, but his relentless demeanor would have been better suited for the job.

The difference between the two boxers and their vastly different personalities is the premise of Kram’s book. Frazier, who died in 2011, was never outspoken on his abilities and that vacant air was more than filled by verbal jabs from Ali. Kram covered the Manila fight for Sports Illustrated, and offers his impression of the men and their relative motivations beyond the rhetoric surrounding their matches.

In the book he casts Frazier in a decidedly more sympathetic light, and offers his points to that end. Ali later apologized to “Smokin’ Joe” for some of his baiting from the era, but the apology was not well-received by Frazier. In his later years Ali’s image improved, while his mental and physical health tragically declined. The book is effective in placing both men in the context of the fights, and becomes more relevant as they grow more distant.