Muhammad Ali and the Filipinos

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) – When legendary boxer Muhammad Ali went to the Philippines in 1975 for “Thrilla in Manila,” he was booed by many Filipinos.

“Thrilla in Manila” was the third and final fight between Ali and his nemesis, Joe Frazier, for the world heavyweight championship. It took place at the Araneta Coliseum on October 1, 1975.

Back then, more Filipinos rooted for Frazier, veteran sportscaster and analyst Ronnie Nathanielsz told CNN Philippines Saturday, during what he described as a “sad afternoon” because of Ali’s death. Ali died at 74 after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

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“Actually Joe Frazier was the underdog and Filipinos like the underdogs,” said Nathanielsz, who was then Ali’s liaison officer.

But Ali shrugged off the jeers and showed off his sportsmanship and sense of humor.

While he was being booed prior to the start of the fight, “Ali went to the middle of the ring, carried the trophy and took it to his corner and everybody had a good laugh,” Nathanielsz fondly recalled.

He said then President Ferdinand Marcos and the first family; the presidential cabinet; the armed forces and other government officials were there to witness one of the greatest fights of all time, along with 28,000 other spectators.

“Thrilla in Manila” ended with a win for Ali after 14 brutal rounds. Frazier's manager, Eddie Futch, feared for Frazier's life and decided to quit the match.

Nathanielsz said Ali could have won early on in the fight.

“There were no knockdowns but he had Frazier on the verge of a knockdown on the third round but he did not pursue. I think he wanted the fans to enjoy the fight so the fight lasted much longer than it should have,” Nathanielsz explained.

A beautiful country

Nathanielsz also shared how Ali fell in love with the Philippines and the Filipino people.

“When we were in the plane touching down, he looked out of his window and said, ‘What a beautiful country’,” Nathanielsz recalled.

Nathanielsz and the team were worried people might not show up to welcome Ali because the time of his arrival was too early.

But thousands of fans and sports enthusiasts lined up the street to greet him. Nathanielsz remembered Ali saying, “These are such beautiful people, I must work out for them today.”

That afternoon, Ali worked out at the Folks Art Theater, where he would later train for the fight, Nathanielsz said.

He described Ali as “charismatic.”

“In the fight he was a different person, but outside the ring he was so humble, he was humanity personified and he was a peacemaker,” Nathanielsz added.