PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:40pm

Thrilla in Manila remains Asia's best fight ever

The Pacquiao-Rios clash may involve more money and TV viewers but the epic Frazier-Ali battle is a pop culture phenomenon that is difficult to beat


Tim Noonan has been crafting uniquely provocative columns for the SCMP and SMP for more than a decade. A native of Canada, he has over 20 years’ experience in Asia and has been a regular contributor to a number of prominent publications, including Time magazine, Forbes, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The Independent.

It's snowing in Macau, this being late November and all. Of course, this is also the tropics, so there is no snow-removing equipment nearby and the white flakes are actually falling from a spray-painting gun. Yes, everything is a bit surreal around the Venetian in Macau where "Winter at Cotai Strip" will overlap with "The Clash in Cotai" this weekend.

And while Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios are tuning up for the fight somewhere inside this ridiculously massive edifice, the throngs on the casino floor are invited to have their pictures taken with the two fighters for free. However the fighters, much like the snow, are artificial, with computer-generated images taking their place. One thing that is not artificial, though, is the genuine buzz in the air.

"This will be by far the biggest purse in Asia," the fight's promoter Bob Arum said in October. "I expect Manny to make approximately US$20 million and Rios US$4 million. There's no question it will be the biggest boxing fight in Asia ever."

A fair bit of hyperbole. But hey, Bob is a promoter. The "Thrilla in Manila" will always be the biggest boxing fight in Asia, of that there is no doubt. The final chapter of the trilogy between two iconic heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in October 1975 at Araneta Coliseum, the bout is routinely rated as one of the greatest fights of all time. It lives forever in popular culture folklore and has spawned a number of books as well as a couple of movies. It's pretty doubtful The Clash in Cotai will have anywhere near that kind of impact.

Almost on cue, Arum casually makes his way around the press area and stops by to say hello. Tells me we are doing good work covering the fight and I thank him for finally bringing us a big tilt. I mean, what should I say to arguably the biggest promoter in boxing since Don King? Dress warm Bob, it's snowing outside?

Actually, Mr Arum, with all due respect, there is one thing I need to say. The biggest fight ever in Asia has to be the Thrilla in Manila.

"I was co-promoter of that one," he says. "And, when we did the Thrilla in Manila, it was only shown in the United States in 400 theatres and arenas. So probably we were limited to maybe 40,000 people watching it. Of course, we are in a different era now, but with pay per view this fight will be bought by a million homes in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, and the worldwide distribution of the fight will be much greater."

But in terms of folkore, there is no comparison. "I agree," he says. "There were two iconic heavyweights and one who had not been performing too well in Ali, although he had beaten George Foreman, fighting a Joe Frazier who people thought was washed up. And that night at the Araneta Coliseum was one of the greatest fights I have ever seen. But what I am saying is that this fight will be the biggest fight in Asia because of the number of people who will watch it and the income it will produce."

Arum was also quick to point out a couple of other high-profile fights in Asia that didn't quite measure up on the greatness scale like Ali against Joe Bugner in 1975 in Kuala Lumpur. "I did that fight and you know how many people came out to see it?" he asked. "We did it in a stadium with a capacity of 100,000 and there were only 1,000 people in the audience. I oversold the fight, I did it like an American with the hype, and I came in and said Ali could be in trouble with this guy Bugner, so I could build up the opponent. And, as you know, in Malaysia it's mostly Muslim and they decided not to come because they didn't want to see brother Ali lose.

"Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas in Tokyo was also not a big fight going in. It was a big fight going out because of what happened though [Tyson losing]."

Arum is also quite curious to see if the pay-per-view numbers will be adversely affected because the fight is not being held in the United States. "In a fight in the US, we would have many more American media, but since newspapers are basically going down, the media doesn't travel like they once did," he said. "We will have to wait and see, but so far so good."

The one major difference between this fight and other major bouts held here over the years is that for the first time ever an Asian is headlining a big, international card in Asia. "That in itself makes it significant," said Arum. But historical? Only time will tell. However, if it is the last fight of Pacquiao's storied career, that alone would make it truly historic.



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