What I learned from the Thrilla in Manila

“...the future is unknowable — and that’s a good thing.

I was a gangly, scab-kneed girl of thirteen
when the great “Floats like a Butterfly, Stings
like a Bee” Muhammad Ali met Smokin’ Joe Frazier
for their rematch in January ’74. Rumors had it
that Ferdinand “McCoy” Marcos went over budget
to have the match held in Manila, hoping
all the media hoopla would deflect attention
from stories of torture and the disappeared,
and the fact he’d declared Martial Law in ’71.
It seems to have worked, because even my over-
cautious father, who not too long before made
any excuse not to have to travel to the capital,
was now shaking every connection he had to see
if he could score tickets to the fight. Ali
himself knew the value of a little pre-game
psych war, telling reporters: “I like to get a man
mad, because when a man’s mad, he wants ya so bad,
he can’t think, so I like to get a man mad.”
Which was how his taunt— “It will be a killa
and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla
in Manila”— led to the fight being billed
as the Thrilla in Manila. It was true, and all
the bet-taking men craning their necks at department
store TVs couldn’t be more thrilled at this
spectacle of two gorillas insulting each other—
Which when you think of it, considering how gorilla
and monkey have been used pejoratively, as code
for any immigrant or person of color in America, therefore
isn’t it more than just a little moment of unthinkingness embedded
there, showing the internalization of racist categories
by the very people that have been its victims?
And it may be this poem has traveled a long way
from that year in Manila. But remembering the once
great Ali— in Atlanta in ’96, willing his tremor-
filled hand to lower the torch that ignites the rocket
that sets off the Olympic flame— and how he died
last summer from infection and sepsis, all I can think
is: Anything can happen. Though his shoe-loving wife
and ambitious progeny are still alive, the infamous dictator
who named the Philippines’ first commercial shopping mall
after Muhammad Ali is dead and rotted through on the inside
of his carefully formaldehyde-treated shell. Anything
can happen, anything can happen
. The strong and powerful,
the hideous and hateful alongside the beautiful— all
reap in time the reassurance of the uncertain future.

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