Imee Marcos just could not believe it when she heard Muhammad Ali refuse her mother’s invitation to dance at a party in Malacañang that the then-First Family hosted for “The Greatest” in 1975.
“I don’t know how to dance,” Ali was quoted by Imee as saying to her mom, Imelda.
In an exclusive interview early this week, the Marcoses’ vivacious eldest daughter told The Manila Times that she found the statement incredulous, coming as it did from an African-American who was presumed to know all the right moves on the floor just like Alvin Ailey and the other brothers and sisters out there.
The distinguished guest explained to the then-First Lady, who did not force the issue, that he can only find his groove inside the boxing ring.
The man who “stings like a bee, floats like a butterfly,” Imee realized, had human frailties despite the overly extrovert and apparently know-it-all person that he seemingly was.White men can’t jump and this beautiful black man can’t dance!
Well, Ali was not visiting Manila to hit the floor and sway, swing or waltz to the beat, but as the arguably best boxer in the planet in that decade who would be defending his world heavyweight title over 15 rounds against Joe Frazier in “Thrilla in Manila” at the Araneta Coliseum.
Fight night was a humid October 1, 1975 and, according to Imee, who went to watch the bout with her mom and dad Ferdinand at ringside, the crowd was almost going crazy with excitement and anticipation about what they were going to see.
“Sobrang lapit namin sa ring, sobrang mainit, it was very hot, and iba pala if you are that near where the boxers will be fighting because there’s sweat and perspiration everywhere,” she recalled over tempura and sashimi at a Greenhills restaurant.
“Dumadagundong sa paligid, talaga,” Imee said.
The Araneta Coliseum can seat 30,000 tops and it would be safe to assume that for a fight featuring “The Greatest,” it rocked with more than that number one day in October more than 40 years ago.
Imee said even her father (a boxer himself although wrestling was really the Marcos patriarch’s sport) was mildly shocked at the pulsatingly electric vibe radiating from all corners of the coliseum.
Meanwhile, her mom was edgy all throughout because, her daughter said, she did not want to go in the first place as she found boxing too bloody for her.
To Imelda’s apparently unfathomable grief, the fight went on for 13 rounds and, by which time, both Ali and Frazier were all battered up.
“We were waiting for the 14th round to begin but ang tagal na, hindi pa rin nag-start and I personally can’t see Frazier,” Imee said.
And then the announcement that “Smokin Joe” would not be able to continue, having been stretchered off, and Ali was later declared to have retained his title in the 14th round via TKO.
“I can sense that Ali himself was relieved that the fight was over although he looked better than Frazier despite the bruises and all that he endured,” Imee said.
Equally relieved was her mother.
“Syempre, tuwang-tuwa ang nanay ko na natapos na yung boksing,” Imee said, laughing.
She was only 19 then and the only one among the three Marcos children who sat through what also debatably has since been regarded as the greatest boxing fight ever.
Ferdinand Jr. or Bongbong simply “cannot join “ them while Imee said she does not remember anymore why Irene, the youngest, was not with them.
It’s Malaysia for King
“Thrilla in Manila”—promoted by the Don King—would not have been held at all in the Philippines, Imee revealed.
“They [King camp] wanted the fight in Malaysia,” apparently because, on June 30, 1975, Ali fought and beat Joe Bugner there.
Perhaps, it was also because Malaysia was a Muslim country.
Then-President Marcos, however, was able to persuade King to hold the fight in the Philippines’ capital city.
“There is no boxing in Malaysia,” Imee remembered her dad tell the renowned promoter in order for King to change his mind.
Besides, the then-leader said, the Philippines was expecting throngs of tourists and other visitors because five new five-star hotels in Metro Manila had just opened their doors.
Her father, according to Imee, capped his sales pitch by citing the big news that the Asian Development Bank or ADB had just decided to put up its headquarters in Manila.
And so Manila it was, finally.
For a few weeks, the city was never the same again, starting from the arrival of Muhammad Ali until his departure several days after the thriller was over.
The run-up to the fight, Imee said, gave both poor and rich Filipinos a chance to glimpse the growing legend that was Ali.
The boxer’s pre-fight training at the Folk Arts Theater at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, for example, saw him giving away money to just about anyone.
“Bigay siya ng bigay ng pera, dollars, kahit kanino,” Imee said, including a complete stranger whom she thought must have been given by Ali some $25,000!
Of course, she added, he was doing it through his aides.
Ali, Imee noticed, was not security-conscious, telling his bodyguards and local police who acted as his escort detail to let people—thousands of them— come near him.
“Tapos, po-pose siya with these people, yung boxing pose and while doing so, he kept on talking and talking,” Imee said.
Fans at the Folk Arts Theater were swarming the place that Ali had to tell those in charge to let them all in (the training was supposed to be closed-door).
For free? No, some money can be raised for charity by charging the fans “one peso or two pesos,” Imee said, who added she still does not really know where the idea to collect admission fee came from.
It was not all smooth sailing for Ali in Manila, however.
Personal trouble for him hit the roof when earlier in Malacanang he introduced Veronica as his wife to then-President Marcos.
“Eh sabi niya, si Veronica, who was a very beautiful woman, yung wife niya,” Imee said.
The boxer tried to gloss over the serious situation he was in by telling his host, “You are not doing so bad yourself, Sir,” while looking in the direction of Imelda.
The President had also told his guest that his wife (Veronica) was “very beautiful.”
From the United States flew in the “other” wife, Belinda, who was so mad at Ali that she broke and threw everything that she could lay her hands on at the presidential suite that Ali was occupying at one of the five newly opened hotels.
“Wala, tahimik lang siya [Ali] habang nagwawala si Belinda,” Imee said, chuckling.
Belinda, however, would shortly get over her rage and behaved immediately before and after the “Thrilla in Manila.”
After Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. won the light heavyweight title at the 1960 Rome Olympics at just aged 18, he converted to Islam.
But it was not until 1964 that Clay adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali and that should partly explain the Veronica and Belinda in his life.
Imee said she did not really have the time to look Ali up when she was, a few years after October 1975, a student at Princeton in New Jersey where she obtained her BA in Religion and Politics.
The Marcoses, however, remained good friends with the boxer who, after the “Thrilla in Manila,” became an even bigger legend that he is today and will remain so as a boxer and, according to Imee, a generous and giving man.