Sonny Padilla shares limelight with Ali and Frazier in ‘Thrilla’

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Sonny Padilla (center)
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The second meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in their historic and brutal trilogy came on January 28, 1974, three years after the first on March 8, 1971 when the then defending world heavyweight titleholder ‘Smokin’ Joe dealt the newly-reinstated draft-dodger his first loss in his career.

The rematch, also held at New York’s Madison Square Garden was tainted by one glaring boo-boo committed by referee Tony Perez and the official’s repeated non-calls boo-boo of what media men, in their accounts, were rule violations committed by Ali throughout the 12-round non-title contest.

Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram, in his book Ghosts of Manila, for instance, wroted that in the second round when there still was 25 seconds left in the clock, Perez, “thinking he heard the bell ending the round, stopped he action, thus giving Joe the time to recover. Ali had, earlier driven Frazier to the ropes and looked in rouble.

From there, Kram continued, the third man on the ring, likewise, failed to stop Ali’s tactic of illegally holding and pulling down his rival’s neck, allowing the Louisville lip to salvage a unanimous decision victory.


That controversial incidents became a major issue in the selection of the referee in boxing’s fiercest rivals’ third and final chapter of their historic three-fight series called ‘Thrilla in Manila’ and catapulted Filipino ring official Carlos “Sonny” Padilla Jr. to fame.

Remembering the 1974 fiasco, Frazier’s camp, led by Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch and the fight promoter himself, Don King, to oppose the choice of Padilla, a movie personality-son of Olympian Carlos Padilla Sr. and nephew of Jose Padilla Jr., also an Olympian. The opposition claimed the Filipino official was too small in size he might not be able to control the fight.

Padilla’s father and uncle saw action for the Philippines in the 10th Olympic Games held in 1932 in Los Angeles. Carlos Sr. fought as a welterweight while Jose Jr., also matinee idol, was a lightweight.

It need President Marcos, through then Games and Amusement Board chair Luis Tabuena to meet and convince those expressing apprehension to agree to his recommendations, including the choice of Filipino judges Lary Nadayag and Alfredo Quiazon.

The decision on the composition of an all-Filipino panel to decide the outcome of the showdown could not have been any wiser as misters Padilla, Nadayag and Quiazon — all handled their assignments to the satisfaction of everybody, including promoter Don King, the protagonists’ camps and even media men.

Padilla, in particular, proved sharper than what those opposing him thought as he, in the 36 minutes (14 rounds) that he officiated prevented what Futch and King feared — Ali using his rope-a-dope tactics to his advantage.

“I know my boxing, it’s the sport where I grew up. My father was a boxer and so was my uncle,” Padilla told this writer in a post-fight interview.

“It wasn’t really that hard for me to officiate that fight. Both Ali and Frazier are intelligent and clean fighters na wala namang intensyon na manggulang,” Padilla, who, for most parts of the encounter was seen breaking Ali in his clinching ways, said.

“I love boxing so much. Even when I was making movies, I always found time to officiate in bouts held as far as north as Aparri and as far as south as Jolo,” he related. “Oftentimes, my wife (Esperanza ) and I had quarrels about finances. As a referee, I had to be in the province most of the time.”

“But I told her to be patient, someday, it will turn out well for all of us, our children,” the father of now mega star Zsa Zsa Padilla remarked.

Padilla’s dream came true hours before the fight when Tabuena informed him of his choice and at the same time introduced him to both camps of Ali and Frazier, fight promoters and media people.

“I was very happy and at the same time honored for having been selected to do the job, not only for myself and my family, but for the country as well and our people,” Padilla, who is now based in Las Vegas, said.

“Modesty aside, I believe I had a part in making the fight a real Thrilla in Manila. In the first few rounds, I saw Ali tiring and trying to resort to holding and wrestling,” he recalled. “I warned him. Twice, I warned him and Ali must have taken note. “In the end, the fight turned out to be what everybody wanted, a real slugfest.”

Padilla had all praises for both Ali and Frazier. “Ali can really fight. He’s at his best when fighting. He’s really a great fighter.”

As for Frazier, the Filipino referee had his to say: “In my 11 years of officiating, I have never seen a fighter as clean and as brave as Frazier. For 14 solid rounds, he played it clean. He, too, is a great boxer. It’s a pity he turned out the loser, but in boxing, only one man wins.”

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