Muhammad's not been nailed that often.
It's not something he's used to. He's gone 17 years in the ring without a scratch — not a lump, not a bump, no stitched tissue on his eyebrows, no crumpled cartilage in his nose, no errupted ganglia pushing through like gherkins under the skin. That delicate scar en his right eyelid's from when as a kid in Louisville he ran his bicycle into a wall. Even his nipples are more like moles, no bigger than a penny. He's still like brand new.
"Seventeen years! Unscratched! Seventeen years! This thing don't worry me like it do you."
His 39th pro fight and he'd never been beaten. Yet here he was, hurt and hanging on to this clumsy hog from Argentina who was trying to chop him down. About two minutes into the ninth round, that's when Ringo was supposed to splinter and crumble like a hollow log, according to Muhammad's prediction — and remember, he's called the round right lots of times in the past, enough times that any fighter with his eyes open should be just a little bit more apprehensive coming into the voodoo round, watching for the bolt from the blue, challenging not just the most sensational heavyweight champ the world has ever seen but the decreed ambush of destiny.
And in case he had forgotten, surely Ringo could hear Howard Cosell agitating at ringside, reminding us all that this is the one — watch out — this is it, round nine, Bonavena's Waterloo. But Ringo blundered cheerfully headlong into destruction — he was asking for it — paying no mind at all to Muhammad's jive.
Then about two minutes into the round, the fates blinked, and he clobbered Muhammad with a cruel rib-cracker left. And, gasp, the champ sagged, his knees buckled. Ringo nearly had him! Already, in the fourth or fifth, Bonavena had bulled inside and belted him hard enough to slow his pace, and now. . .it can't all end here.
Howard Cosell kept peaking. Where's that lightning speed? Where's that mystifying footwork? A unique kind of Japanese he speaks, with equal threatening stress on every resonant syllable. A lot of sportcasters talk like that, especially racecallers and ringsiders cool and constipated in the crossfire of living history. Walter Winchell started it, perhaps, but these days Cosell does it best — he's the Caruso of sportstalk — and that night you could hear his sinuses vibrating. And he was right. Muhammad looked like a loafer.
Up against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta a few weeks earlier, his first fight in three and a half years, he had it pretty easy. Quarry's a burly brute and he's knocked out some powerful pugs. But he's a lunkhead, and Joe Frazier cut him up so savagely it looked like the sucker'd been worked over with brass knuckles and a switchblade. Muhammad went for his eyes. Quick jabs opened up those old wounds, and within three rounds Quarry couldn't see too well. Even if he could've his defense was shredded. So Muhammad hit him often, until he didn't exactly drop but was slowed down to a blundering stumble, and they stopped it. Even so, it took too long, he escaped too often. Muhammad's timing faltered. A lot of his punches were just pokes. He was rusty and underdone and never really hit his natural fascinatin' rhythm.
And now, here was Ringo, that comelately upstart, soundly chastised if not almost thoroughly whupped, and the whole thing was starting up again.
The whole Muhammad Ali karmic boogaloo. The insolent goldenboy from Louisville, too beautiful to be beaten. Cassius Clay, didn't that name have a righteous winner's ring to it? Cassius Marcellus Clay, who put the hex on the heavies the way Joe Namath did it to the Baltimore Colts. Like when he was training for the Floyd Patterson fight, he christened Floyd "Rabbit" and went visiting with a few heads of lettuce and a bunch of carrots; and Floyd, poor bunny, had to fight for his dignity as well as his record and lost all around.
And when he fought the baddest man the pug-game ever produced — bad Sonny Liston — for the championship in Miami in 1964, Cassius appeared in a denim jacket with "Bear Huntin'" stitched on the back and kept on about how ugly Sonny was, just an ugly old bear, you so ugly you have to sneak up on the mirror so's it won't run off the wall, taunting and mocking, straining Liston's lethal primeval cool which never cracked. But, sure enough, on the night, after six rounds, Sonny crumpled like a stricken grizzly.
The Louisville Lip, they called Cassius then; he was so brash and cocky and downright loudmouth arrogant and unsporting, downright uppity, and his poetry was such glorious street lingo sweettalk japery. Everywhere he went was an event, and he was always somewhere — strutting down Broadway stirring things up and swatting moths for the crowds, gatecrashing other fighter's pressrooms.
Or tooling up to challenger George Chuvalo's training camp in a shocking red Greyhound with Heavyweight Champion of the World painted four amazing feet high on both sides, loaded with champ-scuffs along for the ride, his cornermen and aides and valets and cooks and photographers. (And one of them was Bundini Brown, a particular companion who made up his mantra for him. They'd sit there and stare and glare at each other, their faces perhaps two inches apart, and bellow, "Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!" followed by three bloodcurdling, whooping war-cries. Cassius would sit back after that, aglow like neon, his blood humming. It was like shooting up, bellowing the mantra like that.) Even old uncle Stepin Fetchitt was on the bus for a while, bugging his eyes and shuffling his dogs just for shucks. And on that trip to Chuvalo's, didn't the Champ run the bus right off the road somewhere up in the Catskills? Wasn't it in all the papers? Everywhere he went was an event, an appearance. People in the street flocked to him to feed the flame and catch his act. "The only difference between me and the Pied Piper," he said, "is he didn't have no Cadillac."
Made you think of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and the most flamboyant Southern nigger white America had ever seen back around the turn. And there'd been plenty since then — great infidels like Joe Louis and highgloss Sugar Ray and debonair Archie Moore. But the Lip was different. Here, after all, was The Greatest.
Consider his record: He fought 138 bouts as an amateur, starting when he was 12, won 130 and lost eight. In 1960, he won a Gold Medal in the 175-pound division at the Rome Olympics, which was the last anybody ever heard of the loser, Poland's Ziggy Pietrzykowski.
It took him just four years to thrash all the ranking pros. Those he didn't KO cold he magicked out — bewildered them with his fleet and graceful defensive choreography, forever quickstepping to his left, his left hand dangling low, inviting the other sucker to try, just try and mess his pretty puss, seductive and tempting, flirting with the sucker, daring him to get aggravated enough and foolhardy enough to wade in and try and nail him. And then, so fast the sucker never saw it coming, Cassius would unleash a combination of jabs and hooks and stingers that'd stop him in his tracks; and it was no use swinging a goodnight sledgehammer because already he'd be gone again, circling, backpeddling, devildancing, shifting his mass from foot to foot.
"I'm somethin' new. I'm a pretty fighter. There ain't never been a fighter as pretty as me. There ain't never been a fighter that had my speed, and my grace."
The fastest heavyweight ever, only twice knocked down (by English battler Henry Cooper and the late Sonny Banks, both times caught by sheer providence — lucky left hooks), never beaten, defying anybody to beat him because he was The Greatest. He said it so often it became an unproven fact in the national imagination. Then he proved it against Sonny Liston.
They called Sonny evil because he was a gangster and an ex-con and an alley-cat, and he kept unsavory company. And he mangled Floyd Patterson in Chicago in one minute flat. Sonny was, as Joe Flaherty put it, "a blatant mother in a fucker's game." And he was doomed, although few would've guessed then they'd find him face down in the garage this Christmas ten days dead of an overdose. Back then, Sonny was just the biggest and most barbaric ox ever to escape the slaughteryards, more than a match, we thought, for a loudmouth like Cassius. Well, after six rounds, Cassius had whupped Sonny so mercilessly he couldn't get up off his chair. "A shokin' and a dreadful night," Cassius called it in case anybody had missed the terrible majesty of his performance.
It was 1964 and it seemed like he was invincible. He'd done everything he said he'd do, and he'd done it with such swagger and cavalier class and his own kind of voodoo braggadocio. He was the biggest star in the world. And all that time, here's what he was thinking: "Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up each other and break each other's noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half of the crowd is white. We're just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet, 'My slave can whup your slave.'"
Cassius was sponsored early in his career by a combine of oilmen and champagne millionaires known as the Louisville syndicate — Dixie czars, still dreaming of plantation days, rocking away long summer afternoons on first — floor verandas while ladies sipped sticky grenadine and black folk groveled gratefully in the dirt. Cassius' own mother, in fact, had been a cook in one of those households. And now Cassius was Heavyweight Champion of the World, and like he said, "Nobody's as great as the Heavyweight Champion." What greater glory could he possibly seek? So you can imagine what they thought, these czars, sitting so proud and polite and secure on the veranda of uncurdled white lineage, when the Champ announced he'd found a new sponsor. Allah.
That's where the whole karmic boogaloo left the rails, and Cassius changed roles. As Cassius Clay, the Louisville Lip in his big red bus outdazzling every opponent he could find, he'd been just another superstar — perhaps the greatest Champ in history — and the hottest celebrity in the world — but no more than that, no more than sheer sensational fame. Not to mention that many Decent People think boxing's pretty lowlife anyway, some brutish bloodcrazed ceremonial that degrades the soul of the lunkheads in the ring and the perverts watching — and not just watching, you understand, but yelling, screaming some of them, running at the mouth, crowds of thousands gathered in the sweat and smoke, agog with violence. Even fight fans, who certainly don't care if all that's true, even the fight metaphysicians like Mailer and Baldwin — everybody who dug Cassius for his skill or his style got fooled by the Ali Shuffle. When Cassius accepted Islam, joined the Black Muslims and pledged himself to Elijah Muhammad, he renounced one national identity and took on another. As Muhammad Ali, he became a threat to the civilization that had adored Cassius Clay. He became a black avenging angel.
This was back in 1964, remember, when the Muslims had the country spooked. Elijah Muhammad was calling for a separate black republic, and blacks all over were just starting to get the rage, rejecting the benevolent paternalism of all those people who truly thought they'd been doing their best by singing folksongs in Mississippi and offering themselves up to the police dogs of Selma in sacrificial acts of conscience. So when Cassius got the rage and turned on the hands that had fed him all along, his defection resounded. "He upset the odds," Malcolm X said at the time.
In William Klein's film, Float Like a Butterfly/Sting Like a Bee, there's this scene in a Muslim restaurant up in Harlem with all these menacing blacks sitting squashed in a booth — James X and Henry X were two of them, both of them talking with the monotonous ferocity of all true believers. And Henry X is saying:
"Islam removed fear from Muhammad Ali. He crashed out of the prison of ignorance. This is what the white power structure is frightened of," and going on about how whites for certain fact are all devils, and Malcolm X is a traitor (Malcolm X having recently quit the team, unable to front for some of Elijah Muhammad's more august, not to mention imperial, messages from The Prophet, and beginning then to consolidate a much more essential radicalism of his own; soon to be shot).
Henry and the other Xs may have been the drones of the faith, but they were right about the Champ. He'd made a critical move.
Like Jack Johnson, he'd violated the bloodsport morality, he'd double-crossed the pug game, and he'd undergone the first change of heart alienating him from his national role. Unlike Jack Johnson, though, he didn't feed the wrath of what the boys who run the pug game like to call the boxing fraternity — which is a powerful generic and helps to cohere as well as describe the international underworld of greedy schemers and meat-eating manipulators and mysterious pimps and unseen investment cabals and paunchy thrombotic commissioners who do the showbiz and handle the percentages, and all the plain bullies and shattered hulks with faces like puddings and the sly little trainers with spreading bellies and thinning scalps and vaseline on their hands who take care of the gristle — and what makes it a fraternity is the common fabulous conceit they all share that what's at stake here is athuhletics; and they believe it, the way the Mafia believe they're honest businessmen taking proper care of the community.
Johnson outraged the fraternity, and a great mass of the common public, by evil-eyeing all those fancy white foxes, worse still actually marrying one of them, and just generally carrying on like a profligate sultan on a bender, until they finally busted him on a frame-up for violating the Mann Act. Cassius, on the other hand, despite his flashy manners, was a moral Spartan. He'd always been an upright Sunday school Christian youngster, didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't even play golf. All his scandals were pranks.
Which only made him more menacing as a Muslim zealot: here was this black prince in his prime, still so fresh, blessed almost, not a single scratch, and he wasn't out partying and shooting the shit and just generally jiving about in his palomino Eldorados. All of a sudden he'd got the rage and he'd become a terrible black scourge, holy-light in his big mischievous eyes, scorning the fraternity, putting the mau-mau on the ringsiders, getting up at a press conference before the return bout with Liston which was due not long after Malcolm X's murder and all those assassination rumors fingering the Muslims were skidding around the pug game and there was even a scare that some crazy might take a shot at Muhammad in the ring for revenge, but he wasn't afraid. "There are only two men scarin' me," he got up and said, "Elijah Muhammad. And Allah."
And when they asked him about being The Greatest, feeding him leads, stoking for a bit of the old Lip, he said, with the utmost burning Pauline ardor— "Allah is the greatest."
That, anyway, was the first fright. He shed himself, jilted the Championship. The fraternity, and the nation, weren't sure anymore just who they had, he'd magicked them out, and it wasn't long before the backlash began. There were stories about the Muslims shaking him down for vast sums of money. As for that, he said—:
"That's a joke. They went and made a special law for boxers, the Joe Louis Law. The group in Louisville made an agreement with the American government that I could get none of my money until I paid 90 percent of the maximum tax to the government first, just because they feared me helping my religion. They feared me helping to educate black chilren and take them out of the slums."
The stories kept up, but meanwhile, of course, Cassius apostasy worked both ways, and for all the blacks all over just starting to get the rage, get the pride, letting that conk grow out, letting that natural sprout, getting rid of all those fake-leather drape coats and getting into dashikis — for them, and for anybody hooked on the metaphysics of boxing as the pure carnal root of all metaphor, for everybody who ever woke up one morning and figured out they were enslaved, Muhammad was like a renegade El Cid, defying history, whup- —Continued on Next PageMuhammad Ali—Continued from Preceding Page ping all comers, defending his very soul, in mortal combat with the heart-attack machine. . .
And then he took a big risk, and they martyred him. He'd been classified I-Y by the Louisville Draft Board in March of 1964, deferred indefinitely because he could only manage a 16 percentile in the Armed Forces Qualifying Test when you need 30 to pass. Two years later, they set him up, dropped the passpercentile to 15 so that they could get more fodder for Vietnam, and reclassified him I-A. The State Athletic Commission of Illinois wasted no time banning Muhammad's upcoming fight against a big bullock called Ernie Terell due in Chicago the coming March. (They finally met a year later in the Houston Astrodome, and Muhammad took the full 15 rounds carving the big bullock up into mince, really took his time to scramble his brains.) In that year he whupped every contender around, here and in Europe. And then, in April of 1967, he was summoned for induction in Houston, and he refused to take the oath.
He was a minister of the Muslim faith, he said, recognized by his leader, and the Muslims had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. He was convicted that June, sentenced to five years and a $10,000 fine. Every State Athletic Commission in the country withdrew his license, and just in case he had any ideas about compounding his treachery and fleeing into exile the way Jack Johnson had done, the court ordered his passport confiscated.
The Houston decision has since been appealed and upheld and sent back for review, and the issues further addled when it turned out the FBI had been tapping Muhammad's phone, and there were conversations kept secret that were rumored to include courtesies exchanged between Muhammad and the UAR. On the day he refused induction, the same very day, before he was heard and convicted, the New York Commission — the real barons of the pug game because they control the Big Ring, Madison Square Garden — they declared the Championship vacated.
It was ruthless, an attempt at total assassination. We all know by now how stupid and vindictive this whole entrenched system can be, but how could they be that stupid, just purely strategically? Forget the morality of it because it boomeranged and all they succeeded in doing was wrecking boxing's vestigial credibility (and that's their own livelihood), depriving us all of the spectacle of Ali in the ring but thereby counter-canonizing him as a beleaguered black saint; and he's been on the haunt ever since.
There was that night last May on the Cavett show, when Muhammad was on with Norman Mailer, and he'd been in a haughty mood, talking way down in his throat so his voice had so much husk in it it was almost cracking, saying, "The reason I'm not fighting today is because I was too good for my time," and then Mailer had come on in his good pinstripe, all lathered up for existential TV, harumphing his shoulders, dangling his short arms and jabbing from a crouch, his hands clawed, mauling his own ideas, and he said he'd come because he wanted to pay his respects to the Champ—:
"I think you got the worst shake of anybody in professional athletics in this country. When America took away your title it hurt itself more than it hurt you, and it hurt you plenty."
Now, Muhammad doesn't go for that kind of approach, he never bleeds for anybody. "I'm not hurt at all," he said, with the same aloof monolithic Muslim cool that withered Cavett, disdaining to discuss almost. "When you're not relyin' on people for nothin', they can't hurt you. Their God's not my God. You can't please God and the Devil, too. And I'm pleasin' God."
And then Mailer asked him if he was familiar with Kierkegaard's bleak notion that one can never know one's own moral nature, never know whether one is morally good or not — that's Soren Kierkegaard, the melancholy Dane, author of Either/Or, and don't forget Muhammad only scored a 16 percentile, so there were a few mis-connections for a while, but then Mailer finally talked himself into a corner, which is when he's most likely to find his pitch and rescue a resonant image, like cracking a nut perfectly, and he put it this way:
"Muhammad Ali was the most exciting, certainly the most beautiful champion to ever come along in the heavyweight division. They took the championship away, and how good he is became an empty question. Frivolous questions are the death of a nation." • • •
That's what happened. For three and a half years Muhammad has been the champion in exile, the champion on the street, the phantom champ, as invincible in his absence as he had been before they tried to freeze-dry him.
"I was too good, and that's why they had to get rid of me. Only it backfired didn't it? They couldn't take away my Championship just because of my religious beliefs, or because I said I didn't have no quarrel with the Viet Cong, or because I wasn't about to go into no Army. The only way a Champion can lose the Championship is for a challenger to whip him. . . . You cannot stop a real Champ! People still recognize me as the Champion."
Joe Frazier knows that. There's always some dizzy little turd in the shoeshine parlor busting to remind him. Every time he fights, the chant rises from the bleachers — Muhammad A-Lee! Muhammad A-Lee! — even in Tahoe or Vegas when he's on stage with the Knockouts. That's the name of his singing and dancing act, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Even there, at the Flamingo or somewhere, some meathead cabdriver will yell out, "Ali'd whup yo' ass!"
It's been getting on Joe's nerves. It's not his fault. He just came along in Muhammad's tangible absence and devastated all the heavyweights left over, and now he's the official sanctioned Champion of the World. • • •
I don't just represent boxing," Ali was saying back in 1968, "I'm taking a stand for what I believe in, and being one thousand percent for the freedom of the black people. . .I got hundreds of places to go and talk, and I'll always have them as long as I'm talking for freedom."
Keeping the faith. . . he appeared at schools and colleges and "old Negro groups" and funky ghetto soul shows, and he'd just strut about so as the brothers and sisters could see for themselves that he was unbeaten and unbound, not a mark on him that showed, for all his trials and labors and miserable oppression he was as mighty as ever and he was keeping the faith. Kids in the street, he'd spar with, tell them about Allah and the Muslims. Talking's not fighting, but it was some release, and what he said, the litany, didn't matter so much — by now the whole world knew his agony — what mattered was the appearance, the sheer lustre and radiance of him.
The first time I ever saw him was a couple of years ago, when his ego must've cross-wired and he must've mistaken himself for some Ali-totem and he must've thought that Broadway was still Broadway, where the glamorous toffs came for culture, or perhaps he just needed a dose of an audience to feed his starved performer's soul, all those hearts beating, all those hopes pinned on him, all that bodyheat — whatever it was, he showed up on Broadway in an overhaul of a piece of trash called Big Time Buck White that had raised some gooseflesh off-Broadway because it was loud and angry and brimming with the rage.
It was a kind of blackface minstrel musical, I can't even remember the bones of it, but there were a lot of cool cats on the corner slappin' skin and cussin' and just generally motivatin' and bull-shittin', waiting for Big Time to get back from somewhere and tell about their liberation! And then right at the end of the first act they all hush up and — here he comes — down the aisle, naked to the waist except for a flapping leather vest, and he was magnificent. He walked right past me, ascended the stage, strode to the center, and, without saying a word, thrust both clenched fists into the air above his head. And just stood there.
It was, as I said, a corny show, so they'd pasted on a fake Rap Brown beard and fake Afro to give Muhammad the proper black devil look, but even so, just standing there, mute and majestic, his countenance locked up shut in such a frown you knew there wasn't going to be any kidding around tonight, he was here tonight as a wrathful messenger of Allah, he was like a magnificent chocolate-golden ikon — Othello couldn't beat it, he was radiant.
He did a lot of street preaching in the second act, and he even maneuvered through a couple of non-songs, like Isley Brothers songs — and it wasn't his fault, the whole thing was foolishness, but anyway he wasn't much good. If you can imagine Othello gigging with, say, the Isley Brothers. . .luckily, it only ran a week or two, but I'll never forget it, I'll never forget that entrance.
It was the same kind of thump as the first time I saw Elvis stride on stage at the coliseum in LA, all in heavenly white, his hair sleek, slathered back a-round the corner to what you could tell was a perfect cleft at the back, and then he pounced and hit his mark: arms outstretched, wrists crooked, legs apart, one knee bent, crotch thrusting, head bowed (forelock tumbling). And because there was a demi-cape attached to his shoulders and floor-length fringe on his sleeves, it looked as tho he had wings, and because his whole figure was still shivering from the impact, he looked like a beautiful white predatory bird, with the sin-struck face of an Arab whore, expecting to fly. It's not often you get that thump, when you actually get to be there, after years and years, and gasp! there he is, a thoroughbred.
Buck White was a mistake. In the long numb years he spent in exile, Muhammad's been up a few blind alleys. (His Champburger franchise was a slow starter down south — perhaps the people have been eating their favorite hamburgers and shakes too long to switch.) And he's said many times he'd never fight again, he's even damned the pug-game altogether — "It's a barbaric European sport. The more religious I get, the more I don't miss it." — but he's still the phantom champ, and this year, when the boys who run the pug-game had a deep think and and owned up finally that he is the only fighter that the whole country, the whole world, will gladly pay a $10,000,000 gate to see, because a country needs to know who its champions are. . .and when a federal court in review took a swerve and decided he could have his license back for the time being, the New York Commission capitulated. (Muhammad didn't insist the commissioners crawl on their knees and beg him, on national television, to accept their abject apologies, but he once swore he would.) • • •
And then, last November, here was the resurrection. Here was Muhammad Ali in the ninth round against Bonavena, the Argentine, and Ringo nearly had him. Muhammad's fuses looked shot. He couldn't seem to get moving, his choreography got him nowhere, and Bonavena was a hulking great target but Muhammad missed his moves, missed his openings — and the voodoo hadn't worked. It was as though he'd lost touch with his own soul, his instincts were dimmed, three and a half years out in the cold had wearied him more than he could tell, he no longer knew his way around his own territory. He didn't seem to want to fight. He was a stranger in his own zareeba.
It looked like the whole karmic booga-loo was going to take a fatal thrashing from the Argentine, but Muhammad managed to keep Ringo guessing for the next five rounds and came into the 15th, and last, ahead on points. Bonavena after all, was a hog, and most rounds he didn't connect at all. In the 15th, Ringo was hunting for a knockout. He came thundering after Muhammad, throwing wild mauling sledgehammers, and then with not much more than a minute to go, Muhammad knocked him flat. It was a perfect left to the crag of the chin.
Twice Ringo tottered to his feet, but Muhammad was awake now, he had the old venomous taste back in his mouth, his pretty face was contorted into a ferocious snarl, his eyes were blazing gammarays, his blood was humming, he probably couldn't hear it above the blood raging in his ears, but the crowd was berserk, and he sprang after Bonavena like an enraged Captain America and chopped him down for good.
Something connected, some switch fell, some cellular telegram arrived, Muhammad remembered who he was, and he was sore and bruised and it had been hard work, but as Ringo hit the floor the third time, Muhammad couldn't feel any pain, he was exultant, towering over the stricken Argentine with both hands high above his head in an ecstasy. Next minute, Howard Cosell's in the ring — Cosell's the mouthpiece of the pug-game, when he's kvetching he poses as its conscience, but one thing you can't deny him, he's always on the spot — wherever there's a winner, here's this big plebby weasel with three fingers under the guy's elbow, asking rude questions, breathing all over him, spraying in his face, stealing the thunder — the agitator, Muhammad calls him, he's even got a poem about him:
After the fight is over,
And Frazier don't answer the bell,
I'm gonna jump over the ropes
And I'm gonna whup Howard Cosell.
Howard's on the case. He's up there in the ring in his shotsilk double-breasted suit with the luminous satin tie, and he zeroes in on Muhammad while he's still towering over Ringo like a statue — Howard, you feel, would step in the Argentine's mouth if that was the quickest way to get where he was going — he gatecrashes Muhammad's ecstasy, and starts agitating straight away, weasling right in there.
What's that! A telephone? The truth is, Howard's got his telephone with him, and Joe Frazier's on the line. What a stroke! Unhappily, with the way the phones are these days, we can't hear Joe — is Howard faking? — but no, he's nattering away into the receiver, and then into his big Acustofoam mike, and then up at Muhammad, hitting every syllable, and nobody knows who he's talking to, because as soon as he gets halfway through asking Joe if he has any fears about fighting Muhammad next (and you can imagine Joe, sitting in Philly, watching him talking to him on the phone and hearing it in his ears, trying to imagine just how hard Muhammad hit Bonavena that first time) and meantime Howard's left him with his mouth open because he's seen the camera and now he's asking Muhammad how come Ringo didn't splinter and crumble in the ninth, and meanwhile, speak of the Argentine, he's up on his feet and dripping water and he comes oinking over, deliriously oinking "Me no chicken! Me no chicken!" surprisingly refreshed, surprisingly, too, a pipsqueak castrato when he opens his mouth.
It's mayhem, but Muhammad does have a few words with Frazier, and he's polite, he doesn't call him a flat-footed chump who's had his job for the last couple of years, but then Howard caught him off guard, still giddy with victory, still feeling it, the carnal vengeful bliss of it.
(Pete Hamill, I think it was, said Howard should broadcast the moonshots. Then we'd see those bloodless humanoids raise their perfect eyebrows.) • • •
If Muhammad hadn't decked Bonavena and just baffled his way home on points, there'd be more confusion and huggermugger and deep, aching, ominous doubt about his second coming being rather what A. J. Liebling used to call a pug's next-to-last-stand-maybe. But the way it turned out, there's just one Last Task left now, Muhammad's ultimate rendezvous with all the conspiring tides of destiny. El Cid's last ride. The karmic boogaloo's racing at express speed now and if it's to end with your standard cosmic orgasm, it'll happen this week, in the Big Ring at Madison Square Garden, when Muhammad fights Joe Frazier for the title he never lost and Frazier never won.
The Fight of Champions, they're calling it. Muhammad likes to loosely compare its possible impact on the national psyche to either the assassination of a Kennedy or the first moonshot — either a paralyzing national disaster or America's most Faustian triumph.
If it's a disaster, if Frazier wins, the infinite pug game is intact. Frazier would disown this role, of course, and I wouldn't want to be the one to suggest it to his face, I wouldn't even want to be there to see what happened to the sucker who did, but still: he is the boss's man. He's doing the dirty work for the fraternity and the powers in the shadows, the entire totalitarian structure that martyred Muhammad and left him hanging out in the cold for three and a half years, gathering moss, forbidden to practice his art, robbed of his life, with his cells going stale and his sinews stiffening and his best instincts dimming. Frazier's the company slave, bought muscle. He's owned, in fact, by an unseen syndicate of Philadelphia businessmen called Cloverley Inc. (Original list price for one share in 1965: $250. Currently: $14,400.) He's the commission's annointed. But don't be fooled, don't underestimate him. He's formidable.
If it's a triumph, if Muhammad wins, then there's still hope that in America a gifted and courageous and militant outlaw can still choose his own life — and indeed his own death — according to — the mysterious private promptings of his soul. And all that.
"I represent the truth," says Muhammad. "The world will recognize me. Not the commissioners. The world. Russia. Red China. France. Germany. Africa. Egypt. Syria. Egypt and Israel'll quit shootin' for a few minutes. When I fight the world watches. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They fo' me. They not fo' the system. They fo' the villain. All the black militants they all for the rebel, the one they consider the most militant. All your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor."
Downstairs at Toots Shor's in New York City, strutting for the press after the official signing of contracts with Frazier, Muhammad says it again, "I represent the truth!" And looking over the assembled, ah, dignitaries of the pug game, one is relieved the truth is in such good hands.
All the top bananas are here — big ring promoters from all the fight towns, Philly and Miami and Chicago and L.A. Writers from all the ranking dailies. And that's just the bleachers, the floor tables. Then along the far wall, seated at his long Last Supper table, are the, ah, dignitaries — the New York commissioners, the Meat Board from Madison Square Garden, the fighters and their factions.
Towards the far end there's Yancy Durham, Frazier's manager. "We gonna stop you in seven!" he says in a delightful basso. Next to him, Smoky Joe himself, pitch black and looming large, in aqua turtleneck and natty overcheck double-breasted. Moving right along now towards the center mike, there's Jerry Perenchio from Chartwell Artists, the people who brought you Andy Williams and Glen Campbell and Elton John. Jerry personally talked up the cool $5 million cash from California moneybags Jack Kent Cooke — $2-1/2 million each for Frazier and Muhammad. Now he's so busy hustling up a $30 million gross in gate receipts (ringside seats list at $150 each, scalpers expect to get $1,000 by fight-night), closed-circuit TV payoffs, foreign broadcast rights, souvenirs and maybe a movie, he's only got time today for a quick recitation:
"This is the single greatest event in the history of sports. It will attract the biggest audience in history. And we intend to merchandise it to the best of our abilities. And. . ." oh yes, just in the nick of time, "And may the best man win."
Just this side of center mike, there's Angelo Dundee, Muhammad's trainer, his eyes like little excited inkspots behind his black-rims, his hair chemical black, his jacket a racy houndtooth. This is the shrewd little man-handler who's trained and managed seven world champions, the urgent voice in Muhammad's ear since he turned pro ten years ago.
"He and I have been friends from the beginning, we'll be friends at the end," confides Angelo. "There's no racial problems. I mean, I'm not blue. He's not green. I mean, I think the racial problem situation's always overdone. I'm like ice cream on pie with this kid. We jive together. We're buddies."
They're all lined up behind the Last Supper table, and every now and then one will whisper in another's ear and they'll share a secret satisfied chuckle. Another whips out a handkerchief as big as one of Toots' napkins — perhaps it is one of Toots' napkins — and has a good honk, and — you don't see this so often these days of disposables — sneaks a quick look at it, his own chow mein, before stashing the handkerchief back in his pants.
In the middle of them all, in his shirtsleeves, there's Muhammad himself, up on his feet, jabbing a stiff finger at Frazier and yelling, "He ain't no Champ!" — doing a little shadowboxing and putting the mau-mau on the front row tables, finally taking hold of the mike and rattling through his act, gloriously insolent, warning the sportswriters that after he wins they'd better watch out or the brothers might burn their houses down, scorning Frazier's record because Joe himself has already left (saying, "I'm not, you know, the mouth-y kind"), blowing Muhammad a kiss as he passed. Muhammad gives everybody a good fierce dose, and — and this is the weird thing, all the time he's up there, all the top bananas keep fawning over him, they keep touching him. . .slapping him on the shoulder, looping a meaty arm around his neck, stroking him, fondling him almost. In their gruff and seedy way they're all in love with the outlaw, and they can't keep their hands off him.
Chris Dundee's 5th Street Gym is in Miami, down at the end of Miami Beach way past the Eden Roc and all the other kosher Camelots, down in, so to speak, historical Miami — all the smaller peeling sunbleached last-stop cheap hotels where the very aged have been left abandoned on the porch, and at first glance they look like corpses put out for tanning — embalmed, the merest chill draught would be enough to set them free. . ..Down the road from a few empty junk shops (what junk is there in Miami, there are no old attics hiding old trunks, there is no past, and the corpses didn't bring but a few trinkets with them), one flight up above a drugstore, is where Muhammad has been training for The Fight.
Chris Dundee, Angelo's older brother, has been in the pug-game since the war, he's the top promoter in Miami, and his Gym's the real thing. It stinks. He should put it in the World's Fair.
It's the same place you've seen in Body and Soul and all those other John Garfield fight-pictures, with a little old potato-face gnome called Mo who sweeps up, and he'll tell you stories about the night Kingfish Levinsky fought Joe Louis if you catch him when he's in a good mood and the fog's cleared — the atmosphere stinks of all the decrepit glories of the pug game: the yellow and black fight posters going dusty on the walls advertising long-forgotten nights, pictures of long-forgotten fighters glowering out of the past with their dukes up, alongside relics of Dundee's American Flagism, citations from the Miami Beach Optimist Pony League and from the Damon Run-yon Memorial Fund For Cancer Research (and that last one, if you dwell on it, is the whole scene in a kernel).
All around are old Manischewitz cartons half full of damp bandages and dirty tape and torn jockstraps and cigarbutts and unmentionable gym-garbage and they all look like any moment they might spontaneously combust. Shoved beneath one corner of the ring, there's an immense pail for spitting in, a three-foot spittoon about four swampy inches deep; it looks like it's not been emptied out for weeks, it looks like bouillion spawning tadpoles. The whole place is a set left to go to ruin on a backlot, left over from Garfield and Bogart days, the paint on the windows is faded, only if you look twice at a couple of recent posters can you tell that living pugs work out here, the former Champ trains here. (That "former" has been scratched out on the Ali-Bonavena poster; on Muhammad's picture someone's written "Beauty," on Bonavena's, "Beast.") The air in here, when the Gvm's empty and Mo's sweeping up after the day's training, stinks of crotch.
Come back the next day after 12, and it's seething in here. A dozen young black prelim fighters are slogging at the 200 pound bag or skipping rope or just bobbing about on their toes shadowboxing until they're drenched in sweat (most of our best young prizefighters are blacks these days, because education's ruining boxing by taking all the bullies off the street just when they're discovering their true assassin's gifts, and, as yet, education tends to be less pernicious in the ghetto, especially in a town like Louisville; besides, black households don't generally share the burgeoning scruples of a lot of Irish and Italian households these days who don't fancy their boy leaving home to become a prizefighter and end up with his nose pasted to his lips after all, it's not what you'd call an honorable profession, in the statuspheres of white civilization; in fact it's as prole as you can get). In the midst of them all are the trainers, seconds and cut-men and one particular mute old Zulu mop-up man, whose job it is to sponge off the fighters when their on the exercise tables and massage their overstressed muscles.
You've got to shout to be heard because some kid's working out on the speedball and it's hammering like a machine-gun and the bell in the training ring keeps ringing three minute rounds even when there's nobody sparring in it — it's like being in the middle of a brawl, except that nobody's getting hit. The remarkable thing is that every now and then, as though by some divine KO, there's a sudden total hush, everybody stops for breath, the speedball is quiet, there is a long stolen moment when nobody moves, and then the bell rings and all hell breaks loose again at full mad pitch.
Mo's on the door. You can come and watch Muhammad train for a dollar, and every day about a hundered fans show up to be in the movie — gangs of black kids, bellbottom kids, busdrivers on holiday, local gamblers, a lot of oldtimers, a few beards from the Grove —the same hundred odd prole faces you'd see on any subway in New York City except that they've all got a trace of Tanya tan and they've all got Instamatics. One of them, a timid old nonno, offers Muhammad a sip of his coffee — "How do I know who you are? What's in that coffee? Check it fo' a test!"
Lightning strikes! This is what they love, Muhammad showing his pow-ah, snarling and jiving, and who cares if he's scared the salts out of the old nonno— "You didn't put no pill in that coffee, did you? How do I know you not with Joe Frazier?"
And the old nonno just stands there struck by lightning, and Muhammad prowls off, back to the full-length mirror, still scowling like a Chinese dragon — eyes bulging, snout flaring, breathing fire. He does a few knee-dips and torso-stretches, and then he just stands there brooding on his reflection, the perfect chocolate-golden colossus, glistening with oil, all wired up after three fast rounds with Stanford Harris and now that little extra zing bawling out some treacherous old deadbeat who was trying to poison him — "I don't want no rednecks in here!" he yells.
That's what they love. They love every inkling of every move he makes, every flex of his pow-ah. They feed him, the bolder black kids taunt him, they're all fishing for dragonfire, something they can go home and tell folks about. Everybody knows the old nonno's not trying to poison him, Muhammad's just jiving, just doing like he does.
Yet sometimes it's hard to tell just when he means it and when he doesn't. It's his pride that has sustained him out in the cold — that's his strength, his absolute apostolic faith in his own invincible power. So that's where he's tender. He's always cocked, ready to duck or dive or go for the throat. And what these agitators in the crowd are doing is insulting him, assaulting his pride just by saying Frazier's name, insulting his majesty simply by reminding him of that neanderthal chump who's been walking round claiming his title for the past couple of years. It's a very touchy maneuver, baiting Muhammad Ali, because when he's tuned, he's on the boundary line between kidding and killing, the ghetto outlaw poised for bloody murder.
Usually he starts out just bantering a bit, tossing off a few of his best one-liners. "If Joe Frazier came in here, seven days later he'd be a week-old ghost."
"If Joe Frazier ever dreams he can whup me, he's better wake up apologizin'."
And then, if he's feeling skittish, he might really camp it up, get down on his knees and crawl across the ring, baaing like a lamb the way he promised to do if Frazier beats him.
"That shows you how I feel. I won't have to put myself on that spot."
It's all just antics, until they start really needling him. Another nonno about 80 years old who looks like a geriatric Sergeant Bilko starts arguing how Frazier softened up Quarry and Bonavena for him, how Frazier's going to whup him in five rounds. Then another old fart yelling—you hear this one every day—no matter how good a boxer he is, he's not going to box that long. A fighter always beats a boxer, just look at Rocky Marciano. They're really hitting sore points today, because any mention of Marciano recalls the computer — fight fraud—when some conniving knave fed all the data on Muhammad and Marciano into a computer—and Marciano won.
"Marciano fought Joe Louis when he was old, he fought Ezzard Charles when he was old, he fought Jersey Joe Walcott when he was old. Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott would've run Marciano out of the ring when they were right young and in their prime. I ain't takin' nothin' from him, but you folks make him great because he was white. Marciano wasn't nothin' but a wild fighter — no skill, ugly face, and everybody whupped him!"
Muhammad's really getting lathered up now. He's getting a big charge out of these meatheads, they're really feeding the flame. Like this lump of British lard muddling on about the night Henry Cooper had Muhammad on his ass in the fifth.
"I was on my whaaat? Why you usin' profanity around all these ladies? If I had a lower IQ I could enjoy your conversation."
But still there's old Sergeant Bilko upstaging him, telling him he's going to bet three-fourths of his life on Joe Frazier.
"Old man, you don't know how bad I wanna hit you in yo' nose, do you? I'm gonna hit you in yo' nose and name you Rudolph. Your beneficiary'd have to sue me. You wouldn't be around to sue me after I hit you."
Next thing, the old bloke's climbing over the ropes, Muhammad's chasing him 'round the ring and Angelo Dundee's having a heart attack in case the old bloke has a heart attack. He starts tossing orders and does a little flamenco like running in place on an anthill. And when he's really peaking he can't even speak.
"You see that old man," Muhammad asks later. "Did you get a picture of me and that old man? That old man's got more nerve than a toothache!"
Then Jimmy Ellis goes by. Ellis used to be one of Muhammad's sparring partners back in the old days, and then, in his tangible absence, he was actually Champ for a while, Ellis recognized by one commission, Frazier by another. Frazier dumped him in four rounds. Dundee trains and manages him too, and these days he's staying in tune and talking about fighting the winner of The Fight. Which, when you think about it, is too much of an insult for Muhammad to suffer in silence — this thief going around talking trash, reminding folks that back when they were both amateurs in Louisville, Ellis had once actually beaten Muhammad. "Beat him with ease" he's saying.
So Muhammad catches Angelo's eye and whispers, "Hold on to me" out of the corner of his mouth. And then he starts stamping and cursing and threatening to blast Ellis clean out of circulation right there. If he could. . .only. . .get loose from Angelo's restraining embrace, he'd hush Jimmy Ellis' ugly mouth.
But that's nothing. The other day, you should've seen the way the Champ kicked in the shower-room wall.
"Joe Frazier! Joe Frazier! I'm gettin' sick and tired of hearin' that name Joe Frazier! I'm gonna straighten out this mess once and for all!"
This time the delicate balance is shot the pantomime's amuck. Forgotten for a few moments that he's just jiving. His tantrum's turning into lunatic fury and he's kicking in the shower-room wall like a crazy, the plywood's splintering. "I'll show you! I'll show you who the Heavyweight Champion of the World is! I'm gonna straighten out all you suckers!"
It's all instinctive strategy, all part of the voodoo. The living-theater shootouts with the meatheads in the crowd, the running feud with Jimmy Ellis, the spite and scorn for Frazier — all of it's as much a part of his training as getting up at five in the morning and running on the golf course or punching bags or working out with Stanford Harris and his other sparring-partners.
Professional prizefighters meet not as natural enemies but as matched attractions. They haven't sniffed each other out in a bar or an alley, there's no cellular hostility between them. It's a professional, not a carnal, encounter. So Muhammad scares up a grudge. He keeps punishing himself with psychic wounds to avenge, so he can enter the Big Ring March 8th and look across at Frazier and feel certain in his soul he's got to whup that man or die trying.
"D'you know how Joe Frazier has to whup me? One way. Knock me out. He cannot win on points. It's impossible to outspeed me and outmove me, humanly impossible. Especially for a flat-foot slow man like Joe Frazier. He ain't nothin'. He's got you all scared because you're frail and skinny and know nothin' about the sport. Joe Frazier's got two chances, and that's slim and none."
The hex is on. • • •
Joe's doing his best not to take too much notice. Early on, when he was scuffling, he used to work as a butcher skinning cows in a slaughterhouse, up to his elbows in entrails and tripe. That's how he fights, like a bloodthirsty butcher, barging after his opponent. He's not too quick on his feet, so he gets hit a lot on the way in. But he's used to pain. It'd take a toothpick under the fingernail or red ants at his scrotum to really hurt him now, and even then he'd stay on his feet till he passed out. For him, fighting's a suffering labor, and he's had to work like a slave all the way, harder than he ever worked chopping cotton as a kid in South Carolina or butchering beef in Philly. And that was brutally hard.
"Prizefighting," he says, "is like a business. Otherwise it's no fun. We don't say, 'Hey, let's have a little fun and go out and hit each other in the head.'"
Business is good. He's won all his 26 pro fights, all but three of them knockouts. He owns half a dozen cars and a seven-bedroom residence in discreet Philadelphia. Best of all, they say he zooms around the neighborhood on a chopped Harley with hand-tooled boxing gloves for handlebars. He doesn't give a shit about not being able to read; he's got these special telefoto glasses that pick up distant highway signs in plenty of time to work out the names syllable by syllable.
His nose is mashed flat, but otherwise he's survived quite remarkably well. And he looked like a most distinguished butcher among the lunkheads on the Kraft Music Hall last month, the night Don Rickles hosted. It was a big night for Joe and the Knockouts. The butcher was to premiere his new disc, Sinatra's "My Way," with additional lyrical tripe by Paul Anka. First, however, there was this humiliating vignette with Rickles where Joe was persuaded to strip to his satin shorts and suffer one of Don's rank little routines. And he manfully resisted his urge to bust the creep in the mouth, even when they ended in a clinch and Don dropped all these butch-fag in-nuendos and actually — imagine it — gave Joe a big slurpy kiss on the neck.
Later, Joe got into his Rosey Grier gear, all ruffles and velour, straddled a chair backwards to indicate he was about to do something real meaningful, and sang "My Way":
Now, the time is near, the time is here,
To take my hopes, and prepare, to take the dare,
It's time to climb, right thru them ropes,
To face a man, who has a plan,
And states his plan, not in a shy way,
Well, that's his right, but come the fight,
I'll fight him my-hy-way.
I've come a long way, and like they say,
It took some doin',
I've played the boxer's role, to reach the goal,
We all pursuin',
My friends, I've fought, like I was taught,
And never in a low, or sly way,
I've fought them square,
I've fought them fair,
I fought them my-hy way.
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew,
When I bit off, more than I could chew,
But through it all, when there were doubts,
I never once reneged a bout,
I faced them all, and I stood tall,
And did it my-hy way.
I've lived, I've laughed, I've cried,
I've had my fill, of good and bad, now,
There's much I've not tried,
And when I think of all I've had, now,
I'm proud to say, I've done OK,
I've travelled far along the highway,
And right or wrong, I stood real strong,
I did it my-hy way.
For what is a man, what has he got,
If not himself, not such a lot,
He's got to be one block of steel,
He's got to stand, Lord, never kneel,
The records show, I took the blows,
And did it My Way.
Flat, off-key, tongue-tied, as crude a performance as I've ever seen. But even so, there was something so forlorn about this rhino in gladrags confessing a feeling and trying so hard. Somehow he came out of it with his dignity intact. He had a weird kind of neanderthal beauty. • • •
Muhammad's tighter on TV. He's done lots of it and he enjoys the glare. He'll pose for every Instamatic in Dundee's Gym — whatever way you want, his dukes up, cradling a toddler, or pretending to punch you in the chin. He relates to masses and nations, but he's much less at ease when he's actually got to look a single, strange, adult human in the eye and talk. In fact, he just doesn't do it, unless it's a little kid and he can play the jolly giant.
"Do you box?" he asks this one 12-year-old. "What do you box? Oranges, or grapefruits, or bananas, or what? Let me see your left jab!" And the kid shoots him a couple, and Muhammad's blocking and feinting, saying, "Stick it in again! Shoot it!" And all of a sudden, the kid throws a sneaky right and slaps Muhammad's face. "Try that stuff again, chump!" he says, and clips the kid on the ear. For what? Safety? The faintest irritation of hurt pride?
Every day at the gym, he fools with the little kids. But he's suspicious of strangers, and when he's pinned he veils himself in a mask of wrath, freezes, and mutters into his glass of milk, "You get what you see. You don't get to see me shuffle for no dollar."
It's this shyness toward non-violent intimate encounter that makes Muhammad stiff and forbidding on TV. He was frozen that night last year with Mailer. And just lately, on the Flip Wilson Show, he didn't look too gassed by Flip's naughty Sambo style. And the Champ was almost solemn when he recited his Frazier poem, his hands clasped shyly in front of him. Which was a shame because it's a beauty, like a good Joe Tex song — fantasy perceived with irony, selling a sound moral:
Ali comes out to meet Frazier, but Frazier starts to retreat;
If Frazier goes back an inch farther, he'll wind up in a ringside seat;
Ali swings with a left, Ali swings with a right,
Look at the kid carry the fight.
Frazier keeps backin', but there's not enough room;
It's a matter of time before Ali lowers the boom;
Now Ali lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
But the punch lifts Frazier clean out of the ring
Frazier's still risin', but the referee wears a frown,
'Cause he can't start countin' 'til Frazier comes down.
Now Frazier disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic;
Our radar stations have picked him up.
He's somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they would witness the launching of a black satellite?
Frazier came out smokin', and Ali wasn't jokin'
He was peckin' and a 'pokin', pourin' water on his smokin',
It might shock and amaze ya, But Ali destroyed Joe Frazier.
Later, Muhammad had to just stand like a dumb statue while Flip got into his mini and blonde wig and made passes at him. Even so, Muhammad dug that. He's seen chicks like Geraldine, and Flip's a ravishing hooker. Muhammad, in fact, talked about Geraldine a lot that week, even borrowed Jimmy Ellis' fluffy white robe, letting it slip off a hunk of shoulder, and minced off to the showers, crowing, "Geraldine could whup Joe Frazier!" • • •
Just four weeks before The Fight, Muhammad scared up a queer headline, said he needed one more fight before Frazier. Against Jimmy Ellis. Not the kind of move you'd expect, almost makes you wonder if he's got, well, doubts. There must've been nights during his three and a half years out when he sat in the dark and sensed the stirrings of doubt, when the thought ocurred, never after to leave his mind, that he could be beaten in the ring.
For Muhammad there is nothing after Frazier. Beating Frazier is the answer to all his doubts, the solution of his life. For Frazier it's not such an all-or-nothing thing — he's never truly been the Champion anyhow. He's fighting Muhammad because he must. He badly wants to win, he's tempted by greatness and enthralled by showbiz, and he knows that if he beats Muhammad he will be the greatest, Muhammad himself has promised to crawl across the ring on his knees and crown him — the Champ at last.
And Frazier knows something Muhammad doesn't. He knows how much pain he can take and still keep bulldozing. He can take it all. He can even take losing. This fight is a $30,000,000 karmic showdown. Whatever the convulsion it wreaks on the national psyche, for Muhammad it could be his last night on earth.