Last Tango In Vegas: Fear And Loathing In The Near Room

Muhammad Ali bites the bullet, Leon Spinks Croaks a Legend....Sting like a Butterfly, float like a bee....Wild notes of a weird Cornerman

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 264 from May 4, 1978. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

When I'm gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down'll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It's goin' to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn and says he's in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.

— Muhammad Ali, 1967

Life had been good to Pat Patterson for so long that he'd almost forgotten what it was like to be anything but a free-riding, first-class passenger on a flight near the top of the world....

It is a long, long way from the frostbitten midnight streets around Chicago's Clark and Division to the deep-rug hallways of the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan....But Patterson had made that trip in high style, with stops along the way in London, Paris, Manila, Kinshasa, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and almost everywhere else in the world on that circuit where the menus list no prices and you need at least three pairs of $100 sunglasses just to cope with the TV lights every time you touch down at an airport for another frenzied press conference and then a ticker-tape parade along the route to the Presidential Palace and another princely reception.

That is Muhammad Ali's world, an orbit so high, a circuit so fast and strong and with rarefied air so thin that only "The Champ," "The Greatest," and a few close friends have unlimited breathing rights. Anybody who can sell his act for $5 million an hour all over the world is working a vein somewhere between magic and madness....And now, on this warm winter night in Manhattan, Pat Patterson was not entirely sure which way the balance was tipping. The main shock had come three weeks ago in Las Vegas, when he'd been forced to sit passively at ringside and watch the man whose life he would gladly have given his own to protect, under any other circumstances, take a savage and wholly unexpected beating in front of 5000 screaming banshees at the Hilton Hotel and something like 60 million stunned spectators on national/network TV. The Champ was no longer The Champ: a young brute named Leon Spinks had settled that matter, and not even Muhammad seemed to know just exactly what that awful defeat would mean — — for himself or anyone else; not even for his new wife and children, or the handful of friends and advisers who'd been working that high white vein right beside him for so long that they acted and felt like his family.

It was definitely an odd lot, ranging from solemn Black Muslims like Herbert Muhammad, his manager — — to shrewd white hipsters like Harold Conrad, his executive spokesman, and Irish Gene Kilroy, Ali's version of Hamilton Jordan: a sort of all-purpose administrative assistant, logistics manager and chief trouble-shooter. Kilroy and Conrad are The Champ's answer to Ham and Jody — — but mad dogs and wombats will roam the damp streets of Washington, babbling perfect Shakespearean English, before Jimmy Carter comes up with his version of Drew "Bundini" Brown, Ali's alter ego and court wizard for so long now that he can't really remember being anything else. Carter's thin-ice sense of humor would not support the weight of a zany friend like Bundini. It would not even support the far more discreet weight of a court jester like J.F.K.'s Dave Powers, whose role in the White House was much closer to Bundini Brown's deeply personal friendship with Ali than Jordan's essentially political and deceptively hard-nosed relationship with Jimmy...and even Hamilton seems to be gaining weight by geometric progressions these days, and the time may be just about ripe for him to have a chat with the Holy Ghost and come out as a "born-again Christian."

That might make the nut for a while — — at least through the 1980 reelection campaign — — but not even Jesus could save Jordan from a fate worse than any hell he'd ever imagined if Jimmy Carter woke up one morning and read in the Washington Post that Hamilton had pawned the Great Presidential Seal for $500 in some fashionable Georgetown hockshop... or even with one of his good friends like Pat Caddell, who enjoys a keen eye for collateral.

Indeed... and this twisted vision would seem almost too bent for print if Bundini hadn't already raised at least the raw possibility of it by once pawning Muhammad Ali's "Heavyweight Champion of the World" gold & jewel studded belt for $500 — — just an overnight loan from a friend, he said later; but the word got out and Bundini was banished from The Family and the whole entourage for eighteen months when The Champ was told what he'd done.

That heinous transgression is shrouded in a mix of jive-shame and real black humor at this point: The Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville — — and what was the difference between a gold medal and a jewel-studded belt? They were both symbols of a "white devil"'s world that Ali, if not Bundini, was already learning to treat with a very calculated measure of public disrespect....What they shared, far beyond a very real friendship, was a shrewd kind of street-theater sense of how far out on that limb they could go, without crashing. Bundini has always had a finer sense than anyone else in The Family about where The Champ wanted to go, the shifting winds of his instincts, and he has never been worried about things like Limits or Consequences. That was the province of others, like Conrad or Herbert. Drew B. has always known exactly which side he was on, and so has Cassius/Muhammad. Bundini is the man who came up with "Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee," and ever since then he has been as close to both Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali as anyone else in the world.

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From The Archives Issue 32: May 3, 1969
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