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Sport: Two Down, One to Go

4 minute read

Muhammad Ali was flabbergasted. Oscar Bonavena, the hulking, beetle-browed Argentine with only a halting command of English, was beating the Louisville Lip to the surly quip. Calling Ali a “black kangaroo” and a “maricon” (faggot), Bonavena boasted that he would knock out the deposed champion in Round 11. “Imagine that!” exclaimed Ali. “Him predictin’ on me!” At their prefight physical, Oscar tweaked Ali’s cheek. Ali started to lunge at Oscar. “Why you so nerbous?” said the Argentine. “You afraid Oscar and his beeg muscles?” Ali: “You’re not good enough to touch me.” Oscar: “Not good? Me white, you black. You smell. Why you no use perfume?” Ali: “Never predict on me. Never do that, you hear?” Oscar: “Why you no go in Army? You chicken? Cheep, cheep, cheep.” Ali again reached for Oscar. “Don’t touch me,” warned Bonavena, “or I kill now.”

By the time last week’s bout began, it was clear that Ali had never met a man quite like Bonavena−either outside the ring or in it. An unorthodox, wildly swinging club fighter. Bonavena is a granite block of a man who had never been knocked out while winning 46 of 54 fights. He is so crude he can make the classiest opponents look bad. Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier found out the hard way: in the process of winning two decisions from Oscar, the champ was flattened twice and had to suffer through 25 punishing rounds. Now it was Ali’s turn. He was still fresh from a swift third-round T.K.O. and he needed a real tune-up before his own bout with Frazier.

On fight night last week, a capacity crowd of 19,417 jammed Madison Square Garden and paid $615,401−the largest gate ever recorded for a nontitle bout. Ali, who forsook his limousine for the subway so he could accompany the “little people” to the fight, turned out in red trunks and white shoes with dangling red tassels (“Bulls don’t like red,” he explained). Like a matador, he toyed with Bonavena through the early rounds, circling his lumbering opponent and stabbing him with jolting lefts. Oscar, a 6-to-1 underdog, kept wading in, pounding away at the body until, by the eighth round, Ali was noticeably slowed. In the ninth−the round Ali predicted he would knock out Oscar−Muhammad came alive briefly, rocked Bonavena with a stiff right and then was tagged himself by a thunderous left hook. “For a moment,” Ali said later, “I thought I was predictin’ on myself.”

Crunching Hook. Aware that he was way ahead on points, Ali coasted through the late rounds until a few of the fans began booing and filing out of the Garden. They should have stayed. In the final round, Ali caught Oscar with a crunching left hook to the jaw that sent the Argentine to the canvas. Bonavena struggled up at the count of eight, and Ali decked him again. At that point, Bonavena’s corner tossed in the towel. No one saw it, and Oscar wobbled to his feet to be dropped again by an Ali flurry. The three knockdowns constituted an automatic T.K.O. for Ali. Afterward, Ali allowed that Oscar was “the toughest fighter I ever met.” Oscar reciprocated. “You no chicken,” he told Ali. “Frazier no win you.”

Frazier, naturally, disagreed. “Clay made some mistakes that he’d better not make against me or it’ll be hello, look out, goodbye.” Ali summed it up another way: “They wanted to see if I could go the distance, and I went the distance. They wanted to see if I could take a punch, and I took more punches than I have in all my other fights. They wanted to see if I could punch, and I proved it by stopping a man who’d never been stopped.”

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