• U.S.

Sport: Bull v. Butterfly: A Clash of Champions

23 minute read

Ali-e-e-e! Ali-e-e-e! There I’ll be wearing a sheet and whispering Ali-e-e-e. I’ll be the ghost that haunts boxing, and people will say, “Ali is the real champ and everyone else is a fake.”

SO predicted Muhammad Ali three years ago, after the World Boxing Association, in a fit of moral fervor, stripped him of his heavyweight title because he had been convicted of draft evasion. Ali’s prophecy was at least half right. Never more than a scene-stealing shout away from ringside, keeping in the headlines with a flurry of lectures and boasts, the champ-in-exile did indeed haunt the sport. He was a titleholder stripped of his rights—not by the fists of another fighter but by decree of a pretentious body of boxing executives.

Ali’s vacated crown was claimed by other boxers—Joe Frazier, then Frazier and Jimmy Ellis as disputing “co-champions,” then finally Frazier alone. But was Joe really the champion? Could he really claim to be the best heavyweight in the world as long as Ali remained unbeaten? Not according to millions of Ali’s fans. Certainly not to Ali himself. “I want Frazier,” he screamed when Joe won the title. “I want Frazier now!” Now is next Monday night. In Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, Ali and Frazier will finally decide, in 15 rounds or less, who really is “the greatest,” who is the “onliest champ.”

Show Business Spectacular

Not surprisingly, the battle has been widely ballyhooed as “the Fight of the Century.” Whether it deserves that title, of course, will depend on what actually takes place in the ring. But at a time when public interest in boxing as a sport has fallen off, the Ali-Frazier match is unquestionably the fight of this year, if not of the past ten. Certainly it has accumulated a record number of firsts and mosts. Never before have two undefeated professional heavyweight champions met: Frazier has 23 knockouts in 26 consecutive victories, Ali 25 K.O.s in 31 straight wins. Never before has the public been willing to spend so much to see two men whack away at each other in a ring. At the Garden, which expects a gross of $1,250,000, all 19,500 available tickets have been sold out for five weeks; scalpers are currently asking $700 and more for a $150 ringside seat. The total take from live and closed-circuit TV may well top $21 million.

That is only the beginning. According to Promoter Jerry Perenchio, who approached 70 possible backers before he got Los Angeles sportsman Jack Kent Cooke to put up the bulk of the purse money, 300 million spectators in more than 26 countries will see the fight. A successful theatrical agent who cheerily admits that “I really don’t know the first thing about boxing,” Perenchio is not missing a trick; after the bout is over, he hopes to auction off the fighters shoes, trunks, robes and gloves “If a movie studio can auction off Judy Garland’s red slippers,” he says, “these things ought to be worth something. You’ve got to throw away the book on this fight. This one transcends boxing—it’s a show business spectacular.” It certainly is, as far as the fighters are concerned. Each stands to make $2.5 million in cold cash.

The fight comes none too soon for U.S. boxing fans. They have been starving for real action. Killed off by the overexposure of boxing on TV in the 1950s, the small fight clubs once so vital to the development of new talent are sorely missed. Of the ten professional world titleholders, only three are Americans; increasingly, championship fights in the lighter ranks of boxing take place before crowds in Rome or Bangkok or Mexico City, rather than in the Garden or the Miami Beach Convention Hall. Even among the heavyweights—a division that remains pretty much an American province—the really good fighters are too few and too colorless.

Moreover, the Ali-Frazier match is the classic ring encounter: boxer against slugger. At 6 ft. 3 in. and 215 lbs., with the elusive speed of a middleweight and a basic hit-and-not-be-hit strategy, Ali may well be the most graceful big man in boxing history. Frazier, who will spot his rival 3¾ in. in height, a crucial 8½ in. in reach, and 10 or so lbs. in weight, is a swarming, wade-in, bull ish brawler who willingly takes a punch or ten for the chance to score with his bludgeoning left hook.

Play Up the Disparities

The fight has become a classic in an other way. Shrewd prefight publicity has turned the billing into Frazier the good citizen v. Ali the draft dodger, Frazier the white man’s champ v. Ali the great black hope, Frazier the quiet loner v. Ali the irrepressible loudmouth, Frazier the simple Bible-reading Baptist v. Ali the slogan-spouting Black Muslim. Frazier, who is generally as impassive as a ring post, would have it otherwise, but he has no choice.

Ali, with his usual mix of con and conviction, plays up the disparities at every turn. “I’m not just fightin’ one man,”; he preaches. “I’m fightin’ a lot of men, showin’ a lot of ’em here is one man they couldn’t conquer. My mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people. I’ll win this fight because I’ve got a cause. Frazier has no cause. He’s in it for the money alone.” Caught in the crossfire, Frazier usually backs off. “I don’t want to be no more than no more than what I am.” he says. As a friend puts it, “Joe is just Joe.” His feelings on the black movement? “I don’t think he’s ever thought about it.”

A Happening and the Slouchies

The contrast between the two champions does not end with ideology. Ali is the black Adonis on parade—quick of wit, mercurial, explosive, forever turned on. Frazier is awkward and introspective, given to sullen moods that he calls “the slouchies.” At home or in the ring, Ali is a klieg-lighted one-man happening. Frazier, who has the sullen glare of the late Sonny Liston (but none of the deep-rooted malice), courts neither the public nor the press. “I’m just me, see.” he says. “If some people don’t notice me, that’s good. I got enough people pestering me. I’m making money, ain’t I? That’s enough for me.” When Ali starts his familiar gate-hypoing routine by calling Joe a “chump,” “impostor,” “amateur” and “tramp,” Frazier mutters something about “childishness” and goes on his way. Joe is proud of his rough skills and his success, proud of being a poor black who made good. “I ain’t no Tom,” he growls. It nettles him slightly that black celebrities—from Julian Bond to Bill Cosby to Coretta King—flock to Ali’s corner. But Frazier also notes: “One thing’s for damn sure: they aren’t going to get in the ring with him.”

The Ali that Frazier will meet in the ring is a different kind of fighter from the man who took Liston’s heavyweight title away in 1964. Then he was still calling himself Cassius Clay, and the jaunty slogan of his training camp was “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Now at his headquarters in Miami Beach’s Fifth Street Gym. the byword is “He moves like silk, hits like a ton”—and for good reason. Yon Cassius no longer has that lean and hungry look. After 3½ years of exile, he returned to the ring four months ago to dispatch California’s Jerry Quarry with a third-round T.K.O. In defeating Quarry, Ali showed that he still had the lightning combinations and darting moves. But there were two marked differences in his attack: he was a shade slower and a lot stronger.

Never a devastating hitter, Ali always scored his knockouts—apart from the “phantom punch” of the second Liston fight—with cumulative volleys rather than one deadly shot. Now he seems to set himself more. Trading on 10 to 15 more Ibs. of bulk and 1¼ more inches around the biceps, he hits like a true heavyweight. The seemingly indestructible Oscar Bonavena got that information the hard way in December, when Ali exploded a ripping left hook in the 15th round and dropped the blocky Argentine in a heap. Oscar wobbled up only to be decked again and again, giving Ali a T.K.O. victory. It was the first time that Bonavena had been stopped in his 54-bout career.

Ali may be strong, but so is Frazier. No amount of bluster is likely to deter Smokin’ Joe, a raging, bobbing, weaving, rolling swarmer who moves in one basic direction—right at his opponent’s gut. A kind of motorized Marciano, he works his short arms like pistons, pumping away with such mechanical precision that he consistently throws between 54 and 58 punches each round. He works almost exclusively inside, crouching and always moving in to slam the body. When the pummeling begins to slow his opponent, when the guard drops to protect the stomach, Frazier tosses a murderous left hook to the head. His coup de grâce is lethal. “Getting hit by Joe,” says Light Heavyweight Ray Anderson, one of Frazier’s sparring partners, “is like getting run over by a bus.” Some of his victims, like Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster, literally have no recollection of what hit them.

None of which bothers Muhammad Ali one whit: “Humph! Bob Foster, a li’I ol’ 188-pounder. Now ain’t that something! I wouldn’t even spar with a man that size. But the press and the bookies are shoutin’ ‘Who-e-e-e! Joe Frazah knocked him out, knocked him dead!’ What they should have done is look what I did to Oscar and what Oscar did to Joe Frazier. All Oscar did was to knock Joe Frazier down twice in their first fight and then whip his face so bad that his eyes were swollen closed. And when it was all over, Joe Frazier fainted in his dressing room. Exhausted. Dead tired. Unable to move.”

“I just let him go on talkin’ to his own self,” sighs Frazier. Meanwhile Joe is more concerned with hardening up his head to withstand Ali’s stabbing left jabs. “Every day,” he says, “I soak my head in rock salt and water. Who-e-e-e, does that make me mean! But it toughens my skin, and maybe it works on the bones. Conditioning—that’s what this fight will be all about. And there’s no way he’s going to be in better shape than me. For him to win, he’d have to be in much better shape than me, because he has to do two things: one is move backwards, two is fight. Me, I only have to fight. It’s that simple.”

In that simplicity lie the great imponderables—and the ultimate fascination—of the fight. Can Ali, slowed but still the swiftest heavyweight around, dance out of destruction’s way? Can he utilize his superior reach to stave off the bull-like onslaught of his attacker? Can he ever wear down the relentless machine that is Joe Frazier? Conversely, can Ali, who is able to hit sharply with either hand, outgun Frazier, who is more a one-armed fighter? Can, in short, the boxer beat the slugger?

Other so-called fights of the century provide few clues. Frazier, for example, is not the brawling Dempsey, who, past his prime and out of shape, lost twice to Boxer Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927. Nor is Ali an Ezzard Charles, the lighter, shorter, slower stylist who was knocked out by Slugger Rocky Marciano in 1954. Comparison of common opponents is equally unrewarding. Muhammad likes to brag that he did a better job than Frazier on Bonavena and Quarry. But Frazier coldcocked Canada’s tenacious George Chuvalo in the fourth round, while Ali did no better than waltz him around for 15 rounds. And Quarry, who was stopped by a cut in his bout with Muhammad, was in far better shape after three rounds with Ali than he was after seven rounds of being bludgeoned by Frazier. Says Quarry: “Clay will get his kidneys busted!” Just to even things off, though, Bonavena insists: “Frazier no win Ali.” So far, the only seeming certainty is that Ali, 29, and Frazier, 27, both unscathed and both at the peak of their powers, are facing the toughest fight of their careers.

Farce in Four Acts

A tough fight is a rare thing these days. Indeed the flood of excitement about Frazier v. Ali is partly a reaction to the drought of truly great heavyweight fights in recent years. Four of the most trumpeted fights of the 1960s—the two Liston-Floyd Patterson matches and the two Liston-Ali bouts—added up to a farce in four acts. There is, in fact, a Cassandra-like ring to Ali’s latest preachments: “I’m gonna close the book on boxing. I’m gonna add one more page and then they’ll close it up. Ain’t gonna be no boxing after me.”

At least not like there was in the days when Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, made small boys in black ghettos and the Southern slums dream big dreams. “I was marked,” Ali recalls. “I had a big head, and I looked like Joe Louis in my cradle. People said so.” When he was old enough to know a hook from an uppercut, his daddy, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who was a sign painter, took him for a walk in their Louisville neighborhood and stopped at a sidewalk shrine. “Put your hand on that telephone pole,” Daddy said. “What for?” asked his son. “One time,” Daddy said, “Joe Louis was here and he leaned against that pole for five minutes, five whole minutes, and talked to the people.” Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. put his hand on the pole. He’s been talking to the people ever since.

Joe Frazier, too, was “marked.” The second youngest of 13 children, he was raised in a four-room shack on a farm outside Beaufort, S.C. On the day he was born, his father prophesied that little Joe would be his “famous son.” When Joe was old enough to tend the hogs and plant okra on the family’s ten acres, he stuffed a feed bag with rags, hung it from an oak tree and began punching away. “Y’all gonna laugh,” he kept telling his brothers and sisters, “but I’m gonna be the next Joe Louis.”

Frazier’s mother was “a real church-goin’ lady” who taught him “respectafulness,” but he began questioning things that black kids were not supposed to question. Nicknamed Billy, supposedly because he could hit like a billy club, he was soon getting into scrapes with the Man. Once when he was 14, a white man called him nigger. Joe called the man cracker. As Joe recalls it now, “The man said, ‘Come here, boy, and I’ll straighten you out.’ I told him, ‘You come here,’ and he did and, man, I straightened that fella out.” Mamma—who forbade him to play football because she thought it was too dangerous—had a talk with Joe. “Son,” she said, “if y’all can’t get along with the white man in the South, y’all better leave home.” Joe quit school, hitchhiked to Charleston and caught “the first thing smokin’ that was goin’ north.” He’s been smokin’ ever since.

Crippling the Town

Cassius Clay hung around Louisville long enough to graduate 376th in a high school class of 391. Then he flew to Rome for the 1960 Olympics, won a Gold Medal as a 178-lb. light heavyweight, and returned home to a reception that “crippled the town.” He bought a “rosy pink” Cadillac on time, signed up with a syndicate of wealthy white businessmen, and turned pro. He was 18.

Frazier settled in Philadelphia with dreams of “a lot of money, a new car and fine clothes.” He took a job as a utility butcher in a kosher slaughterhouse and saved his money. Then he sent for his 15-year-old childhood sweetheart, married her and moved into a ghetto apartment. He ballooned up to 235 Ibs., so he went to a neighborhood Police Athletic League gym to pare off some weight. There he came under the paternal eye of a sometime fight manager named Yancey Durham, who recalls that Joe looked just like any other fat boy. One thing, however, was different: “He had determination.”

Under Durham’s tutelage, Joe had 40 amateur fights and lost only one, to a 300-lb. behemoth named Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic trials. When Mathis suffered an injury, Joe went to Tokyo in his stead and won the heavyweight Gold Medal—even though he had to fight through three rounds of his final match with a broken thumb. Returning home penniless and with a heavy cast on his hand, he was unable to work for six months and had to live off his wife’s $60-a-week salary as a factory worker. In desperation, he took a job as a janitor in the aptly named Bright Hope Baptist Church of North Philadelphia. The pastor, it happened, had some wealthy acquaintances. Through his intercession, a syndicate called Cloverlay Inc., headed by F. Bruce Baldwin, a Horn & Hardart executive, was set up to finance Joe’s professional boxing career. He was 21.

Clay knocked out twelve of his first 15 opponents. Then, in a moment of inspiration, for his next match with Archie Moore he unburdened himself of a little doggerel:

I’ll say it again, I’ve said it before,

Archie Moore will fall in four.

Fall Moore did, in the predicted round—right before a crowd of more than 15,000 in Los Angeles, who had turned out to see if Gaseous Cassius could pull off his coup. Even Jack Dempsey was impressed. “I don’t care if this kid can’t fight a lick. I’m for him. Things are live again.” Cassius then lit out after Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, verbally assaulting “the big ugly bear” at his training camp, at the airport and even at Sonny’s home at 3 a.m. When they finally tangled on Feb. 25, 1964, Listen failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, and Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was the new heavyweight champion of the world.

The next day Clay announced that he had been converted to the Black Muslim faith and would henceforth be known as Muhammad Ali. Many whites immediately dismissed him as a dupe of black racists. The boxing establishment backed off. In 1966, the draft-exempt classification he had been given three years previously for flunking a mental exam (“I never said I was the smartest; I said I was the greatest”) was suddenly switched to 1-A. Rather too quickly for the law, Ali was made a Muslim “minister” in order to claim a clerical exemption. He also infuriated thousands of Americans by ingenuously remarking, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Congs.” A year later, he was convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison, pending appeal. “What can you give me, America?” said Ali after the W.B.A. hastily stripped him of his title. “You want me to go fight a war against people I don’t know nothing about. You want me to go get some freedom for other people when my own people don’t have freedom at home?”

What Clay had, Frazier wanted. In the scramble for a share of Ali’s vacated title, he defeated his old nemesis, Buster Mathis, to become the recognized champ in seven states. The rest of the country belonged to “World Boxing Heavyweight Champion” Jimmy Ellis. Nettled by his title of “partial champ,” Joe took on Ellis last year and dropped him with two paralyzing left hooks in the fourth round; Jimmy’s manager threw in the towel. Arms raised, Frazier cried as he leaped around the ring: “Free at last! Free at last!”

But he wasn’t. Ali-e-e-e was still very much around. No matter whom Frazier was boxing, Trainer Durham kept telling him, “That’s Cassius out there you’re fighting.” Says Joe: “From the beginning, Clay has been the man. That’s all I heard when I was coming up—Clay’s this and Clay’s that. When I came from the Olympics, he told me, ‘Come on up, work hard and I’ll make you rich.’ You know what? I came up, I got rich and he got poor.”

Champion of Peace

Not exactly. During his 43 months of exile, Ali made TV commercials, toured the college lecture circuit for $2,500 an appearance, received a $225,000 advance for a forthcoming autobiography, appeared in a short-lived Broadway musical, made the rounds of talk shows, got married for the second time, fathered three daughters and bought a $92,000 home on Philadelphia’s Main Line with a color TV set in every room, 12 telephones and a swimming pool. If anything, his convictions became more firmly entrenched: “Tell everybody that Muhammad Ali ain’t licked yet. I say damn the fights and damn all the money. A man’s got to stand up for what he believes, and I’m standin’ up for my people even if I have to go to jail.”

Recently, a federal court, after hearing evidence from Ali’s lawyers that convicted burglars, pimps, rapists and sodomites were given licenses by boxing commissions, ruled that Ali’s banishment was “arbitrary and unreasonable.” Fight fans treated his return to the ring against Quarry in Atlanta like the Second Coming. Ali was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal after the fight, and Mrs. Coretta King said that he was not just a champion of boxing but “a champion of truth, peace and unity.”

As a champion, Frazier finds his peace in cars and music. His new $125,000 home in suburban Philadelphia has a six-car garage, and Joe has a machine for each space—a souped-up Corvette, a golden Coupe deVille, a 1934 Chevrolet, a Cadillac limousine, a Chevy station wagon and a $4,700 Harley-Davidson motorcycle that he guns down country roads at upwards of 100 m.p.h. (lest something happen to their prize property, Cloverlay has declared the cycle off limits until after the fight). When not tinkering with his cars, Joe is scratching at his guitar. As the lead singer in his own touring bluesy rock band called, naturally, the Knockouts, he sees music as his future after he retires from boxing. The mixed reaction to his performances doesn’t bother him. “As I went along, started winning fights, people say, ‘Aw, you can’t fight.’ What are they saying now? I’m fighting for two million and change, man. That’s why I’m going to make it as a singer. People say I can’t sing. Can’t sing, boy. Well, I’m going to show ’em.”

Irresistible Demand

Joe says, in fact, that “after this fight I’m gettin’ out. Win, lose or draw, I’m hanging them on the wall.” Maybe so, but if the fight is close or controversial, there will be an irresistible demand for another Fight of the Century. What could change his mind is his share of he purse in the purse in the return-bout clause: one million and change, man. Right now, though, Joe just sits on his bed in training camp, reading his Bible or picking at his guitar and improvising a song about “living a normal life.”

Ali, back on the scene in force, is living his usual abnormal life. At his training camp in Miami Beach, he heads an entourage that looks like a touring vaudeville act. There is Bundini, the cornerman and personal mystic who calls him “the Blessing of the Planet”; a handler whose sole job is to comb Ali’s hair; assorted grim-faced Muslim operatives; imperturbable Angelo Dundee, his trainer since 1960; Norman Mailer; Actor Burt Lancaster; Cash Clay Sr. in red velvet bellbottoms, red satin shirt and a plantation straw hat; the Major, a high roller from Philly who tools around in a Duesenberg; and Brother Rahaman Ali (formerly known as Rudolph Valentino Clay), his yeah-man.

Heavy, Brother, Heavy

Although Ali has been temporarily suspended from the Muslims for being dependent on the white man’s money instead of Allah, he remains a true believer. For his autobiography and his lectures, Ali has taken to inventing homilies on what he calls “the inner life.” “Pleasure,” he will say, “is the shadow of happiness.” “Yeah, man,” his brother will answer. “People are unhappy because they are victims of propaganda,” Ali says. “Heavy, brother, heavy,” says Rudy. And now that he’s a writer, Ali is interested in building his vocabulary. Reading a newspaper piece about himself recently, he looked up and said, “Hey, what do ‘garrulous’ mean?”

Garrulous is what boxers get when fight time nears, spilling out a kind of blow-by-blow preview of coming mayhem. Frazier’s spiel: “Clay can keep that pretty head, I don’t want it. What I’m going to do is try to pull them kidneys out. I’m going to be at where he lives—in the body. Then I’ll be in business, when I get smoking around the body. Watch him—he’ll be snatching his pretty head back and I’ll let him keep it. Until about the third or fourth round, and then there’ll be a difference. He won’t be able to take it to the body no more. Now he’ll start snatching his sore body away, and then the head will be leaning in. That’s when I’ll take his head, but then it won’t be pretty, or maybe he just won’t care.”

Ali’s version, usually performed in front of a mirror: “Bap! Bap! Bap! I jab him once, twice, three times. Dance away. I move in again. Bam. Bam. Bam. I hit him five times. He hits me one time. I back away. I’m moving around him. Bim. Bim. Bim. I get him again. He’s movin’ in, ain’t reaching me because he’s too small to reach me. He’s reachin’ and strainin’ with those hooks, and they’re getting longer and longer. And now he’s lunging and jumping, and that’s when I started popping and smoking. I’m looking for the opening, lookin’ and pickin’ and then I see it. Now I’m sprinting, but I’m sprinting in the ring. Now I got him in trouble and I’m chopping him with the right hand, and he don’t know how to run, where to go. Then . . .”

Then comes the end, and that is anybody’s guess. Ali’s for example: Five minutes before the fight, he plans to remove a sheet of paper from a sealed envelope inscribed: THE SECRET OF MUHAMMAD ALI. Then, while the closed-circuit TV cameras zero in, he will predict the round in which Frazier will fall. That, of course, is not Joe’s style at all. But his prediction makes more sense. “I wouldn’t really want to say who will win,” he says. “But one thing I do know. It will be one hell of a fight.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com