How tall are you?" said Cassius Clay to Douglas Jones the other day. "Why do you ask that?" said Jones, warily.
"So's I can know in advance how far to step back when you fall in four," said Cassius merrily, and waltzed away with his knot of laughing admirers.
Jones did not fall in four, or six, or at any other time during his 10-round fight last week with the bumptious Clay. What did fall as a consequence was a chunk of the prestige Clay has spent the last two years developing, partly with his muscle but mostly with his mouth. And though he won the decision. Clay was roundly jeered by the bulk of 18,732 fans in Madison Square Garden. It was a sorry showing for the man who thinks he is ready for Sonny Liston.
Not that the best can't have their off nights. But this must have been Clay's offest. his worst professional fight ever. In a sense, it may have been his first professional fight. Doug Jones, even in defeat, is far ahead of any man Clay has fought before. "Welcome to the big time," Jones said in effect—and graphically—to Clay in the first round with a dizzying right to the head that stopped Clay cold in his tracks. And Jones was still saying it. if haltingly at the end.
"But Cassius. you looked like an amateur," said Clay's trainer. Angelo Dundee, the next day.
"I sure underestimated that man," said Clay.
"I can't think of anything Clay did well," said Doug Jones bitterly, nursing no wound except that to his spirit and firmly convinced that the officials had been out to lunch when they totted up their scorecards. The two judges scored it 5-4-1 for Clay. The referee—Lord forgive him. for it was his first big fight and he knew not what he was doing—scored it 8-1-1 for Clay. But televiewer Sonny Liston. though unimpressed, said Clay had won.
Of course, Clay did do some things well, and principal among these (discounting for the moment his singlehanded job of building up a gate that netted him somewhere around $45,000 and Jones $40,000) was the comeback he made in the final rounds to save himself from sure defeat. "I told him in the corner after the seventh." said Dundee, "he could kiss Tomato Red goodbye." The reference was to Cassius' ambition at the moment, which is to own an $8,000 Cadillac convertible painted tomato-red and promised to him as a bonus by his sponsors."I'd forgot all about that. I'd been so busy trying to keep that Jones off me," said Cassius later. "Dundee shook me up. I came out in the eighth saying, 'So long, Dougie, hello, Tomato Red.' "
If that, or something else did it ("Sheer will, heart and guts did it," said Bill Faversham, Clay's manager), Clay had the gumption then to demonstrate how good a fighter he can be, and for the last three rounds looked, a little bit at least, like the fighter he says he can be. But once Clay had failed to knock Jones out in the fourth, as he had predicted he would, the crowd became blind to all his later efforts. Because Clay lost that fourth-round battle, too many convinced themselves that Jones won the war—which is illogical in any case and untrue in this one. Jones fought one of the best fights of his career, but Clay, fighting his worst, still got the fair decision.
Naturally, Clay's showing looked all the worse because he himself had contributed hugely to the idea that he is invincible. Gullible people, when they discover he is not, feel duped and turn against him. Clay is wise enough to know this—but to know at the same time that it is box office. For a week before the fight he worked on the nerves of New York and managed to sell out the Garden for the first time in six years.
Clay began by reading bad poetry about himself to a handful of beatniks and a lot of baffled sportswriters in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse prophetically named The Bitter End. Thereafter he bounced in and out of radio and newspaper interviews like a ping-pong ball, shook hands on street corners, prattled and pranced with Johnny Carson on NBC's Tonight show, for which trouble Carson repaid him by announcing later the public "had been had" and that Jones won.
New York, a town without newspapers, was fully aware of who had taken charge, and when the retiring Jones finally let press agents talk him into holding a drum with the lamentable legend "Beat Clay" upon it, the effect was more to be pitied than censured. "While Doug was snoring his head off somewheres, I was doing the work of 10 men making him some money," said Clay. "And me only a boy." At 21, he's five years younger than Jones, two years more inexperienced in pro fights. "Man, I was so tired out it ain't no wonder I wasn't at my greatest best."
Needled into the proper frame of mind by Clay, the crowd booed lustily when he entered the ring. Underdog Jones got the applause—not because anyone cared whether he won but because, like most of us, he is too slow-witted to hold his own with the Cassius Clays of the world, the ones whom we secretly admire.
No one could admire Clay's predicament in the first round, however, when Jones's initiative got him off to a fast start. Jones had never fought a man with Clay's rococo style before, but the way he laid into Cassius proved him fearless. "I knew I had been hit," said Clay later of Jones's hard right to his head, the most telling punch in the fight, "and I also knew one more like that I'd be on my way to Louisville. So when Jones said, 'Don't run. Stay and fight,' I said, 'Stay cool. Daddy, the title is at stake. Be with you in a minute.' "
Unaccountably, Jones waited that minute. Clay won the second and third rounds by carrying the fight to Jones and by outboxing him. Then the Great Fourth was upon them. Clay had advertised for some time he would knock out Jones in the sixth, later cut that figure to four ("A voice come in the night and said, 'Now is the time' "). Jones denies vigorously that he was in any way daunted by the prediction. Indeed, he fought it well, counterpunching Clay expertly, and Clay managed to get moving only in the final minute. So what happened to the knockout? "Man, who knows?" said Cassius. "When I make a prediction and it comes true, nobody watching is as surprised as I am. But I never let on I'm surprised. Why spoil the fun?" That Cassius failed to keep his promise spoiled nothing for the 11 businessmen who sponsor him. "If he'd done it,' " said one, "not one man in one thousand would believe it wasn't a fix."
Discomfited by missing his prediction, Cassius fought the next three rounds like a lackluster beginner. "I knew he was making me look bad,' " said Cassius. That he was. It was like seeing Clay under infra-red light: all his defects, normally obscured by his brilliant speed, sharp punches and shiftiness, showed clearly. He held his hands too low, he leaned his head back from Jones's punches instead of dancing away (Liston would have taken off that head), he didn't work Jones's body ("Kill the head and the body dies" is the novel and unproved theory Cassius operates on) and when he got inside to Jones the most punishing thing he did was clinch. Jones all the while, though not the classiest heavyweight you'll ever see, took his time flicking off meaningless, snapless jabs with glove and elbow and, when Clay's guard was down, drove in and leaped at Clay with solid combinations. The crowd, which had abandoned the Prophet after the fourth round, was wildly exuberant.
Alas for them. In the last three rounds, particularly in the last two, Clay made great strides—a good thing, because the two judges had him behind in points at the time. Here were brief glimpses of the Cassius Clay in Cassius Clay's mind. His liming was suddenly sharper, his hands were held higher, he pressed on Jones as if that tomato-red Cadillac really did matter. Wearing down by now, Jones suffered Clay to hit at him in successive stretches, drove at him only when he got fed up. Jones's defense was still good (a factor getting short shrift under New York boxing custom, where judges tend to count punches more than their effect). But he could not convince any but the most willfully optimistic that he was any longer in control of the fight. "He was fighting me like crazy. I'll say that," said Cassius. "He could have eaten Floyd Patterson up, the way he was going. But see the difference. I came on strong at the finish. When you can do that you can become the champion."
"I'll fix all of you"
What came on even stronger at the end was the unbridled outrage of the crowd, which, hearing the unanimous decision, screamed it was a fix and littered the ring with trash, whisky bottles and at least one switchblade knife. "Fix?" Cassius yelled right back at his tormentors. "I'll fix all of you if you don't shut up. Hold me, Angelo!" And he said later, "They wanted me to be a wrasslin'-match villain, so I was. I was having fun. and I was already working on the gate for the next fight."
That next fight, though not arranged yet, may well be with Doug Jones. Jones wants it, because, he says, there was no reason for him to lose this time. "He was the poorest fighter I ever met," Jones said after the fight, but tempered that somewhat the next day to read, "He was certainly not one of the best." Said his manager, a Manhattan furrier named Alex Koskowitz, "Doug will win by a knockout." After that there's talk of Clay fighting in England and Europe, perhaps against Ingemar Johansson. The idea that Clay will meet Liston by fall, expressed often by the Louisville Lip himself, gives one the shivers.
Looking for the silver lining in the cloud now over Cassius' head, a member of his sponsoring group said, "We think he learned a lesson no amount of talk could teach him—up around the top of the heavyweight division, fighters don't faint when he says 'Boo!' "
"Well," says Cassius, "tell my fans I'm sorry. Tell them I did my best. And tell them I ain't Superman. If they think I can do everything I say I can do, then they're crazier'n I am."
His arms leaden, Clay lifts his gloves in a weary, spiritless salute.
Sleepy and exhausted, Cassius burns out early at victory party.