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Original Issue


The heavyweight champion won an interesting fight against an aging but surprisingly worthy challenger. Now Ali's clouded future raises the possibility that the ring soon may be deprived of its most colorful figure

The little sport from the West, 12 years old, whey-faced, hat on his knee, tie in place, hair slicked down, sat on the wooden bench next to the heavyweight who was now just a truck driver from Arizona. The kid's eyes were red, and he would not look at the fighter, who kept glancing out of the corners of his eyes at the son of his manager. Outside, in the dark corridor, a lightweight was howling: "Why do ya bums always fall over for that bum?" Zora Folley was not listening. He was listening to the sound of a dream dying.

"What I tell ya, what I tell ya?" the trainer, Johnny Hart, kept saying. "It was his right hand that ruined us. I warned him about Clay's right. I said double safety. Get out. Move back in a hurry when Clay gets set. Folley didn't do it. It was that simple."

The kid, Will Swift, had had enough. His face turned up at Folley, and his eyes were wet. "It's unfair," he said. "Clay cheats. That was no way for poor Zora to lose. That's not the way a prizefight should go. Clay confused Zora, flapping his hands, dancing and just doing crazy things. Poor Zora. I hate Clay. No, I don't. I know it's wrong. Clay is a great champion."

Folley was silent. Soon he put on his long, gray overcoat. While Muhammad Ali—with the Muslim guard prancing in front of him and shouting, "Out the way, get out"—entered the Midtown Motor Inn across from the Garden, Zora Folley departed like an old, humble preacher leaving a gospel tent. He faded into the darkness of Eighth Avenue, a street of no face and no names, where already the scramblers and the ramblers, and the price to get inside, were yowling that one Zora Folley was just another stiff for a bigmouth draft dodger.

Some critics came at you with the same pitch the next day, but the fact is—unless one was looking at Ursula Andress all night—Folley had nothing to apologize for. Even his "heart," which was quite suspect before the bout, stood up. He made the best fight he could, and it stands as one of the more interesting fights Ali has had. Age (he's 34 and had been in 85 bouts) and caution—his reluctance to vary, even slightly, the style that had given him 40 knockouts—beat Folley. He was also beaten by a patient, disciplined and "scientific" performance, which Ali had promised Folley just because he was such a "civilized, respectable" man.

Still, Folley did accomplish some things. He cut the ring down on Ali. He hit the champion more often than any other opponent with solid right hands and slip jabs. He did not panic when Ali got cute and, faking and feinting, he forced Ali to miss several good punches. On the negative side—besides being knocked out—he obstinately clung to one stratagem; while moving to his right, he kept looking to throw a right-hand counter. It did not take Ali long to learn that he could go in flat-footed and ram home his good right hand, which so many people doubt he possesses.

It is also a popular opinion that Ali just played with Folley the first two rounds, but it is more likely that he was measuring Folley's reactions and the strength of his punches. It wasn't until the third round that Ali began working. His straight left hands—not his jab—kept snapping Folley's head back, and these were the punches that started Folley on his way out. At the end of the third round, Ali told his corner that Folley had begun to tire, that his punches had lost some of their life.

In the fourth, Ali, now punching flat-footed, spun Folley around with a left hook and then banged a right hand in back of his ear. Folley went down; he was flat on his stomach, and then suddenly he was up, his nose streaming blood, and he was kneeling and looking to his corner for the count. Folley raged back, but he had left too much of himself on the floor. Ali, it appeared, carried Folley in the fifth and sixth rounds, but going into the seventh Herbert Muhammad, his manager, told him to "stop playin'." He did. Two rights, the first of which traveled roughly six inches, gave Ali his 29th straight victory and his ninth successful title defense, and sent Folley back to the anonymity in which he has long labored—and seems to prefer.

Back on his feet and alert, Folley began looking for his son Junior. The boy was brought into the ring, and he looked at his father and then he glanced down at his shoes.

"Come over here!" Ali ordered the boy. "Don't be ashamed. I know you are disappointed, but your father put up a good fight. He's a good fighter, a slick, scientific boxer, and if we'd met 10 years ago things might have been different."

Ali, indeed, had been exceptionally decent to Folley, so much so that the fight lacked character. Each of his fights, of course, always seems to present Ali as a brilliant musician and his opponent as a mere instrument for his will and artistry, but each has always had a distinct current running through it. Ernie Terrell was the self-seeking Uncle Tom. In the European fights Ali was the noble, misunderstood black prince in exile. Against Cleveland Williams he was the old, uncomplicated colored boy from Louisville, full of quiet charm and fun. For Folley, who had no desire to engage in blather or even mock animus, Ali was just a fighter. The gate was plainly in danger, until the draft board requested Ali to appear for induction on April 11. That same day he began to create the character dramatization that rescued the box office.

"This may be the last chance," he said, "to see Muhammad Ali in living color, so if you have always been wanting to see me you'd better come to the Garden." Later he said: "Perhaps in one to three years I will fight again." The "one to three" seemed to indicate he would choose a jail sentence to military service. He would not disclose his decision, but his hints were cleverly camouflaged. "My life, my death, all my sacrifices," said Ali, who has a curious bent toward martyrdom, "are for Allah. I am the tool of Allah and because of my sacrifice it will come out that hundreds of Muslims are in jail rather than fight in the Army. Or even just to go into the service."

It is likely that Ali will not fight in the near future; already, in an effort not to antagonize the government, he has canceled his May 27 fight with Oscar Bonavena in Tokyo. His lawyer, Hayden Covington, originally believed that the course of appeals would take at least a year, but his appeal on the grounds that Ali is a Muslim minister and conscientious objector has been refused. Covington's latest maneuver—the suit against the draft board contending there is a lack of Negro representation and therefore existing prejudice—is no more than a delaying action. Covington believes he will win in the courts on the question of Ali's minister-objector claim, but this will come only after he reports for induction, which could be in May in Houston. No one is sure he will report. If he fails to do so, he will go to jail and Covington will get him out on bond until the issue is decided.

Whatever the outcome, Ali is and has been a gifted champion. Yet polemics and debate precede and follow each of his fights, and the judgments, usually discrediting, are frequently colored by personal distaste. Even among boxing people, who accept any behavior short of having their wallets lifted, Ali is anathema, and they, like much of the press, couch their prejudices with tiresome criticisms: Ali can't punch, Ali can't take a punch, and, anyway, everyone he fights is just a pug who would be knocked down by a spring wind.

Fight people just refuse to accept him, and he seemed to know it when he spoke at boxing's annual testimonial to itself several days before the fight.

Only a few remained on the dais and their heads, attached to broken noses and long cigars, hung down or to the sides, the eyes occasionally rolling at the intense verbal bombast and idiocy strafing the room; the dinner, it was obvious, had quickly become the party scene in Little Caesar, the one where Rico is given a gold watch for his banditry and sparkling handiwork with a chopper. But the star of this show had left, taking with him only the night and leaving behind the one provocative line of the evening: "After I go," said Muhammad Ali, "boxing will go to the graveyard."

Will Swift, despite his hurt, could believe that. When will boxing?


Directed to a neutral corner, Ali towers over the kneeling figure of Folley, a new believer.