Publish date:

Ali in a world of his own

A routine victory over Joe Bugner failed to move the ex-champ any closer to challenging for the title

Looking up at him, his left eyebrow torn, the left side of his immense face fading into a red-mean abstraction, it was hard not to think of a remark once made by Brian London. "Boxers are prawns," said the meditative Brian, not the most impassioned of fighters and often not unlike a prawn himself in his many positions of repose. Of course, the old heavyweight meant "pawns," a word used by amateur sociologists to describe all fighters and one that seemed to fit England's Joe Bugner like the mouthpiece on a trumpet.

Last week in Las Vegas, between the dumbing sound of coin and con, the evidence bore down hard on Bugner as he prepared to accompany Muhammad Ali on the latest tour through Ali's "world of my own." Not even the endless and genuine esprit of the English could support the gentle Magyar; the facts just would not budge: he was a big, plastic toy deftly marketed in England. Regardless, some 1,500 Englishmen, ranging from Henry Cooper and a detective named Nipper Reid to bands of old, retired bookmakers, made the trip for 200 quid apiece. Ole 'Enry thought aloud it would be an inspired fight, but after the pencils and notebooks vanished he thought it would be a fine "giggle." The bookies usually just sat around looking fixedly at the keno boards, drinking their beer and musing over the pure beauty of this graft in the desert.

A crowd of 5,700 turned up at the Convention Center as, according to dramatic whispers by promoters, a great tide of humanity was moving toward closed-circuit outlets in London. It was quite true, too, for the English love a fight, even if it involves one of their own heavyweights. This night, confronted by Bugner vs. Ali, they knew it was not a question of whether the lip would prevail over the stiff upper lip, but rather in what round Joe would find proper bedding for his bulk. Yet they came.

Amused as they were at their own capsule comments on the matchup, they could not conceal what simmered beneath: the hope that Bugner would comport himself honorably, that there would be the tenacity of attitude that he has so often lacked, that he would allow them to leave for home with at least a strand of dignity. At fight time the simmer had become a bonfire. It was no longer a bout; the smell of gun and powder permeated, and chests full of medals from the African campaign would not have brought a second glance.

The emotion was not wasted. Bugner, a Hungarian who emigrated to England in flight from Communism at the age of six, fulfilled the imperative of the moment. For all his unarguably barren work against Ali he did accomplish this: he came in as a long-priced pawn to Ali's ring carnival, got cut badly in the first round and went on for the distance to make it an action fight, limited as it was. He also helped bring into sharp focus—for the first time since Ali met Joe Frazier—the fear that Ali's once illimitable talent is rapidly on the wane and that soon he will have only his vast generalship on which to rely.

He may have enough left to handle George Foreman but he cannot afford to be delayed too long, which surely is what the Foreman camp is thinking. "He's not going to get near me now," Ali said later. "But that's all right. I don't need him. I'm in a world of my own. The people know who the champion is. Why should I fret? I'll just go on makin' my money—like a couple of million in the next couple of years. Just go on keepin' boxin' alive while George tights once a year. But he'll never be no real champion. The people know that. And one day they gonna say: 'Ghawge, where were you when Muhammad Ali was around? Why, Ghawge, you weren't no kind of champion.' "

Ali's confidence in the people to discern always has seemed unshakable, but he is not one to wince at a bit of overkill in the promotion of his theme. He wore a brilliant robe into the ring, a jeweled, flowing garment that would have brightened the dark side of the moon. It cost $2,000 and had lettering on the back acclaiming Ali as "the people's champion." It was a gift from Elvis Presley, who knows about such things.

Once down to business, Ali quickly opened a cut over Bugner's left eye. Thereafter, try as he might, Ali had trouble working on the eye, nor could he put Bugner away. No frivolity marked Ali's work. He strove desperately to finish Bugner in the sixth, seventh, 11th and 12th rounds, but there was no snap, no deadliness to those flashing strokes. He stalked Bugner in a fiat-footed way. At times his eyes seemed vacant, distant from the tedium in which he was caught.

At 22, and despite intimidating physical dimensions, Bugner was never an offensive factor in this fight. He is what has been called a "tramline" fighter, forever going backward and forward. He seldom extemporizes, rarely puts several punches together and when he does they seem as undirected as an infant's striking at a hanging rattle. Occasionally, Bugner chose to jump off his tramline against Ali. His digressions were pointless, frenetic arcs. Usually after them Bugner ended frozen and transfixed for long moments on the ropes, which is where Ali sent home his best shots.

Bugner caught Ali with a few right hands, each of which brought Muhammad back to reality. He was never in danger in the fight and, contrary to the official scoring, it was easy to give him all 12 rounds or, if one cared to be magnanimous, to call it 10-1-1. Muhammad, as is his wont these days, was again lavish in his praise of the defeated opponent, so much so that he seemed almost patriarchal toward Bugner. "He's got better legs than I thought," said Ali, no doubt with one eye on a return fight in London. "I won't be around in two years. Watch out for Bugner. He'll be the champion a couple of years from now."

Ali contended that had he carried 10 more pounds into the fight (he weighed in at 217¼) he would have been taking a "terrible risk." Maybe, but looking at his gaunt, drawn face, his long moments of lassitude, it seemed apparent that he left his fight behind in the gym. He trained a total of 67 rounds the week before the bout, and on the day before, while Bugner rested, concluded with six rounds of gym work. That is a lot for an aging fighter, no matter the opinion of his trainer, Angelo Dundee, who called Ali's work ordinary. Others next to the champion were concerned at his growing obsession with coming in at a low weight.

Ali in the gym was not the only thing that bothered his camp. He could not find the hook to the passive Bugner, the psychological advantage that he looks for against each opponent. Often, there would be a group of his street intelligentsia sitting like staff generals and discussing the problem. "He looks like a honkie to me," one would say. "No," Ali would say, "I like the English." Then another would add: "Jump on how big and dumb he looks. That'll get 'em." Ali: "Man, you big and dumb." "What about race?" asked another wizard. Ali grimaced and then fell silent. The next day he bellowed his way out of the gym, claiming that Bugner once called him a "nigger." It was a sad, false claim that Ali regretted later.

As for the stoic Bugner, he never did give Ali the opening he craved. It was too big a fight for Bugner, who has been jeered more than any English heavyweight in recent history. To Ali it was a matter of $275,000 and then moving on to his March bout with Ken Norton in San Diego. Bugner got $125,000 but his future seemed to hang on how he looked against Ali. It was a good gamble, properly thought out; by nature Ali is not a cruel man and often he is sympathetic to inferiors.

So now Bugner returns to England a much more romantic figure thanks to Ali's verbal generosity after the fight, the seven-stitch cut on Bugner's eye and the good legs that kept his massive body upright across 12 rounds. That is no small accomplishment by English reasoning. For years now the English have scowled at their "horizontal heavyweights" who (except for Henry Cooper) were seldom much better than Phaintin' Phil Scott of the '20s. But Joe Bugner served them honorably. At least no one would have reason to duplicate the lines of Arnold Bennett who, while grousing over Joe Beckett's one-round loss to Georges Carpentier, wrote: "Now Beckett was a sack of potatoes, and Carpentier in might and glory was publicly kissing the chosen girl within a yard of the Prince of Wales."