The "rope-a-dope" strategy did not work and the "mirage" approach failed, so Muhammad Ali, surely the most versatile heavyweight fighter of all time, went back to proven stuff. He began to float like a 224½-pound butterfly and sting like a bee and he reduced Ron Lyle to a defenseless hulk after one minute and eight seconds of the 11th round in their championship fight last week in Las Vegas.
During the course of the first 10 rounds, Ali encapsulated almost his entire career. He lay on the ropes and tried to lure Lyle—no dope—into flailing himself arm-weary. But Lyle only pecked away or moved back to the center of the ring. Rope-a-dope had worked against George Foreman in Za√Øre; it is doubtful that the technique will ever work again against an Ali opponent.
The mirage style of boxing is faintly reminiscent of Floyd Patterson's peekaboo: Ali goes to the middle of the ring, holding his hands up, palms together as if in supplication. He gets thwacked smartly about the gloves and arms while peering out at his opponent. Supposedly, this tires the opponent. But it only seemed to encourage Lyle, who ripped a right uppercut through the gloves in the ninth round to give Ali a black eye.
When not using these tactics, Ali stood flat-footed, hands at his sides, and evaded Lyle's punches by moving his head. Most of Lyle's punches, that is. Ali did so little in the first six rounds that he was behind on everyone's scorecard but his own. In the seventh round, he grew bored with his inventions and began to float and sting. And despite being stung himself by a good, ponderous right hand, he took advantage of a grievous Lyle failing.
Lyle does not have fast hands or feet and he has a deplorable habit of dropping his left hand after he jabs. And almost every time he dropped the left, Ali hit him solidly with a right hand. In the eighth, the round selected by Ali as the one in which he would knock his man out, he hit Lyle with a dozen rights over the laggard left, but none of the blows was quite strong enough to fulfill the prediction.
In the ninth and 10th rounds, the champion was content to demonstrate some vintage Ali, dancing, making Lyle miss, flicking out a left hand that is quick as a snake's tongue, not throwing his right, perhaps lulling Lyle into a sense of security.
Early in the 11th, Lyle started a left jab but Ali beat him to it with his own left. Then he smashed Lyle square on the point of the jaw with a thunderous right that sent the challenger reeling into the ropes. Until this explosion, Ali had looked like a man playing tedious games with a boy; now, suddenly, he became deadly serious, battering Lyle along the ropes, across the ring and into a neutral corner. Lyle was overpowered, unable to block the incoming punches, and Ali turned to Referee Ferd Hernandez and motioned for him to stop the fight. The referee refused, so Ali hit Lyle with a lightning left-right-left to the head, then stepped back again and waved to Hernandez. This time, wisely, the referee stopped it.
"I wasn't hurt," Lyle said afterward, proving that his memory is even shorter than George Foreman's. Ex-champion Foreman was on the scene in Las Vegas telling anyone who would listen that he wasn't hurt when Ali knocked him out in Africa. Indeed, Foreman blames the loss on 1) hoobie dust, 2) bad water and 3) the noxious perfume of flowers which mysteriously filled his room for a week before the fight. Someone asked him how to spell "hoobie" and Foreman said, earnestly, "How can you spell it when you can't even see it?" Actually, what Foreman had not seen in Za√Øre and what Lyle had overlooked in Nevada was Ali's right hand.
"I told the ref to come and get him," Ali said. "I could see he was hurt, hurt bad. I can't kill a man. I did the same thing with Quarry and Ellis. Same way."
The champion wore a small bruise under his left eye, where Lyle had hit him with the right uppercut. "He's a better fighter than I thought," Ali said. "Smart, strong, a gentleman. Didn't pay no attention to me talking to him. I was telling him, Take your best shot, sucker.' Then his corner was hollering, 'Uppercut! Uppercut!' so I say, 'Go on, sucker, throw the uppercut.' But he just went about his business."
Despite the beating about the head, Lyle was unmarked. "I could of gone 15," he said. "I don't know why the ref stopped it. This is for all the marbles, and a man deserves a full chance. This is the championship, not a four-round bout."
"Did you ever think you had Ali in trouble?" he was asked, and he shook his head. "No," he said. "I guess some of those shots looked good, but I didn't feel them in my hands. I never hit him a really good shot. You feel that when you do."
"He deserves another chance," Ali said. "Anybody comes up with the right money, he'll get one. That's what we fight for, the money." He spoke with the assurance of a man who had just made $1 million, his fee for this encounter, and had many more millions in prospect.
Ali felt the swelling under his eye, then went on. "Now I got to get ready for Joe Bugner," he said, looking toward his fight with the European heavyweight champion, scheduled for June 30 in Kuala Lumpur. "He's good. Fast, moves good, probably gonna win the first five, six rounds. Went 12 with me right here in Las Vegas. But I invented a whole new way of fighting. Save myself first five, six rounds, let the other man punch himself out. I didn't dance until maybe the sixth, seventh round tonight. I been dancing all the time, I'd a been dead by the 11th, but it wasn't me was dead, it was Lyle, cause he done all the work up to then. So I'll let Bugner go ahead and do all the work, too."
It was a familiar scene. But one can forget hoobie dust, bad water, deadly flowers, rope-a-dope, mirages and all the rest. AH continues to win quite simply because even at 33 he is still the best and smartest and quickest heavyweight in the world. As Bugner no doubt will discover in Kuala Lumpur.