Just a few hours before his title defense against Ken Norton last week, Muhammad Ali sat shoeless, his feet up on a kitchen table in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, isolated from all the chiselers and half-wits who snap at his peace and concentration before a big fight, away from some of those parasites around him who call themselves aides and had hastened his recent decline. After thinking about suitable endings for his strange and incomparable career Ali suddenly turned to his host and said, "Maybe I should reach up and pull down the mike in the middle of the ring and announce...Laaaaadies and gentlemen, you have seen the last of the eighth wonderrrr of the world. Muhammad retires."
"Nah, nah," rasped Harold Conrad, an adviser to champions for decades, who had put Ali up for three days. "You did that in Manila, you did it in Malaysia. One more you said, always one more. Who would believe you?"
Three days later in exotic Istanbul, Muhammad Ali rattled the world stage for the second time in a week—the first when he was given a controversial decision over Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium, this second time as he announced with the appropriate dramatic inflection, Wallace Muhammad (head of the Muslims in America) by his side to give it an official imprint: "Mark my words, and play what I say right now fully. At the urging of my leader Wallace, I declare I am quitting fighting as of now and from now on I will join in the struggle for the Islamic cause."
The announcement was a last, fitting tremor in a bizarre week in which occurred one of the worst heavyweight title fights in history; in which a champion who had finally become too old was brutally exposed and found to be a fragile mortal like the rest of us; in which a challenger with meager gifts was robbed of his moment by his own head as well as bad advice from his corner. It was a week that saw the arrogant Madison Square Garden put on a truly shabby fight promotion; a week that saw the dark and mean streets around Junkie Stadium erupt into anarchy and savagery, leading one to contemplate the line of e. e. cummings: "What comma indeed comma is civilization?"
Quite properly, Ali's retirement was received with wide cynicism. Most observers see a grand design behind Ali's words, which seldom indicate what he really feels. They see it this way: Foreman fights Norton for the vacant title, Norton gets beaten (thus removing the stigma of Norton for Ali) and Ali "un-retires" to challenge for the championship a third time, setting up the richest title bout ever. The logic seems sound.
"It's too premature," says Bob Arum, co-promoter with Madison Square Garden, of Ali's announcement. "If the money's right, Ali will fight Foreman." Down in Texas, George Foreman remarks, "I'll only be satisfied when I knock Muhammad Ali out." Then, as an afterthought, he says, "Turkey goes right along with him. He's a turkey."
Others are certain that Ali means what he says. "I had no idea he was going to do this," says Angelo Dundee, who has trained Ali since his fight with Herb Siler back in 1960 in Miami Beach. "Nobody knows what he'll do. He's got me where I'll take anything that comes. If he makes a statement, I believe him." Says Ali's old promoter, Don King, "He's through. I'm sure of it. He may play with the rest of us, but not with the chief minister, Wallace." Stunned, Joe Frazier, who may well have taken the last bit of greatness out of Ali back on that torrid morning in Manila a year ago, could only say of Ali's quitting, "He did?"
What happened? How did Ali's decision evolve in the space of a couple of hours? Following the Norton fight, there seemed to be a sharp division in Ali's thoughts. For the first time in his life he seemed almost speechless; the words came out softly, timidly, from a man who was looking into the bared teeth of true doubt about himself, about his work, about his future. "I got $6 million tax free saved up," he said in his dressing room. "Drawin' seven per cent interest. What I gotta keep on fightin' for? Wise for me to get out now. There's nothin' else to prove. This thing is dangerous." The next day at a press conference, sitting next to Norton, he quietly explained why Norton should fight Foreman first before a rematch, then privately said, "None of them niggers want Foreman. Only this nigger, me, can take him."
A Foreman-Ali match sometime in late spring appeared certain, even after he arrived at the airport in Istanbul. He told reporters that he "will leave boxing after my upcoming bout with George Foreman." He then went to noon prayers with Wallace Muhammad in the Blue Mosque. Next, at a press conference, Wallace turned to Ali and said, "Since he has indicated that he is seriously considering retiring from boxing and taking up the battle for truth, I want to ask him right now to pledge to retire from the ring and use his power—the fist of his tongue instead of the ring—for truth. He has the inspirational power to wake up the slumbering people of this world, and I am asking him now to retire."
Said Ali: "It has been my lifetime dream to become a champion and retire from the ring and then use my influence and fame for Allah. I have many people advising me to retire, and many people advising me to fight a few more times. I do not want to lose a fight, and if I keep boxing I may lose. I may gain much money, but the love of the Moslems and the hearts of my people are more valuable than personal gain. So I am going to stop while everyone is happy and I am still winning. This [Wallace] is my leader, this is my spiritual teacher in Islam, and I want to retire anyway. Now he has advised me it will be wise. I have no confusion in my mind."
Perhaps there was only happiness and lucidity in Istanbul, but elsewhere around the world confusion and bad tempers simmered for days, especially among many of the 30,298 who had been at Yankee Stadium. The crowd had not only seen a bad fight, it had heard a decision which—for some fans and much of the press—was equal to the squalidness and general breakdown of law and order inside and outside the Stadium. The decision for Ali—8-7, 8-7, 8-6-1—brought down the sky on him, and outrage, scalding hot, ran from the pages of the press, leaving Ali far from being the "people's champion," leaving him a decidedly unheroic figure. His manager, Herbert Muhammad, may well have been re-examining his often repeated words: "I don't think anything can hurt Ali. He is beyond criticism. He is a legend."
Legends should be allowed to die slowly; at least that is what Ali seemed to want in his dressing room after the fight. But here it was, all the reality of this awful moment smothering him, each question like a knife thrust into his pride as an artist. My God, he seemed to be saying, they're going to strip me down bare right in this room and send me naked into the streets. He mumbled. He swore. He seethed inside. His head was down. Then a question came that released all the pounding hurt inside his head.
"How much longer can you fight with your mouth?" a huge black reporter asked.
"You're an Uncle Tom nigger to ask something like that," Ali snapped.
"I'm askin' you how long you can fight with your mouth," the guy pressed.
"Long enough to whup your black ass," Ali shot back.
Going into this fight, there were two questions—Ali's age and Norton's head—and the worst aspects of both would be confirmed, making it an un-memorable piece of physical art, yet an incendiary evening because of the ambiguity of so many rounds. There is no question now that Ali is through as a fighter. The hard work, the life and death of Manila, the endless parade of women provided by the fools close to him, have cut him down. Unlike the Jimmy Young defense, when he obviously was out of shape, there is no excuse for Ali's showing against Norton. He threw only one good combination all night. His jab, which once drained and depressed aggression, was only a nervous flick. But he was in excellent physical condition, and that along with a sure hand on his craft saved him.
Once more, as in his second fight with Ali, Norton's head got in the way. Here he is with a six-round lead going into the ninth, and he seems to unravel ever so slightly; he drops the ninth, and then four of the next six rounds to Ali, who has begun to dance and dictate the course of the fight with vast ring wisdom. Norton pursues ineffectively while Ali hand-fights, keeping Norton off balance, forever lodged in his turtle defense. It is the 11th round, though, when Norton makes his most serious mistake. He elects to parody Ali, to hang on the ropes, to put his hands down, to exchange repartee. How foolish, how insufferably wrongheaded. It is at this point when he should have been his most physical, when abandon and fury were called for, when he should have pushed Ali over the edge with the considerable strength left in his superb body. "Nobody is going to give us a gift against Ali," said Bob Biron, Norton's manager, before the fight.
So they all knew this, Norton and his corner, led by Bill Slayton. Now comes the 15th round, the pivotal round, the one that can shove Norton over the top without argument. "We've got to close the show," shouts Angelo Dundee, sending Ali out. "Turn tiger, champ!" Thinking the fight was wrapped up for Norton, Slayton moves him out with instructions not to get careless. The result is that Ali fights for two minutes and 40 seconds, and Norton wakes up the rest of the way. As the round ends, Norton stalks Ali back to his corner, shouting, "I beat you! I beat you!" Led back to his own corner, he leaps for the sky along with Slayton, both of them certain that the title has been won. Shortly, the verdict comes, and Norton, his head wrapped in a towel, is crying uncontrollably; sympathy pours down on him.
Norton got hold of himself later. "I wasn't even tired," he said. "If I thought it was close, I'd have fought back harder and more. When you fight Ali, you're behind at the start. It's obvious you have to knock him out to win. When it's that obvious, you have to think the judges stole it. They made asses out of themselves. The fight speaks for itself."
Ali did not think so: "You got to beat the champ, you gotta whup him! Did he beat me convincingly? I had to beat Joe Frazier twice, Sonny Liston twice, George Foreman.... You can't fight like Jimmy Young. You got to whup the champ! Drop me! Make me fall! Hurt me! Do you think I paid the judges? They never give me anything. I'm not a good American boy. I'm an arrogant nigger. They're white men. They wouldn't give it to me if I didn't win it."
A well-worn bit of sophistry, this use of race, this donning of the martyr's robes when backed against the wall, but Ali must know better, or he is as dumb as some think he truly is. In the past, Ali has always been given the best of it. He was allowed to hold Frazier by the back of the head (55 times) in their second fight. He was given, rightly so, the benefit of doubt in the Young bout. "The only thing the people watch and the judges see," says Slayton, "is what Ali does in the ring. They don't see the other guy." That comment carries much truth, but it is also more than sufficient reason for a' challenger to try to rip a title from a champion, to shock judges away from the hypnotic presence of Ali.
What is one to make of the decision? Do you take a title away from an Ali on a one-round difference in 15 muddled rounds? Can a solid case be made for Norton? Those who saw him as the winner believe that no evidence has to be gathered for Norton, pointing out that scoring in the end is the ultimate delineator, scoring based on number and content of blows, aggression, ring generalship and defense. The trouble is this: How can you score such a bad fight, how can one be so clear in such murky going? Scoring is always imprecise, and in this case it was almost impossible. In a close contest any judgment must be highly subjective. It hinges on tradition (the heavyweight title has changed hands only three times by decision since 1932). It involves sentiment and preference for style and the man—and with Ali, the mystique of the man.
Technically, on hard scoring, I gave the fight to Norton by one round, but it was a troubled 8-7—without real conviction. He was ahead 7-6 at the end of 13 rounds, won the 14th big and ignored the 15th. The 14th and 15th meant the fight for Norton. Two of the judges, Barney Smith and Harold Lederman, gave the 14th to Ali. "They were playing catch-up," says Biron. "They had given too many rounds early on to Norton, and now they were leaning hard into the wind for Ali. In heaven's name, how can you give him the 14th?" Even so, Norton was still alive on both cards going into the 15th; it seemed the officials wanted a dramatic statement from him. "If Norton had started in the first minute of that round," says Lederman, "and started with that right hand, he would have been champion." Arthur Mercante, the referee, says, "Aggression is one thing, but effective aggression is another. A lot of the time Norton was not effective."
If Norton was lethargic, the New York police were useless outside the Stadium, this $100 million worth of concrete and steel in the West Bronx; it might as well be in the most remote part of New Guinea. On this night the cops chose the Stadium as the scene of a job action over work schedules and deferred raises; hundreds of them, off duty and on duty, turned the night into a holiday for muggers, pickpockets and general marauders. The on-duty cops did nothing except laugh at—and sometimes join—their off-duty colleagues, who were blowing whistles and stopping traffic. Their eyes were turned away as one saw a man hit over the head and then frisked rapidly while he was on the ground; as one watched an arm reach into a limousine and pull out a necklace; as one looked on while three photographers were robbed of all their equipment; as tickets were stolen right out of hands and women were pawed. It was not a pretty sight.
Nor was it easy on eyes to see Ali on this night. He seemed a pathetic figure, merely a master of illusion, groping with his loss of reflexes; his feet knew precisely where to be, but his hands and mind seemed to be hooked up in some diabolical plot against him. He reminded one of Paul Léautaud, who writes of man's relationship to his body, his image, in his Journal. "Damn it all!" he writes, after a woman remarks upon his age. "How impossible it is to see oneself as one really is!" That is much to ask of anyone, and it is no certainty that Ali can do it, either. If he has done it sincerely, looked into that shimmering glass at all that he was and is, if he has retired, then it would be a remarkable triumph of sense over ego. If not, then one wishes he somehow could get a picture of the image left by him in the ring at Yankee Stadium: that of a cat hung by its tail outside a window, trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws, the sound grating and chilling and the spectacle altogether too cruel.
Norton, confident that he had beaten Ali and taken the title, was all smiles at the end of the fight—until he heard the judges' numbing verdict.
Despite Norton's clumsiness, Ali's punches had no sting, but his ring wisdom served him well.
With his championship still intact but his pride wounded, Ali weaves his way to the dressing room.