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Muhammad Ali laughs, for in the ring he has become a clown. No, now he is Marcel Marceau entertaining us with grotesque mimes. He is mockingly disdainful of his opponent, he is a show of horror at some trivial development in the ring, he is a badly mauled fighter (ah, but is he only playacting?). And then, in a twinkling, with bold strokes and flashing brilliance, he reaches deeply into his dwindling resources and the left jab becomes a cobra, striking out again and again before melding into a two-handed volley fired with such fury it seems a red line of tracers in the night. Then that moment passes, too, so swiftly it appears but an illusion of days long past.

For Ali there are no more pitched battles, only well-spaced fire fights. Mostly he husbands his strength behind a fool's facade, playing a shrewd but dangerous role, surviving on guile and guts, a master of legerdemain covering his diminished skills with a magic show. And, as was announced at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night: the old magician is still heavyweight champion of the world.

The foil for Ali this time was Earnie Shavers, a shaven-headed 33-year-old puncher with questionable stamina, a crude workman who, for $300,000, was expected to fall down from exhaustion after six rounds or so. Shavers' trademark was a bludgeoning right thrown unceasingly until either the opponent was knocked out—52 had been, most of them with names like Rochell Norris, Elgie Walters and Young Agabab—or Shavers was, which had happened three times. Ali labeled him The Acorn because of his bare pate and publicly dismissed him. In Las Vegas the bookies considered him so far out of his class they wouldn't put up a price. People do not bet on acorns.

Ali's acorn turned out to be a warm and gracious man, one amused by the champion's usual prefight antics, who mildly offered that he thought he was a better fighter than credited; that for the first time he was in excellent physical condition and ready to go 15 rounds if needed. His smile was a little boy's smile, and when he spoke it was with a delightful touch of humor; everyone liked him, few believed in him.

"I don't know what we are going to do around here after you win the title," said Frank Luca, Shavers' trainer and one of the few believers. "After you whip Ali all those hangers-on in his entourage are going to be out of work. They'll all be over here looking for the employment office."

Delight brightened Shavers' eyes. "I already worked that out," he said. "I'm going home and put up a picket fence around the house, get some guard dogs and put my wife Laverne at the door. They may get over the fence, they might con my dogs, but they won't get past Laverne. She's in charge of entourages."

And but for a TV set that never was turned on, Shavers at this moment might be at home building his fence. The set, with no one to watch it, was in Shavers' dressing room. Ali's 22nd title fight was televised by NBC, and as an extra attraction the network had arranged to flash the official scoring on the screen after every round. Such an obvious edge was not lost on Angelo Dundee, Ali's smart little trainer, who posted Baltimore matchmaker Eddie Hrica in the champion's dressing quarters to watch the TV set there and relay the numbers after each round. And so, after 12 rounds, Dundee knew the only way Shavers could beat his man was by a knockout.

Across the ring Shavers was being given quite a different picture. Near the challenger's corner were several members of his home-state Ohio Boxing Commission, two reporters and José Sulaiman, the president of the World Boxing Council. All were scoring the fight and they all reported regularly to Luca that they had Shavers far in the lead. No sweat. Don't take any chances, Earnie. In truth, it was not an easy fight to score. Ali's fights of late seldom have been.

Ali began as he said he would: flat on his feet, circling to his left but not dancing, easily eluding the few thunderbolts Shavers unleashed. Ali won the first round, mostly by default.

"You have to dance against a man like Ken Norton," Ali had said, "and against Joe Frazier. You don't stand and slug with them. If Shavers is as slow as he looks, I ain't gonna do no dancing with him. But I'm ready. I'm ready to rope-a-dope; I'm ready to dance; I'm ready to talk; I'm ready to clown; I'm ready to be serious."

What he was not ready to do was dance 15 rounds against anyone: Shavers or Norton or Frazier, or Sister Sarah at the Saturday Night Strutters Ball. The legs no longer can handle 45 minutes of the Ali Shuffle; no more, perhaps, than a third of that. No matter. Unexcelled at buying time, Ali simply dips into his satchel of tricks and whips out the rope-a-dope, brightens it with some pantomime, clutches, makes faces at the fans, sticks a long left into his opponent's face and leaves it there while elaborately cranking up his right. Meanwhile, his 35-year-old legs can go on a coffee break.

"He goes into that rope-a-dope," said Shavers beforehand, "and it's gonna be the dullest fight in history. When he does I'll just hit him a couple of times and then go over and lean on another rope and stare at him. It will be a staring contest."

For Shavers the battle plan was patience, not to be a wild man, not to punch himself out, and in the second round it may have cost him the championship. Midway through the round he unloaded a thunderous right over an Ali jab, which caught the champion flush on the head. Hurt badly, Ali clinched and held, and over Shavers' bulky left shoulder he made faces at the crowd, belittling the damage. Shavers stepped back and hesitated, watching Ali pretend his legs were rubbery. Instinct told him he had the champion hurt, but Ali's con took the decision over common sense. If at that crucial moment Shavers had reverted to his primeval past, if he had plowed forward with both cannons roaring, the title might have changed hands right there. But Ali's recuperative powers are extraordinary; he recovers almost as quickly as you can flick a light switch twice: off, on. His act bought him more time than he needed.

The moment passed; the pace slowed. The third and fourth rounds were a seminar in defense: Ali showed Shavers the rope-a-dope; Shavers demonstrated his version of the peekaboo. At times they resembled two old bulls fighting over a young cow, horns locked, shoving and snorting, tearing up a lot of earth but not each other. In the shoving and snorting Shavers got a draw.

Then Ali conjured up yet another trick: he showed Shavers a 25-year-old Ali, the kid who had dazzled Liston, who had savaged Cooper. It was as though he had drunk from the Fountain of Youth, and for three minutes it worked. The fifth became his finest round since his last fight with Frazier in Manila; gliding gracefully and quickly, using the snake jab, the awesome combinations, floating and stinging, the butterfly and the bee. The world wanted Ali, he gave them Ali but, Lord, not for very long.

The candle flickered brightly and then went out. Dullness returned. The sixth round was nearly even. Ali's sleight-of-hand gave him the edge in the seventh; the eighth went to Shavers by default. The fans booed Ali and he waved his gloves at them, as if saying, "You are watching Frans Hals paint the Laughing Cavalier and you are angry because he is spilling paint on the carpet." But an unfinished masterpiece is no masterpiece, and so Ali fought on. With masterly fakery and occasional flurries he carried the next four rounds, building an insurmountable lead. After 12 rounds he led 8-4 on two of the official cards, 8-3-1 on the third.

Now, thanks to NBC, Dundee knew his man could not lose the decision, but he didn't tell Ali. "I've seen a lot of smart cornermen think they've got a decision locked," said Dundee, "so they tell their man to relax. And they wind up blowing the title."

By now people were watching the challenger critically, looking for the first sign of collapse. Shavers had never gone more than 10 rounds before, and the few times he had gone that far he had finished so exhausted he could hardly stand. Now he had lasted 12, but instead of wilting, the muscular challenger stepped up his attack. He had been pressing most of the night, now he went at Ali full bore. The 13th was Shavers' best round to that point, the 14th was even better. Rocked by hard right hands, Ali survived, but the legs that had carried him through 56 professional fights were beginning to fail him. At the end of the 14th round the champion had to dip into his reserve of strength just to get back to his corner. Wearily he slumped on his stool, his eyes glazed by fatigue.

When the bell for the 15th rang, Ali could barely stand. His legs quivered. Dundee and Bundini Brown gripped his arms, steadying him. "You don't look so good," Dundee said softly. "You better go out and take this round."

As he moved to meet Shavers, Ali was thinking: "Just three more minutes. Fight hard until you die. Do it now." He sucked in a deep breath, lifted himself on his toes and started to dance. Shavers came at him, the time for patience gone, finally the fearsome headhunter; but, as it turned out, too late. He missed with a big right hand, took two punches, missed with a right and a hook, then landed a right. Ali didn't have the strength to act; dazed, he flurried ineffectively and was caught by another right hand.

Together they lurched around the ring, swinging, missing, gasping. With less than a minute to go, Ali's body was screaming at him: no more, no more. Shuddering, the champion called once again on his tremendous willpower, and he launched perhaps his greatest offensive. Fury replacing fatigue, he swarmed over Shavers, pounding him without pause.

In Ali's corner Dundee watched with awe. "I don't know how you do it, you son of a bitch," he thought, "but I love you for it."

Stunned by the sudden storm. Shavers sagged. But not his spirit. A will almost the match of Ali's kept the challenger on his feet. This was the man some had called a dog. Watching Shavers, Cus D'Amato said, "It takes some people a long time to grow up. Tonight Shavers became a man."

The priceless moments ended with the final bell. Ali won, of course. And as he stood in his corner listening for the verdict he said in a voice that could scarcely be heard, "I'm tired. I'm so damn tired."

Later in his dimly lit dressing room Ali lay on a dressing table and moaned softly. Agony made prisoners of his legs; his swollen hands hurt him so badly that he tried not to move his fingers. The terrible body punishment Shavers had inflicted had left Ali's kidneys swollen, sore. He had demanded much more than his body was prepared to give, and now he was paying. "I'm through," he mumbled. "I don't need anyone else to tell me."

Earlier in the week he had spoken of one or two more small $4 million fights against less imposing opponents than Jimmy Young or Kenny Norton, who will fight Nov. 5 to be first on line for Ali's crown. For certain, Ali doesn't want to fight either one. They have seen his magic and they are not fooled by it. "Two lesser fights," Ali had said before the Shavers bout, "and then retirement, still the champ. Just give me 12 more months."

But after Shavers, he was no longer sure he wants even 12 more minutes. His manager, Herbert Muhammad, has long wanted him to retire. Herbert didn't even attend the Shavers fight. He watched it on TV at his New York apartment. Recently Sulaiman of the WBC. who is more fan than expert, urged Ali to quit. After the fight he added muscle to the plea. "If he doesn't retire," said Sulaiman, "he'll fight the winner of Norton-Young within a specified time or we'll vacate the title. "Ali is bigger than the WBC," he added. "But we have our dignity."

Thinking more, perhaps, of Ali's dignity, Teddy Brenner, the Garden's boxing boss, added his vote for retirement. "As long as I'm around," Brenner said, "the Garden will never make another offer to Ali to fight."

Dundee said he had his own thoughts, but they were private, and he would only reveal them to Ali if asked. "He has to make up his own mind," Dundee said.

Ali's career has spanned 18 years, and he has earned from boxing alone more than $44 million. He has a few of those bucks left, plus a grim determination to retire as champion. Still, future opponents like Alfio Righetti, the Italian marshmallow, or Leon Spinks, he of just five pro fights, have been mentioned along with Gerrie Coetzee, the unbeaten South African, who was at the Shavers fight.

"I can beat Ali," Coetzee said afterward. "I'm faster. I have never lost. Do you know how old Ali is? He is 35. My father is 40. He is almost as old as my father."

"But can you whip your father?" he was asked.

Coetzee has no sense of humor. Can you believe a champion with no sense of humor? Please, Ali, don't fight Coetzee. Don't fight anyone else. The next guy might have a TV in his corner.

PHOTOPHOTOHam acting in the second round bought Ali time.PHOTOAt the bell for the 15th, an enervated Ali is supported by Bundini Brown.