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The vanguard of Muhammad Ali's clan was gathering. Lana Shabazz, the camp cook, was seated at a long planked table preparing lunch. With her in the log house that serves as kitchen and dining room were Jimmy Ellis, the former WBA heavyweight champ who had been promoted from sparring partner to assistant trainer; Abdul Rahaman, the tough security chief once known as Captain Sam; and Howard Bingham, the photographer. Drew Brown, known as Bundini, had had a big night and was still sleeping in one of the camp's 14 log cabins. Those in the room all wanted to know one thing: Who was Ali going to fight, Larry Holmes or Mike Weaver?

That he would fight again was all too apparent. He was there, wasn't he, there in his $500,000 training complex high on Sculp Hill overlooking Deer Lake, Pa. The three-time heavyweight champion had arrived the night before, in the backwoods darkness of last Friday, and he had just climbed from the Paul Bunyanesque bed in his private cabin. "Too late to run," Ali decided, a grin accenting his new mustache. Then he yawned.

With her gleaming knife poised over a large carrot, Lana eyed the sleepy Ali. "Who you going to fight?" she demanded with finality.

Ali's answer was distorted by another yawn. "The Marine," he said.

Ellis' eyes widened. "Who?" he asked, surprise lacing his voice. "I thought you were going to fight Holmes."

Ali shook his head, the electric light picking up the gray advancing through his hair. "Nah. I'm going to fight the Marine. Then I'm going to beat up on Holmes."

Lana was still a little puzzled. "Which Marine?"

"The one that just knocked out John Tate," Ali said. "Mike Weaver. Weaver the Beaver."

The carrot was halved by a sharp stroke from Lana's knife. "You got to whup him," she said with concern.

Sighing, Ali lifted the front of his brown warm-up jacket. Thick coils of midsection spilled into view. Ali clutched fistfuls of the offending flesh. "Ain't this disgusting? I can't hide it no more. I don't want to hide it no more. Going to get rid of it."

An hour later Ali, idle these past 18 months, took the first step in what he knew would become three months of agony, self-imposed torture, as he pushed himself to sculpt his 38-year-old body into fighting trim.

"So he's really gone back to the mountain," said Angelo Dundee, the little trainer Ali will soon beckon from his home in Miami. "I never thought he'd do it. I really believed that before he fought again the mountain would have to come to him."

His boxing trunks tugged high as he sought to cover the jiggling jelly roll, Ali came into the gym for his first workout at Deer Lake. He walked past the speed bag. The heavy bag remained unused. Instead he pointed toward Henry Clark, a used-up journeyman, and climbed gracelessly into the ring, where, like beached whales, the two floundered through a couple of rounds.

"Just warming up," said Ali, panting heavily as Ellis toweled sweat from his face. "You next," Ali growled, pointing toward a slender youth, who eagerly reached for a battered head guard.

As he had for his historic second fight with Leon Spinks, Ali has once more imported light and fast sparring partners from the amateur ranks. "He needs those little guys," Dundee explained. "He is going to look slow as hell but they'll bring out all the speed and reflexes he's got left. He won't look like much for five weeks, but then watch him."

The youth Ali had beckoned was Charles Carter, a 21-year-old welterweight from Yakima, Wash, with an 84-14 record and cobras for hands. "I'm going to put a real whuppin' on you, boy," Ali threatened.

"What you're going to do is learn my name," the unawed Carter responded.

Even when he was young and trim, which was about three Presidents ago, sparring was never one of Ali's more ardent pursuits. He can get in more loafing during 10 rounds of ring work than most people could manage in the same time while stretched across a bed.

Midway through the second round Carter began to challenge him: "Come on, old man, let's see you fight." Later Carter would explain, "I wasn't trying to be a wise guy. I was just trying to get him to work. He was loafing. I was trying to get him up on his toes."

As penalty for his rashness, Ali made Carter work six full rounds. "You know my name now?" Carter gasped when it was over.

"Get back in here, boy," Ali yelled at him. "You ain't done."

Carter flew across the ring, got in two quick licks and then darted between the ropes. Ali laughed. He worked two more rounds with Roosevelt Green, a young welterweight, before packing it in.

In the dressing room Ali fell backward onto a couch. His eyes closed. "God, 10 rounds and I'm exhausted," he moaned. "Ten rounds!"

"What you expect, you're just in off the street," Rahaman told him.

"No more sparring," Ali said.

Rahaman nodded his approval. "I hope not."

"Tomorrow I got to work."

"All you were doing today was telling your body it was time to go back to work," Rahaman said. "You was just getting rid of the laziness."

"I hope so," Ali said. He sounded semi-convinced.

Even at the advanced age of 38 and carrying more suet than sinew, Ali induced a wild scramble among promoters when he announced he was ready to put up his fists once more. The winner appears to be Murad Muhammad, an obscure fight peddler out of Newark, N.J., whose chief claim is that he promoted all of James Scott's light-heavyweight fights at Rahway State Prison.

Bob Arum, who holds the options for Weaver's next three fights, had offered Ali $4.5 million for his comeback in New Orleans against John Tate. That looked like the fight until March 31, when Weaver erased the Tennessee giant from the WBA's championship roster with one short left hook (page 20).

Don King, the orator who decides the ring fortunes of WBC champ Larry Holmes, had countered with an offer of $7 million. But that offer was set for self-destruct: King had offered Holmes only $3 million.

"To hell with that," stormed Richie Giachetti, Holmes' manager. "Don said we should give Ali the most money. Why? We've got what he wants. We should get as much and more, and Larry feels the same way. If Ali gets $7 million, then we get $7 million. And that's the way it is." By week's end King reportedly had withdrawn his offer to Ali.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's personal physician for many years, said, "I don't see any helter-skelter race to the bank to get the money out. I hear about all those million-dollar offers, but a lot of that talk is like Miami Beach mortgage money. It's all on paper."

But while Arum and King were out shaking the money trees, Murad Muhammad, 29, who was once an Ali bodyguard, set off on a six-day transcontinental trip that netted him $10 million in backing from a California firm called Prime Corp.—reportedly a mining business—and the apparent acceptance of Ali vs. Weaver. In giving Murad Muhammad the rights to Weaver's first defense, Arum will get a percentage of the TV revenue, whether it be network or closed circuit.

If the complex package doesn't unravel, which has been known to frequently happen in boxing, Ali will be paid a record $8 million, while Weaver will earn $2 million. Scheduled for July, the fight is supposed to be held in the 165,000-seat Stadium Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. On April 3 in Chicago, Ali was given $250,000 by the Prime Corp. people, which he will keep even if the deal should die.

When Holmes received word that it apparently would be Weaver and not he who would be fighting Ali, he wasn't disappointed. "Ali's not crazy," Holmes said. "He doesn't want to fight me. I used to be his sparring partner and I had to hold back. I thought I could beat him then. Now I know I can beat him. But as a friend I have this advice for Ali. You don't need all those houses and cars. If you're broke, sell the houses and the cars. You can do other things. Don't swallow your pride just to make some money. Don't get into the ring.

"You can't beat nobody—well, you can beat Weaver, he's a plodder. I just hope you haven't sold your pride and sold yourself and your family out. Let your kids have their pride. They could be the proudest kids in America because their father was the greatest fighter who ever lived. Don't take that away from them."

Ali's decision to return to the ring actually was made five months ago, about 30 seconds after Tate decisioned Gerrie Coetzee in South Africa to claim the WBA title Ali had just abdicated.

"When I realized what had happened," says Ali, who had watched the fight on television, "I yelled, 'I'm back!' I knew I could beat Tate."

His young wife Veronica wasn't all that ecstatic. "If you are going to do it, do it," she told her husband. "But I don't like it."

Ali was so excited about the prospect of winning the title for a fourth time that last November he went to the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles and sparred with Eddie (The Animal) Lopez, a vicious gym fighter who had once knocked out Bernardo Mercado during a workout.

Ali went in looking like a balloon. Time and again Lopez berated him as a fat old man. As the first round ended, Ali ripped off his headgear and snarled, "You want to fight. Then let's fight."

For the next two rounds it was the old Ali fighting inside a fat man's body. Firing dazzling combinations, he assaulted the stunned Lopez with controlled fury. And when he was done, Lopez told him, almost reverently, "Hey, man, I was only kidding."

Not until March did Ali return to a gym. He worked several days at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. On the fourth day he received a cut in a corner of his upper lip. It required six stitches outside, four inside, but Ali insists he didn't grow the mustache to hide them.

Dundee sees the split lip as a blessing: "After the cut he went to work. In just that short period he got down to 242 pounds."

At camp last Friday, Ali said he weighed 248. It may be the truth or he may have forgotten to weigh one of his legs. Dundee says it doesn't matter.

"The weight is no problem," says the man who has trained Ali since his third pro fight. "The pounds will come off. If he stays in camp, if he runs and eats properly and exercises, then he'll get into shape. But he won't want to run. You've got to push him. You say, 'O.K., go get knocked out.' Then he'll run. He's got to force himself to stay in camp. In the past he always found nine million excuses to go somewhere. That's bad. But if he stays in camp he can do it. Nobody else could at his age, but he can. But will he do it? That's the question."

Pacheco forecasts only disaster. In 1977, after 12 years with Ali, he quit when Ali refused to retire. Nothing that has happened since has changed the doctor's mind.

"Eight million is hard for anybody to turn down," Dr. Pacheco says. "But his wife, his mother, me, even Don King are telling him not to fight. He trained in Miami and didn't look good. That cut. Ali never cut. He's like us all; he's getting old. There is a loss of muscle tone, of elasticity of the skin. As happens to all of us, his face is falling. The tissues of his face are sagging. It's a time in life when plastic surgeons reap the benefits and old fighters begin to cut."

Floyd Patterson, the former heavyweight champion, who fought until age 37, echoes Pacheco. "I've been hit when I was young and when I was old," he says, "and the punch that didn't leave a scratch when I was younger left a gash when I was older. He's taking a hell of a gamble at an age when the reflexes slow and the legs aren't what they used to be. But Ali is extraordinary. He brainwashes himself into believing he can do something, and it usually ends up that he does it. But you can't brainwash yourself into being young again."

For his part, Weaver isn't thinking of Ali's sagging facial features, or of his slowing reflexes, or of the legs that seemed to have been robbed of their extraordinary lightness. Ali is Weaver's idol. He has been ever since he first won the title in 1964, the year Weaver was 11.

"I like him and I love him," Weaver says. "I don't want to fight him, but I will if I have to. I won't like it before the fight and I'll hate it after the fight, but during the fight when I'm beating up on him I won't think about it."

If the fight comes off, Ali gives Weaver no chance.

"He got beat nine times by a bunch of bums," says Ali. "And he was losing big to Tate until he got lucky with one punch. I see him as my tune-up for Holmes. Weaver would give me my timing back. I want Holmes bad. He told me to stay in my rocking chair. Well, I'm going to get out of my rocking chair and beat his butt bad. Hell, Holmes is 30. That's too old to be a serious threat to me."

Ali's eyes take on a dreamy quality. "I beat Weaver and win the title for the fourth time. Then say Holmes gets lucky and beats me. Then I come back and beat him and win the title for the fifth time. The five-time heavyweight champion. Tell me what ever happened in the world that was greater than that?"

"Well," says a friend, "this is Easter and...."

"I'm talking about sports," Ali said.

PHOTOPHOTOAli says he isn't just playing out the string, and his fans at Deer Lake seem to be in agreement.