The mouth that nearly roared
This story originally appeared in the April 23, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
If you have counted out Muhammad Ali as the next heavyweight champion of the entire universe, forget it. In the next couple of years he will knock out Ken Norton in four rounds, Joe Frazier in six and win his championship back from George Foreman by a technical knockout in 13. If you don't believe that, ask Ali.
His mouth is wired shut to mend the broken jaw Norton dealt him in the fight in San Diego, but to a talker of Ali's championship caliber, this is no handicap. His voice comes through clenched teeth loud and clear and confident, as always.
Last week, sitting behind a desk in a small, crowded room in the headquarters of Major Coxson, a black multimillionaire who is running for mayor of Camden, N.J., Ali discoursed at considerable length on past errors, his present condition and his brilliant future. He was dressed in a conservative blue suit and glistening black patent-leather shoes. There were no exterior signs of the badly broken jaw that probably cost him the Norton fight, except that he had to talk between his teeth. Oddly, he did this with none of the sibilance one might expect, his voice coming through as precisely as a ventriloquist's.
Going into the Norton fight, Ali explained, he missed almost all of his final week of training because of a sprained ankle. "I was playin' golf one day," he said. "Revolutionizin' the game. If I had not of been the greatest fighter the world ever seen, I could of been the greatest golfer. I don't stand there an' look at the bail and wiggle the club like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and them cats. I was walkin' up to the ball and hittin' it while I was walkin' and knocking it 300, 350 yards."
He got up from behind the desk to demonstrate. He walked across the room and turned to show his approach, then walked crabwise toward the desk, taking three quick steps and swinging an imaginary golf club. Watching him, it seemed plausible that he could hit a ball 300 yards that way. In which direction was less certain.
"Then I figured I'm gonna do even better," he said. "I was gonna run up and hit the ball. First time, I hit the grass, second time I lost my balance and swung all the way round and fell down and twisted my ankle. Man, I laid out there on the grass for 30 minutes, my ankle hurtin', then the doctor for the San Diego Chargers come to see me and I had to spend the rest of that day restin'. Couldn't run no more at all before the fight, couldn't train right, nothin'." He sat down at the desk again and sipped from a cup of pureed navy bean soup.
Back in San Diego, where he came into the ring too heavy at 221 pounds, he had looked sluggish, probably because of the ankle, but even with that injury he felt he would have won. It was the jaw that did him in. He broke it in the second round, he said, not in the first as reported earlier. "I felt it go. Didn't know it was a broke jaw, but I felt it. Got hit with a right cross over a left jab. When I got back to my corner, there was dark red, bluish blood comin' out of my mouth, but I didn't want to quit because there was too many people involved, all them people paid to get in to see me and all them people on television everywhere."
The broken jaw ruined Ali's style for the rest of the fight. "I was fearful," he said. "Fearful of goin' in on the attack."
He got up again to demonstrate what he meant. "I'm fightin' a cat and he ducks," he said, shadowboxing, throwing quick, hard punches. "When he ducks, I can go whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, like this, throwin' uppercuts, crosses, both hands. But now I can't, I got to protect that jaw. I got to back off and cover up like this in case he throw a wild punch and hit me there."
He cowered away from his imaginary opponent, covering his face with his hands.
"Joe Frazier never could have fought a big, hard-hittin' 210-pound man for 10 rounds with a broken jaw," he said. "He's too muscledy. You got to be scientific and artistic enough to stall, keep the fight goin' and still protect yourself. My jaw hurt when I was showin' you that stuff, even."
A slim young man came in interrupting him. Someone had stolen the hubcaps from Ali's Rolls-Royce, one of the several luxury cars he owns.
"They gonna cost you $180 apiece to get new ones," he said, and Ali winced.
"Go get 'em and tell the man I'll pay him later," he said. He sipped at his soup again and returned to the fight.
"Didn't have a right hand after the sixth round," he said, holding out his hand and showing a swollen knuckle on the second finger. "Hit Norton a couple of shots on the head in the sixth and from then on it felt like I had arthritis in my hand, so I couldn't throw no punches with it. But I'm so great I still went on. I'm fighting with a broken jaw and a bad ankle and a sore hand and people say I look bad. But in that last round he looked bad."
He touched the jaw gently and shook his head in wonder at his greatness.
"Funny, the jaw didn't hurt so much in the fight," he said. "Under all the heat and the excitement, you don't feel it. Like a man in a street fight. He get cut in the stomach, fights on with his guts hangin' out and don't feel nothin' until he gets to the hospital."
Touching his jaw reminded Ali that he had made an appointment with a doctor for three o'clock. It was now nearly four and he called to cancel the visit.
"One good thing about it," he said after the call. "Took a broken jaw to let me stay home and enjoy my wife and my children. Now I lay around the house and play with my kids, work in the yard a little, help Belinda around the house, watch movies of my fights and cartoons. Otherwise, I'm all the time travelin', fightin' anybody, building up the boxing world. When I quit, it's going back to the same old slow, flat-footed thing it was before."
He slipped on his jacket, preparing to go home. Belinda, his wife, was preparing a dinner for two promoters from Indonesia, where Ali has a fight scheduled in July.
"Gonna be about three weeks before I can start running again," he said. "When I come back, people going to see a better Ali. My footwork will be beautiful, all that speed. Doin' the Ali shuffle, all them things."
He did the Ali shuffle, watching himself out of the corner of his eye in a wall mirror. He looked trimmer than he has recently, although he had not lost any weight on the liquid diet.
"I wasn't following my religion," he said. "I only have to answer to Allah for that. He knows what I was doin' wrong. Goin' to bed at one o'clock in the morning, sleepin' until nine before I got up to run."
Now he was waiting in the small foyer of the Coxson headquarters building, which he said he owned. "Goin' back to the old Golden Glove days," he said. "I was too busy puttin' on a show, talkin', laughin', makin' jokes. When I start trainin' again, all that is out. I'm gonna get up at five, say my prayers and run three miles. Three is enough, I don't need no more than that. Go to bed early, face to the east and say my prayers again. Train up at my camp in the Poconos, just me and my manager and a sweaty gym, like in the old days. I won't let nobody in to see me train but the press, so I'll get right down to business, no more shows."
He looked seriously at his companion, widening his eyes as he sometimes does when he is trying to evaluate the impact of his words.
"I'm more dedicated now than ever," he went on. "This was a test. Allah say, 'Ali, you so great, now you got your jaw broke, now let's see what you can do.' I'm gonna be better than ever. Should be in shape in maybe three months, then I'll give Norton another chance, though he don't really deserve it after barely winning a fight with a man with a broke jaw, a bad ankle and a hurt right hand. I'll bump him off in four rounds, then I'll bump off Frazier in six. I'm just in my prime at 31, know more, still can hit, still got most of my speed. Then I'll fight Foreman, but I won't knock him out. I'll beat him so bad they'll have to stop the fight in the 13th round."
His car—not the Rolls-Royce but a long Lincoln limousine—came around for him and he got in for the short ride to his home in Cherry Hill, a wealthy New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia.
It is a big, Spanish-style house in a predominantly white neighborhood. Lavishly furnished, it is built around an inner patio containing a swimming pool. Ali watches his movies and cartoons in a basement projection room that would do credit to a Hollywood studio.
At home, Ali left boxing for a while to discuss another of his talents—poetry. He has been nominated as a poet in residence at Oxford University, a post to be decided by the vote of Oxford graduates in the near future.
"Yeah," Ali said. "I heard about that. That Oxford a big, famous place?"
Assured that it was certainly famous, he grinned mischievously.
"How much they pay for a job like that?" he asked.
"About seven hundred pounds a year," he was told.
"How much is that in money?"
"Maybe two thousand dollars."
His face fell, but he thought about it a moment, then asked, "What I got to do?" Told he only had to lecture three times a year, he felt better.
"Hey," he said. "I'll get all dressed up in a big hat and tails and give 'em one of my regular lectures. I don't have to talk about poetry, do I?"
The prospective poet laureate of Oxford thought about his literary future only briefly before returning to his natural milieu.
He began analyzing the current crop of heavyweight contenders, not to their advantage. "I got four more years before they can say I'm over the hill. I'm gonna be in shape when I come back, down around 215 pounds. Ain't no reason for me to start with any warmup fights. I want to start with the best. Norton. He gonna get his chance, but he don't know enough. He ain't relaxed. Crowds bother him. We couldn't watch him train because it made him nervous. Frazier, he too easy to hit and he don't have the right style to come back."
He demonstrated Frazier's all-out, head-forward, hit-me style.
"George Foreman," he said, with relish. "He a better boxer than Frazier. He got a good left hand, hits hard, got a good right uppercut, too. But he's too slow on his feet. Don't move around. They tell me he gets tired after five or six rounds, and I can get in shape to dance for 15. So I'll just stick and move and tire him out and that will be the end of George."
He was sticking and moving as he talked, and he began to imitate his old friend Howard Cosell, who has broadcast most of his fights.
"This is gonna be the next big fight," he said. "Me and Foreman. Cosell before the fight, he's gonna be sayin', 'There is the unbelievable Muhammad Ali, the man who came back from a broken jaw to destroy Norton in four rounds, then knock out Joe Frazier in the sixth round.' "
His imitation of Cosell suffered from his inability to catch Cosell's nasal twang, but the timing and heavy accent on key words was perfect.
"Forty-five minutes later," Ali said, "he goin' to be sayin' this: 'Ladies and gentlemen, here is the incomparable Muhammad Ali, who has just chopped up George Foreman. He is the greatest fighter who has ever lived and no one will ever match him.' "
Ali savored the thought.
"Gonna be all those people jumping up in the ring, talking to ever body, tryin' to talk to me," he said, his eyes wide again, seeking belief from his listeners. "Gonna be hollerin', 'You the champ, you the greatest, you best ever lived.' They gonna be right, but I been there and I know how quick they forget. I'll be there, no marks on me, handsome, strong, the best fighter in the world, no marks on me from a fighter who destroyed Frazier."
He shrugged and, as often happens with him, the light dimmed. He has a curious faculty of being hypertalkative for a long time, then his eyelids slip halfway down over his eyes and he seems to go into a trance, thinking of the things he will—or can—do.
That mood lasted briefly before he lit up. "Then, you know what?" he asked, the eyes wide and sparkling. "Cosell gonna come into my dressing room to talk to me. He gonna say, 'Here's the greatest! They had to stop the fight in the 13th round because he was giving Foreman such an unbelievable beating. Champ, what have you got to say?" Then he's gonna stick that microphone in my face and I'm gonna say, 'Git away from me, sucker. I don't want to talk to you after all you say about me bein' washed up. I don't want to talk to you, sucker.' "
He laughed, thinking about that scene. He is sure it will happen. It could, except for the spurned microphone. The Mouth never could give up an opportunity to talk, broken jaw or not.