This story originally appeared in the February 6, 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
For a few moments on the night of February 6 in the garish surroundings of the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali may seem to teeter on the edge of defeat by Ernie Terrell, the WBA champion of the boxing world who is challenging him for the real world-heavyweight title. But Terrell's dream of an undenied championship will be short-lived. Between perhaps the seventh and ninth rounds of the fight, Muhammad will knock him out.
Physically, Terrell is the most formidable opponent Ali has met since his knockout of Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Me. on May 25, 1965. Though taller than most heavyweights, he is a solid man equipped with the tools needed to fashion a victory: confidence, a long, jolting left hand, the ability to fight well and destructively inside and the capability of accepting a hard punch to the head without coming apart. So much for the credit side. Unfortunately, Terrell, like so many of his predecessors, cannot hope to equal Ali in hitting speed or speed afoot. Unfortunately, too, he is a high-strung, nervous man.
"He's the scariest heavyweight I ever saw," a fight manager said not long ago. "I don't mean he's afraid. But he's so tense before a fight that when he walks down the aisle to the ring he's used up so much energy it's about the same as if he had gone six rounds already. So he runs out of gas after maybe seven rounds. Then he can't keep that long left hand up or out, and he can be hit over it. That can be a disaster against Clay."
Curiously enough, Terrell may be more confident against Clay than he has been against less formidable foes. His confidence stems from a previous experience in the ring with the champion. Back in 1962 Terrell was a sparring partner for Clay when the latter was preparing for a bout with another heavyweight—Don Warner. Jimmy Jacobs, the world four-wall handball champion, who has possibly the most comprehensive collection of fight pictures in the world, filmed a few rounds of the two fighters working together in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, and the film shows that Terrell bullied Clay. Much bigger and stronger, he hit Clay often with his left and sometimes crowded Clay into a corner, where he ripped him with damaging punches to the belly.
"I wasn't the same then," Ali said in Houston recently. "What did I weigh in 1962, Angelo?"
"Eighty-six," said Angelo Dundee, his manager. "You were pretty green. You weren't the same fighter. But the pictures don't show everything. You remember you bombed him later."
Whether Angelo's version of what happened is accurate or not, Clay did not keep Terrell around for long.
"They cut him off," says Sam Solomon, who trains Terrell. "He called me in Chicago from Miami Beach and said they cut off his hotel money and wouldn't pay him eating money, and he needed something to get home. I guess that shows how they felt about him."
Terrell has his own interpretation of his relationship to Clay—then and now. It is a good box-office interpretation, and Terrell may even believe it. "I wasn't the same fighter then," he says. "I didn't have the left hand I have now. I couldn't hurt people with it. He was a punk then, and he's a punk now. He wasn't a complete fighter then, and he's not a complete fighter now. He's where he is because of management. They made sure he never fought a tough fighter.
"Sure, he's fought the same names I've fought, but he didn't fight the same bodies. Liston was a good fighter once, but he had to be 45 when Clay beat him. Patterson was far past his prime. Clay specializes in has-beens, old men and nothings. I fought all the tough guys when they were still tough, and every fight was life or death for me. I don't want to take anything away from him. I'm not saying all his fights were setups, but they were smart picks by his managers. No tough fights.
"He had all that money behind him, all that money for training, to get the best trainers, the best sparring partners, to keep Old Man River away from the door while he was learning his trade. I learned mine in the ring. Every time I fought, Ernie Terrell was going to war, every fight was tough competition—Amos Lincoln in 1962, Cleveland Williams when he was healthy in 1962, Zora Folley when he was 31 years old in 1963 and Cleveland Williams again. Four years ago Zora Folley was tough, and you didn't see Clay fighting him. I beat the best at their best and lots of times I was the underdog, but you didn't see nobody write about that. I'm not bitter, but the press hurt me. They took the jingle out of a lot of my purses. Now I'm the WBA champion and that's the only champion, but I got to take the small end of the purse."
Terrell is a touchy, morose man who feels keenly the lack of attention he gets as WBA champion. He threatened to pack up and leave Houston when he discovered that the posters for the fight had Clay's name in bigger type than his and were graced with a large drawing of Clay. "I got a grandmother has more sense than to do a thing like that," he said. "Rademacher even got the same notice" as Patterson when they fought, and he was just an amateur. Why would they do a thing like that?"
The fact that he is getting less money rankles, but he can justify accepting it.
"Sometimes, the best things are cheap," he says. "I got the short end, but it's still pretty good. I figure maybe half a million bucks is enough for the satisfaction of beating Clay. The nicest thing I can think of is beating Clay. All I am worried about is that he is so controversial that in a flash he can say something that would knock the fight out. When I think about that, I double up with a cramp. That's how much I want him."
Terrell's belief that he can beat Muhammad Ali is based entirely on what he did against the young Clay in Miami Beach and on comparative performances against fighters like George Chuvalo and Doug Jones. In fact, there is little to choose between how badly Clay chopped up Chuvalo and how badly Terrell beat him. Admittedly, Terrell, in a lackluster victory over Jones in Houston, was a trifle more impressive than was Clay against the same man in Madison Square Garden, but for Clay that was long ago and he truly is a different man now—physically and mentally.
Riding out to his training site in Houston recently, Clay expounded on the difference—the physical difference. The mental difference is explicit in his relationship with a small coterie of Black Muslim hangers-on who surround him.
"The first time I fought Jones," he said, "I was new. I hadn't been in the ring for eight championship fights. They have made me a different man. After Terrell fought Jones in Houston, I boxed with Jones in an exhibition in Atlanta. I did like this. Tap, tap, tap. Little light left hands and right hands on the head. Tap, tap, tap. Whenever I wanted to. No trouble."
He demonstrated the tapping by rapping the dashboard of the Lincoln Continental with a left, then a right. As the radio played, he stopped to listen.
"Hey," he said. "Listen to that. Ain't that Terrell?" He listened quietly for a moment. "Yeah," he said, after a few moments, "that's Terrell." The music was rock 'n' roll or a folk song, and he tapped his fingers on the dashboard appreciatively for a while.
"He sing good," he said.
He worked out languidly, letting his sparring partners crowd him into a corner and pound him at will to the belly. Once, while Mel Turnbow, a big man, was belaboring him, he looked up at the spectators and smiled.
"I'm tired," he said. "I'm just resting." When he felt like it, he moved around the ring with all the speed and grace one has come to expect of him, and his hands—left and right—were faster than those of most middleweights.
Terrell was working out in the same place, and when Clay finished he wanted to wait long enough to create one of the scenes that have become the trademarks of his fights in the United States. When a member of his party demurred, he became truculent.
"You ain't the boss," he said irritably. "I'm the boss."
But Terrell came late, and Clay missed an opportunity to bug him.
"He starts a fight real early," Terrell said. "Before the bout is signed. Gets under your skin. Maybe that's his best talent, being a master of psychological warfare. I got nothing against him or his religion, but he's an extremist and all extremists are great at twisting things. He does it to take your mind off the fight. You don't get on national TV and say a man is Uncle Tom when you know it's a lie, but he did. He wants me to worry about what people think about me, wants to confuse the issue. But it is dangerous to be distracted. I'll just concentrate more."
Terrell has a somber face, and he thought about Clay's prefight antics with a brooding expression.
"He wants you to think about crazy stuff," he said. "The ankle punch, the Ali shuffle, now it's the double-clutch shuffle [see cover]. That's all nonsense, but it worked against Liston and Williams and Patterson. He drove Patterson crazy with it. But me, I dig him. I understand what he is up to with that absurd nonsense."
In his suite on a day off, Clay listened with pleasure to a recording of a tune called The Ali Shuffle while he explained how he would beat Terrell.
"It depends on how the fight go," he said. "Maybe I'll go right out and take him. Then maybe I'll wait a while, move around, pop, pop, hit him with the left hand, wait until I'm ready. Way I feel now, a good quick knockout is too good for him. Maybe I better punish him."
Clay is not the fresh-faced, ingenuous young man who prepared with trepidation to face Liston in Miami Beach three years ago and listened to advice humbly. In his suite one of his coterie offered a suggestion and his face, grown mature and tough, became severe.
"You the boss?" he asked, angrily. "You the boss? I'm the boss."
While his new-found (and relative) independence may not make him a more ingratiating personality, it does have a definite value in the ring. Except perhaps for Karl Mildenberger, Clay has dominated his recent opponents almost from the time he stepped through the ropes. He certainly will try to dominate Terrell. He does not always do this aggressively, as he did with Liston in their second fight when he met Sonny in the middle of the ring with a stinging right hand to the face. Against Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas, for instance, he spent the first round moving and ducking and proving that it would be impossible for Patterson to hit him. He may do the same thing with Terrell.
"Move and move and pop, pop, pop," he said. He had just come from a personal appearance at a department store, and he was nattily dressed in a dark suit, striped shirt and dark tie. He moved around the living room of the suite, jabbing with his left hand and dancing from side to side.
"He'll move from side to side against Terrell's left," said Dundee, watching him. "Give him a target that's hard to hit. Then he'll counter over the left with his right hand."
"When I get him timed," Clay said, "then he shoots the left, and I start the right at the same time, and he can't hit as fast as I can hit. Nobody can."
Clay is, indeed, one of the best fighters in history at scoring with a right-hand counter over a left-hand lead. He probably will hit Terrell with the right-hand counter, but how much force it will carry depends upon whether he can set himself to deliver it. Punching from a flat-footed stance against Cleveland Williams, Clay was powerful. When he hits while moving and on his toes, his blows do not carry as much authority.
Dundee tends to discount the obvious advantage of Terrell's height and reach.
"They'll be the same height in the ring," he said. He was in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach when he said this, and he walked over to one wall upon which a series of pencil marks climbed over six feet.
"Here's Clay," he said, reaching up to point out a mark at about the six-foot three-inch level. He called over a towering young heavyweight who was working out in the gym and had him stand with his back to the wall. He marked his height and said, "And this is about how tall Terrell is. But you look at him in the ring. He gives away his height. He doesn't fight straight up. He has a real wide stance, and that makes him maybe a couple inches shorter. Then he leans over when he jabs, and that brings his head down even farther. People who figure Clay will have trouble because he will be punching up at an opponent for the first time are wrong. In the ring, they'll be about the same."
Clay, of course, is a stand-up fighter who does not crouch even when avoiding a punch. But even if he does stand as tall as Terrell in the ring, he will be inches short of Terrell's extraordinary reach.
Terrell's strategy will be to keep Clay moving with the left hand, to crowd Clay much as he did in their sparring sessions in Miami Beach.
"You see the Mildenberger fight?" Terrell said last week. "You see how he kept busy in the first two minutes of each round? He kept jabbing, jabbing. It wasn't important if the blows landed or not, or if they were strong. He kept tapping and touching Clay on that pretty face, and Clay couldn't handle it. He kept feeling that pitty-pat in his face, and he couldn't get untracked.
"With me, he's gonna think my left glove is tied to a heavy-duty spring. It's gonna be all over his face and his body. I can move the left around good, real good. Ask Chuvalo about that. I mixed him up fine. When he got his right up to protect his face, I went under it to his body with the left and you could hear him holler 'Oof!' I'll do that to Clay."
Terrell is confident that Clay will not be able to reach him.
"I'm six six and he's six three," he says. "I got longer arms, and I use them for an advantage. You talk about styles? He's made to order for me, and mine is the worst possible for him. He's good at pulling back from a punch, but I don't throw just one. I come in with a double and triple jab. Maybe the first won't land, but the second or third will when he runs out of the ring. And I'm apt to hook off the jab in mid-stream, too."
He stood up and turned sideways, left arm extended, in his fighting stance.
"You take a book of matches," he said. "Stand it up facing you and flick at it with your finger and you gonna hit 10 out of 10 times. Now you turn the edge toward you and try again, and it ain't that easy to hit. That's the kind of target I am. I'm edge on to Clay, I'm like a tall, skinny pencil he can't hit. I'm not tailored for him to beat like Liston or Williams or Patterson. He calls me a one-armed bandit and a giraffe and things, and I'll go along with him if it builds a pile of money. But when we fight, he's gonna have to take it for the first time—I'll be hitting him from outside his range to hit back, and I'll tie him up in close. That side-to-side move don't bother me—I've had that before. Chuvalo got to Clay, and if he can do it I'll do it easy."
If Terrell is as confident as he seems, he'll probably come out hard, jabbing Clay and keeping him off balance for the first few rounds. He has trained very hard for this fight, running twice as much as usual, so he may keep his strength for a longer time. If he can reach Clay consistently with his pistonlike jabs, he has at least a chance. If Clay dances safely out of range on the periphery of Terrell's attack, then he will win in the middle rounds when he has timed his counters to Terrell's hand speed.
Terrell is a pleasant, soft-spoken and gentle man, and he would make an admirable champion. He is, you might say, a prince among fighters. Unfortunately, he is fighting the king.
Good night, sweet prince.