Rabbit hunt in Vegas
This story originally appeared in the November 22, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Quodlibet, which is Latin for "as you please," was the term used by the schoolmen of the Middle Ages to designate the subtle questions of casuistry on which they flaunted their dialectical skill. "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is a quodlibet. "Whether a chimera ruminating in a vacuum devoureth second intentions" is a quodlibet. And so, perhaps, is "How can Floyd Patterson defeat Cassius Clay on November 22 in the Las Vegas Convention Center without a baseball bat and two rolls of quarters?"
But if, coincidentally, Clay, that marvelous, whimsical, overweening and—when he turns the volume down—charming young man, takes Patterson too lightly, and Patterson, who often seems enfeebled by one obscure punch or another, can again fight at the top of his memorable form, then Floyd could win it. It says here. Indeed. The first possibility is what has Angelo Dundee, who serves as Clay's manager, despairing in the long corridors of the El Morocco Motel, where, appropriately, Mohammad Ali, as Clay publicly insists on being called, and his largely Black Muslim retinue are encamped. "I can't dissect my guy's mind," Angelo says. "He may be taking the other guy cheap. The champ keeps asking me, 'You think I'm the greatest?' I tell him, 'Yes, only one guy can lick you—you.' Great fighters have a tendency to do it—to lick themselves. I've briefed and baptized him and rebaptized him and rebriefed him. Don't low-rate Mr. Patterson."
What's bugging Angelo is Clay's possibly frivolous assertion that the fight is going to go six or seven rounds, so that l) there will be enough time to properly humiliate Patterson, 2) he can show the people how beautifully he can fight and 3) he can enjoy the movie. "I never look at the second Liston fight," Clay says. "It's only half a reel. There's nothing to see. I want something to holler and rejoice over."
These niceties are lost on Angelo. "Look, friend," he says, "if it goes 11 seconds, let it go 11 seconds. Liston's given me the key—a strong left hand. Left jab, hook off it, left uppercut. Right uppercut when Mr. Patterson lunges. My guy's going to surround him. Listen, my guy's got an uppercut, if he hit Mr. Patterson on the chinski with it, it's all cheroot. It's all over, Daddy."
The other morning Clay expounded on these and related subjects dear to him. He was lounging in bed at the El Morocco, braying into a pair of microphones that rested on his bare chest. His personal photographer, Howard Bingham, was asleep in the other bed. The man they call Cap'n Sam, who is the secular head of the Miami mosque and makes like Clay's bodyguard, sat attentively in a chair, as though he might be called upon to recite. "Witness this annihilation in your local theater," Clay was saying. "I'm the fastest in the torritory. In the torritery. In the territory.." He then bum-bummed a few bars of the Dead March from Saul. He was cutting a tape for a radio spot on his stereo recorder. He played it back, and the voice faithfully issuing from the twin speakers must have made him feel warm all over. He smiled broadly and winked.
"I don't want the rabbit to make a quick million dollars," Clay said, commencing his exordium. Clay rarely converses. He communicates with his entourage in kind of click language. The rest of the time he harangues—great, fantastic, inflective, nonstop orations, on the order of Dr. Castro's. "I want to punish him. To cause him pain," Clay said. "You find out what a person don't like, then you give it to him. He don't like to be embarrassed, because he has so much pride, so I'm going to make him ashamed. He is going to suffer serious chastisement. The man picked the wrong time to start talking to the wrong man. When Floyd talks about me he puts himself on a universal spot. We don't consider the Muslims [Clay pronounces it Mooslims] have the title any more than the Baptists thought they had it when Joe Louis was champ. Does he think I'm going to be ignorant enough to attack his religion? I got so many Catholic friends of all races. And who's me to be an authority on the Catholic religion? Why should I act like a fool? He says he's going to bring the title back to America. I act like I belong to America more than he do. I represented it beautiful in Scotland. I never wink at a woman or go out of a hotel after dark. See, I'm no bogeyman, like they say. Why should I let one old Negro make a fool of me? Floyd would be smart to come out and make a national apology. I've got an unseen power going for me. There'll be almost 4 billion Muslims praying for their brother in Islam. We've got sympathizers in his own camp. How is he going to buck all this? This little, old, dumb pork chop eater don't have a chance. From eating pork he's got trillions of maggots and worms settling in his joints. He may even eat slime of the sea.
"Every stone is a boost. Elijah Mohammad, who speaks directly to God, tells a parable from the Bible or someplace about a donkey lying in a ditch, and all the people who pass throw stones at it. Well, pretty soon the ditch is filled with stones, and the donkey walks out. Floyd's making me double strong. I can fight under pressure, too. When I've been knocked down, something makes me get up and fight. I'm not going to rush myself. This is going to be a beautiful fight. The people are going to see more of me. I'm going to show off, look pretty. I'm so elusive they ain't seen nothing yet. The ring's going to look like it got a gate on each corner. I got some new footwork called the chicken scratch."
Clay sprang, naked, out of bed and demonstrated the chicken scratch, which is a nifty, rapid, back-and-forth shuffle performed in place. Clay also claims he has a new weapon called the linger-on punch, the invention of which he attributes to Stepin Fetchit, a perplexing member of his retinue. Step allegedly dreamed up the anchor punch, too, which dropped on Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Me. Says Clay: "The linger-on punch is fired like the anchor punch, but it is a little slower. It don't knock him out. It dazes him. It keeps him numb. It's a push right hand. It's fast, but it's more of a push, and it has more twist. Before the first round is over, people will say, 'Forget it.' It's going to look like a father beating up on his son. I got superior height, weight, balance, reach, speed, strength and youth. I'm going to keep my distance, keep off him. Then bounce in on him. Two jabs. Bip, bip. Circle over here. Jab four times, hit him with a hook, back off. Walk in on him and grab him. Grab his little self and walk with him."
Clay told Cap'n Sam, who goes about 205, to stand up. Clay then clinched with him and manhandled him about the motel room. "You strong," said Cap'n Sam. "It takes a lot out of a man, straining like that," Clay said. "When he lets go, he's winded. You don't get that tired leaning on him. 'Oh, Rabbit, I just hit you seven times. Watch this jab, Rabbit. Bip, bip, bip. Don't get tired, Rabbit. If you fall down, I'm going to pick you up.' I'm going to make him punch, make him wrassle. A lot of times I'm going to let him punch me in the body. I can afford to let him tire himself out beating on my body. I'd be a fool to try to knock him out in one round. I might wear myself out. But Archie Moore told me, 'Don't go out and dance around.' Soon as the bell rings.... "Here, Sam, you be the Rabbit. Turn your back and bob up and down like he does. Bing. I'm in his corner before he's hardly off the stool, like I was in Lewiston, Me." Clay stalked across the carpet and, as Cap'n Sam turned, uncorked a right. "Wouldn't it crack the people up if I did the chicken scratch before I dropped him with a right lead?" Clay said. "Wouldn't that be pretty? Me in my white shoes. I'm going to point before I do it. Point at the spot where he's going to fall. That would be history, wouldn't it? But wouldn't it be hell if he read this and left town before the fight?
"When he's lying there, I'm going to stick a carrot in his mouth, a carrot with some green on it. 'Nibble on it, Rabbit,' I'll tell him. Don't you think that'll make him leave the country? I'm going to hit him so hard it'll jar his kin-' folk in Africa. Before he fights me again, he'd rather run through hell in a gasoline sport coat. He'd rather shave a lion with a dull blade. He will be beat so bad, he will need a shoe horn to put his hat on. How many days did it take God to make the world? Six. He had his pleasures and his work for six days. Since Patterson loves boxing so, I'm going to give him pleasure for six rounds, which symbolizes six days. On the seventh, I'm going to give him his rest."
Clay climbed wearily back into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. "Personally, I don't know him that good," he said, softly. He was starting his peroration. "I'm not mad at him. After the fight, it's over. As an individual, I have a degree of admiration for him. It's all an act. I've got to live the legend I am." He closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
Up the Strip, in his pied-à-terre at the Thunderbird Hotel, is Patterson, the antihero. This is a guy with a screwy image. He speaks softly, so they say he's humble. He's got as much self-esteem as the next person, but he is preoccupied with the idea that people will get the wrong impression, so he prefaces his remarks with "I'm not boasting, but..." and "I'm not bragging, but...." He wants to explain what he has found out, what he feels—which he can do with rare honesty and insight, but he is afraid it will sound like he's alibiing. He is, therefore, often reticent or oblique. He is also suspicious, possessed by imaginary slights, opinionated. His anxieties are frequently excessive or motiveless. For instance, he is convinced people do not like him when he loses. He thinks his current popularity is not because of any affection for himself but because he is the only one around with a chance of beating Clay. When he comes off it, he happens to be an extraordinarily worthwhile guy—funny, sharp, gracious and thoughtful. And it's 3 to 1 he will take this paragraph as a rap. As has been written of Saul Bellow's protagonists, he is burdened by a speculative quest. If he were a Jewish intellectual, what would there be to say?
"He's an intricate man," says Angelo Dundee. "He's a drowning man."
Patterson pretends to live at the Thunderbird, but it is obvious he sleeps elsewhere, secretly. Many of his workouts are held in camera, too, but even in the public sessions he cannot avoid things that he considers embarrassing—two weeks before the fight Mel Turnbow, a sparring partner, knocks him down with a right hand and earns $1,000. All Patterson's sparring partners have this offer. If they can floor the boss, they get $1,000. Says Buster Watson, who has succeeded the late Dan Florio as Patterson's trainer: "That'll teach him to hack around. He's got to concentrate. It's expensive, but it has to be." Buster is one of the few realists in Patterson's camp and as such is an asset.
On the other hand, Clay's workouts at the Stardust are always open. At the end of each session he punches the light bag on the stage elevator. In the Stardust's Lido show the elevator supports a great glass flight of stairs upon which are arrayed a ton or so of nudes and a chariot drawn by a real horse galloping on a treadmill. Now, bathed in magenta spots, Clay ascends, punching without gloves, like General Booth going to heaven. Then he leaps off the elevator, clearing a table, crying, "I'm superman. Get a good look at him. I'm the king of the world." He lands, stumbling slightly, out of sight.
"It's better to make friends than build gates," Patterson has said.
In the room with Patterson one morning are Buster Watson; Floyd's pilot and P.R. man, Ted Hansen; Jerome, the second-youngest of the Patterson brothers; Ed Bunyon, who was a sparring partner for the first Johansson fight until he got hit in the eye and became a "walking partner"; Mickey Allan, who sang The Star-Spangled Banner when Patterson was champ; and Ernie Fowler, who has risen from chauffeur to assistant trainer. The last two are sleeping. "Sometimes when we talk," Patterson says, "we talk to hear ourselves. My confidence is within me. I'm sorry to say, but Clay impresses me as being rather young. It is difficult to take someone like that seriously. He's young and spoiled and going in every direction. In fact, he doesn't know what direction he's going in. Nobody knows who is going to win this fight. Clay couldn't convince me in a million years that he knows. There's always a degree of doubt. In all my professional fights and at all the weigh-ins I've never looked one of my opponents in the eye. I always look at their chests. But I've looked at Clay eye-to-eye for a second or two. It was just accidental. I never looked at him long. Such accidents are sometimes inevitable. But each time I looked I detected a weakness, a front. He really doesn't believe what he's saying.
"I'm going to go into the ring with every intention of walking out the winner. I know how I'm going to enter the ring. How I'm going to leave the ring, I don't know. I'm going to win because I'm better, if I'm better. If I am beaten it will be because I am in with a better man than I am. I'm not bragging, I've always been good, but these last five fights [counting from the time he last lost to Liston, Patterson has won five in a row] have restored my confidence. I don't know if I'm the same fighter I was. I know I notice more nowadays. I haven't stopped to find out if I've gotten older, if I can't do the things I once did. If I did I wouldn't accept it. A fighter never admits to age.
"When the bell rings, my No. 1 drive will be to partially repay a debt I owe to boxing. Who is to say what I would actually be if it wasn't for boxing. A laborer? A truck driver? A bum? Surely, I had convict tendencies. My No. 2 drive is to achieve a degree of vindication, although when I look at my record, the ridicule I receive is ridiculous. My No. 3 drive is to win the championship back for America.
"When the bell rang for the first Liston fight, I was, as I have explained in the past, already knocked out. When the bell rang for the second Liston fight, I had to prove to myself that I was just as strong as he was. Why should I back up? He showed me why. I don't know what I'll do against Clay. You can go after a man and get him. You can go after a man and he gets you. I do know that everything I do will be more reflex and instinct than thought out. Sit at ringside. When the bell rings, I'll yell it down to you."
Although the odds on the fight went from 14 to 5 to 3 to 1 following Patterson's untimely knockdown by Turnbow, they are still an underlay. Says Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder, who is, in a way, the oddsmaker emeritus of Las Vegas and who made one of his earlier fortunes tapping out on Joe Louis: "My own personal opinion is that Clay will kick the daylights out of him and the odds should be at least 10 to 1. The fact that Patterson represents the majority of Negroes and that he has done nothing to discredit himself (except he can't fight) is causing a lot of people to make small speculations on him. On the other hand, we have a champion who belongs to a minority group that is not too popular. This normally would mean nothing to an individual who is ready to make a big bet, but sentiment is running away with them and, though they think that Clay will win, they refrain from betting on him in the hope that St. George will slay the dragon with his right-hand spear."
No matter what the proper odds might be, however, it would be imprudent totally to discount Patterson's chances, for there are sound reasons why he could upset Clay or at least make a fight of it. Clay is essentially a long-range fighter. This is a natural consequence of his physique, his inclination and his remarkable quickness. He does not fight inside, and, unlike Liston, he does not care to pound a man in the clinches. This automatically improves Patterson's chances. Of course, Johansson, who was himself disinclined to close with his man, had one notable success against Floyd. Operating from afar, Clay can control a fight. He moves and punches at will as he sets up his victim for the eventual knockout. He does not like to be pressed, however, since then control passes over to his opponent. When this occurs, he is basically on the defensive and cannot exploit his undeniably superior skills and gifts. A good example of this is the Doug Jones fight. One of the smallest and most mobile of Clay's adversaries, Jones kept slipping Clay's jab and punching in close. He did this to special advantage early on but failed to keep it up and lost a fairly close decision. This, too, is Patterson's style, since he, like Jones, is basically too small to fight most heavyweights from outside. Discounting chins, Patterson is a better fighter than Jones. He hits harder. His leap, which is often scorned but has nonetheless proved effective, will enable him to get at Clay. He has greater speed than Jones, particularly with his hands, and he has a naturally aggressive style.
Clay's device of pulling away from punches was a perfect defense against Liston, who could never quite reach Clay's chin with his great, vicious swipes, but Patterson, leaping, can land on the mark, and with impact. It's a risky maneuver, but none of Patterson's opponents have been able to offset it. It should be even safer against Clay, since his lordotic posture makes it difficult for him to counter. Also, because Clay's jabs must be angled down at the shorter Patterson, Floyd will have an opening high on the left side of Clay's neck and head—a situation both camps are well aware of. However, the main thing Patterson must do is press, and press from the bell. As Angelo Dundee says: "In boxing you cannot start in low gear and get to high gear. You've got to start in high." Alas, Patterson has a history of being a "notoriously slow starter, and if this holds for the Clay fight, forget it. Pressing is important for yet another reason. According to Archie Moore, Clay does not breathe properly. He breathes shallowly, like a dog, not from the diaphragm, the way a singer does. If true, this could explain why he has to rest from time to time. Against Liston in Miami Beach, Clay trained and fought in a pattern in which he ran a round and rested a round. Jones never gave him a chance to rest in the early rounds of their fight—which could be why Clay looked so inartistic.
In both the Patterson-Liston fights and the Clay-Liston fights, the importance of comparative styles was overlooked. In reviewing these fights it is now apparent that Patterson's style was exactly the one Liston would do best against, and, in turn, Clay would do best against Liston's. Says Cus D'Amato: "As in a war, it is often the tactical approach that decides the battles. That is why a smaller, inferior force may beat a superior one, as Rommel did in Africa to the British. In this battle Patterson has the style to beat Clay." D'Amato believes the keys are the lead, the assertive two-handed punching, the double hooks, the peekaboo guard, which permits Patterson to fire punches and protect his head almost simultaneously and, perhaps most significantly, the position of Patterson's feet and body.
"Floyd must get inside and rattle off his combinations against Clay's head and body," says D'Amato. "Clay has never fought anyone with Floyd's ability to put punches together—true combinations—and against this kind of pressure he will find it difficult to defend with his hands down." The advantage of the nearly frontal stance, in which the feet are opposed and the hands held high on either side of the head, is that it is an excellent way to cut down the mobility of a fighter like Clay, who tends to move from side to side. This was Liston's major shortcoming against Clay. He was never in position to punch, since his left foot was planted so far in advance of his right. When Clay moved laterally Liston either had to replant his lead foot or, as often happened in his anxiety to reach Clay, he wound up with his legs crossed and totally off balance.
Furthermore, since Clay will be punching down on the crouching Patterson, he will be exposing his jaw to a sneak right hand. This may well be Patterson's biggest punch in the fight. "Patterson likes to lie there in the clinch doing nothing," says Charlie Powell, who has the distinction of losing to both Floyd and Sonny. "That's when you relax, and that's his signal to start ripping off punches, especially that overhand right." Dundee calls this the possum punch, because Patterson plays possum, sagging almost lifelessly in the clinches, before throwing it. "It is the only way he can win," says Angelo. "Patterson must throw straight right hands to the body whenever Clay touches the ropes," says Powell. "Clay invariably leans back and then tries to body slip, but he is, in the first instance, vulnerable to the right hand to the head—he is looking for the left hook."
Just how well Patterson will fare depends on his motivation. Perhaps unfortunately, he no longer seems to fight for some kind of ego satisfaction but rather for dubious, obscure causes. He always fought best when fighting was purely a personal expression. "He was superb," says Tommy Loughran, the old light heavyweight champion, who was once close to Patterson. "He was the nearest thing to Dempsey. So lithe, so supple, and he punched with such power. All of that coupled with ferocity. I thought he could not miss being one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Then something happened. He became a deliberate puncher, and his body thickened under all that unneeded muscle and weight."
The period when Loughran was impressed with Patterson was near the beginning of Floyd's career. This was when fighting was apparently a release for the frustations of an emotionally disturbed youngster, a way of proving himself, of becoming somebody. In these days he fought with a verve, an irrepressible surge, as though innumerable punches were forcing themselves through his arms. But, according to D'Amato, after he defeated Roy Harris Patterson was told by Dan Florio that he must husband his punches, that a champion should show artistry and reasoned skills. Florio made a mistake. Patterson's indomitable rushes were his essence. He kept his opponents so busy defending themselves that they were rarely able to mount a counteroffensive. In truth, Patterson's overwhelming offense was his defense. When he became a more painstaking fighter he had need of defensive skills that he had never developed.
Since the Harris fight the only occasion on which Patterson returned to his original style was in the second Johansson fight. "I hated him," Floyd said. "It got so when I looked at the meat on my plate, I saw his face gazing up at me. Still, with all my anger I had poise. But it's wrong. A fighter must be a killer? If winning means inflicting a degree of danger, injuring an eye or something, then I don't want to win."
Although Patterson seems to be tolerant of, or bemused by Clay, his camp doesn't buy it. Patterson steams when Clay touches him, as he did the other day in an unscheduled confrontation at The Mint, in downtown Las Vegas. "Come here, sucker," said Clay. "Yes, you, chump. I've got something for you." While the two entourages glared at each other, Clay touched Patterson. Patterson brushed aside his hands and said, in his quiet way, "I've got something for you, too, baby."
But to what avail? Clay is convinced that he is indestructible, because Allah is looking out for him. As a boxer he has a great thing going for him with the Allah routine. Now he has confidence on top of everything else. There is no better example than the second Liston fight. Against all the prefight strategy, Clay ran out at the bell and landed a good right on Liston and then proceeded to do virtually nothing until seconds before the knockout. In the interim he allowed Liston to punch him. It grieved Dundee, but he has learned to put up with it. Clay is truly something else. Besides being a genius in his chosen craft or art, he has a mind of his own, has never readily adapted to instruction and is endlessly tinkering and perfecting. For instance, he conditions his body by letting his sparring partners beat it. This unusual kind of masochism is actually in step with advance thinking on the subject by medical authorities. Dr. Peter Karpovich, the eminent physiologist, has said: "The best way to develop muscle is to do the particular thing you want to use it for."
Clay has been boxing since he was 12, and the things he now does no longer have any roots in intellection. "Isn't nature wonderful," he said once, in a glen in Massachusetts. "What makes moss grow on one side of a tree and not the other? Why do birds fly south and then north in the spring, and why do fish swim upstream to lay eggs? Nature is a mysterious thing. It is just like me. Sometimes I wonder when a big fist comes crashing by and at the last moment I just move my head the smallest bit and the punch comes so close I can feel the wind, but it misses me. How do I know at the last minute to move just enough? How do I know which way to move?"
And the things he does are too numerous to be cataloged. Take the fifth round of the first Liston fight, when, blinded by a caustic solution, Clay kept Liston at bay and broke his concentration just by touching him on the forehead with his left. Or, as Dundee says, marveling, "He'll even miss you on purpose." In addition, he has this absolute preoccupation with boxing, with his body, with himself. Unlike Patterson, he can tune everything else out. Only one topic takes precedence—his absorption with the Muslims. "If Elijah asked me to quit boxing today, I would do so," he has said.
"I got a feeling I was born for a purpose," Clay explained the other night. He was being driven to Larry's Music Bar in the Negro district of Las Vegas, wearing a pink sport coat that glowed spectrally in the dark interior of the car. Clay himself was nearly invisible. (Earlier, Patterson, walking by the parking lot, had seen him. "Actually, all we saw was a pink sport coat," he said later. "We knew who it was.") "I don't know what I'm here for," Clay went on. "I just feel abnormal, a different kind of man. I don't know why I was born. I'm just here. A young man rumbling. I've always had that feeling since I was a little boy. Perhaps I was born to fulfill Biblical prophecies. I just feel I may be part of something—divine things. Everything seems strange to me."