This story originally appeared in the July 26, 1971 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It is like watching a late late movie on television. The image is a little blurred and the action has slowed down and only once in a while, in a stretch that has not been flawed, do you see the clear, exciting image you remember from the years gone by.
Maybe it is more like watching a ballplayer in an Oldtimers game, the first year after he has retired. Most of the physical skills are still there, but his life has changed and he has other things on his mind. Once he gets back into the swing of it, he looks almost the way he did as a star.
Muhammad Ali, a bit trimmer than he was on the night Joe Frazier knocked him down and took undisputed claim to the heavyweight championship of the world, is almost indistinguishable from the young Cassius Clay who beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. He is bigger and stronger but, when he wants to, he moves with the same ineffable grace and speed and the left hand still flicks like a snake's tongue. But in the quiet of his hotel room, he is a different man.
In the old days he was always on stage. In his hotel before the first Liston fight he was never still. He was on his feet, dancing, watching himself in the mirror, talking about what he would do to Liston, appreciating the appreciation of his audience, even if the audience was only one man.
In his room last week in Houston he lay quietly on his bed going over a thick sheaf of cards upon which he had made notes for a lecture that he calls The Intoxication of Life. He did not really care much about the fight coming up with Jimmy Ellis, who was his sparring partner for most of the big fights of his career.
"This is very heavy stuff," he said, waving the cards. "Very heavy. But it ain't as heavy as another lecture I do called The Inner Man." He tapped himself on the chest.
"The Inside Man," he said.
When he was younger, his face, even in repose, was alight with mischief. Now it is rather somber, the planes wider and beginning to grow heavier with age. It is only when he is in the gymnasium, working out and reacting to a crowd, that flashes of the old lively Ali show.
He went across the street to the Astrohall, next to the Astrodome, to work out early in the afternoon. Jimmy Ellis was finishing and Ali sat in the crowd, watching. Once the spectators realized he was there, he was surrounded and he began to respond to the attention like an old trouper.
He crouched behind the row of people in front of him, pretending to hide, glaring at Ellis with a menacing look. Ellis saw him and grinned but said nothing, and Ali sat up again. Now youngsters were approaching him for autographs.
The crowd around him grew and his face began to lighten and he said, "That Ellis is ugly. He so ugly he ought to donate his face to the National Wildlife Bureau." He waited for the laughter to die down with all the sense of timing of an old vaudevillian.
When it had stopped he said, "Me, I'm so pretty they ought to declare my face a national resource."
That morning, lying in bed, he had said, "I don't have to go through the act anymore. Different things intoxicate you different times in your life. You get intoxicated by the wine of success and you want more and more success. You get intoxicated by different things in every stage of life. The child is intoxicated by a toy, the man by a car. All of life is intoxication."
He had begun by speaking quietly, almost inaudibly. but as he went on, his voice grew louder, until finally he was orating.
"What gives you satisfaction and pride one time, the next time may humiliate you," he said. "When you think about it, you say to yourself, 'Why was I such a fool?' You think you must do this thing or that thing, then you find yourself on another road, doing something else. You just floating on the sea of life, the ocean of activity."
He was asked how he felt about the Supreme Court decision that vindicated his position on the draft.
"Blank," he said. "Blank. It's like a man been in chains all his life and suddenly the chains taken off. He don't realize he's free until he get the circulation back in his arms and legs and start to move his fingers. Then all at once he knows the chains gone and he can move about freely again. I don't really think I'm going to know how that feel until I start to travel, go to foreign countries, see those strange people in the street, then I'm gonna know I'm free. But it ain't meant that much to me yet."
His face was still solemn and thoughtful. He is no longer a laughing man in the privacy of his room.
Later, watching Ellis, with more and more of the crowd giving its attention to him, he was different. Ellis finished his workout and Ali said, "Nine rounds. That's all he did. Now I'm gonna do twenty."
Ellis left the ring and walked down the aisle near where Ali was sitting and Ali crouched down behind the seats again. Ellis passed, studiously ignoring him, then whirled and pointed at him and yelled "You!" and Ali grinned.
"Don't jump now," Ellis said. "You better jump when you get in the ring."
"You in trouble," Ali said. "Without no endurance, come July 26, you better up your insurance." He listened to the laughter of the crowd with pleasure, then went to dress for his own workout.
In the morning there had been no signs of lightheartedness.
"You only live in the present," he had said. "The past is a dream and the future is a mist. The great moments pass away. What amuses man is to be puzzled, not to know the outcome of a boxing match or a baseball game. A man is never satisfied. First they had to make a car, then that wasn't enough, so they made an airplane and that wasn't enough, so they had to land on the moon."
In the old days he used to indulge his imagination on flights like this, surreptitiously eyeing his audience to see if they were buying his put-on. Now he was perfectly serious.
Someone asked him about the fight, if he took Ellis seriously, and he frowned. He did not want to talk about the fight.
"It's not the same anymore," he said. "Used to be, before the Liston fights, all I thought about was fight, fight, fight, be the greatest, be the champion. Now it's like I go to work, put in eight hours a day, do my job. I got other things on my mind, heavy things."
In the afternoon, in public, he wore the mask of the old Ali. When he got in the ring, with a crowd of some 200 watching him, he leaned on the ropes for a few minutes, looking at the people, sweating from 10 rounds on the light and heavy bags. He seemed fit, but there was still a smudge of fat blurring the outlines of the heavy muscles in his upper body.
Angelo Dundee, who has trained Ellis and Ali in almost all of their fights, is training Ellis for this one, since he is both manager and trainer for Ellis and he was only trainer for Ali. Dundee was standing in the back of the auditorium and Ali waved at him.
"Angelo Dundee!" he said. "People ask me do I miss Angelo Dundee. Naw, I don't miss Angelo Dundee! All he got is the connection and the complexion. Now I got a trainer took Sugar Ray Robinson as a barefoot little boy in Harlem, made him into almost as great a champion as me. Only reason he ain't got the reputation is because he colored."
His trainer for this fight is Harry Wiley, a small and phlegmatic black man who did, indeed, train Sugar Ray for 23 years, and was cornerman for Kid Chocolate and Henry Armstrong.
"He taught me some new tricks," Ali yelled to Angelo. "Seven lef' hooks in a row! Brrrrrrrp!" He made a sound like a machine gun and laughed with the crowd. Now he was warming up, the crowd with him, beginning to dance around the ring, once doing the Ali shuffle.
"This year going to make my whole life," he had said in the morning, very seriously. "What I want to do is buy a 150-unit housing development in Atlanta, Georgia, and I got other things on my mind I want to do. I got other lectures I want to write."
"He looks like he's in pretty good shape," Angelo said, watching him work with one of the two burly sparring partners he has with him, both of whom are more of the style of Joe Frazier than of Jimmy Ellis. "But he was in good shape for Frazier, too. His problem is he isn't concentrating on fighting anymore. The day of the Frazier fight some movie people came to me and said they wanted to shoot some pictures of him for a movie he's doing and I said 'Hell, no!' and the minute I turned my back he's doing the movie bit. On the day of the fight!"
In the ring Ali was fighting flat-footed, not trying to punish his sparring partner. He has never been vicious in the gymnasium; on this hot, humid afternoon he contented himself with producing an occasional flurry of lovely, quick combinations near the end of each round. When he does that, the old Ali is there again, the big arms moving with precise, flickering speed, the jabs snapping back the head of the other man.
Ellis, watching from the back of the hall, shook his head.
"Float like a butterfly?" he said. "He float like a elephant. After this fight they gonna be a new saying about him. Buzz like a buzz saw, fall like a tree!"
For Ellis, this is by far the biggest fight of his life; he has looked forward to meeting Ali for years.
"I don't care if I never win another fight as long as I live—if I win this one," he said. He is not as impressive, physically, as Ali, but there is no hint of fat on him and his body is strong and graceful. "I lived in the shadow of Ali too long," he said. "All those years when I was his sparring partner, he's fighting and beating men I knew I could beat. I guess I been in the ring with him way over a thousand rounds and he never knocked me down and I knocked him down twice. I know everything he do and he ain't gonna change. Nobody gonna teach him any new tricks, no matter what he say. I know how he cover up, I know how he lean back to get his chin out of the way, and when he lean back that way he got his stomach sticking out."
Ellis leaned back, tucking in his chin and sticking out his stomach.
"One time I knocked him down with a left hook," he said. "Everybody talk about how hard I hit with the right, but I hit just as hard with the left. Then the other time I took a step to the left to get away from his jab and I came right down the pipe with the right hand and down he go. People say he got the reach on me but I can lay it on him, reach or no reach. It ain't the reach, it's what you do with it."
He watched Ali, now sparring his last round of the afternoon, up on his toes, moving around with the old dancer's skill. It was the first time he had done that.
"They talk about how he dances," Ellis said. "He don't dance no more. He fights flat-footed, just like everybody else. Jimmy Ellis, he can dance for 12 rounds, but not Ali. Look at him."
Ali looked very good at the moment, moving around the ring quickly, darting in and out, hitting accurately and hard.
"Somebody ask me do I hate him, is this a grudge fight," Ellis said. "We professionals. I don't hate him, he don't hate me. But he's in my way and I got to get him out of the way to get the championship and that's what I'm gonna do next week."
Maybe he will. The fight for him is an obsession, the culmination of years of frustration, and he is superbly prepared for it. Despite what Ali says, he misses Dundee and the men who work with Dundee. And this fight is no earth-shaking matter for him.
When the 20-round afternoon was over, Ali talked for a while to writers in his dressing room, then showered and returned to the Astroworld motel. He went into the coffee shop and sat down and drank a ginger ale, looking tired and serious. The act was over.
"Youth," he said. (He is 29.) "Youth is the time of blossoming, the fullness of energy. It's the time of errors and faults and the time when you can run four, five miles and never be tired. You're full of the intoxication of youth."
He crossed his arms on the table top and put his head down on them and talked very softly.
"I'm very tired now," he said. "I think I'll take tomorrow off and just rest. Used to be, I'd get up at six o'clock in the morning, run six miles, come back to my room and lie down and rest a few minutes, then go down in the lobby and mix with the people, then go work out in the gym and rest a little more and then I'd be out on the streets, talking with everybody and walking around and go to bed maybe eleven o'clock at night."
He sat up and drank thirstily.
"Now all I do is soak up rest," he said. "Run, then go to my room and just rest. Now I'm gonna go to my room and rest until dinner, then go right back to my room and go to sleep. I got more age on me. It takes away the things you can do."
He got up and stretched.
"Besides," he said, "I got to do more work on The Intoxication of Life. That is very heavy."
He walked away, a heavier man and obviously an older one than Cassius Clay. Every man ages, but not many mature the way he has.