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  • Ali refused an overnight stay in a New York hospital, the first step in a psychological battle with Frazier and in a long journey back to the pinnacle of boxing.
By Jonathan Eig
September 27, 2017

The following is excerpted from Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Eig. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Muhammad Ali sat up when Diana Ross arrived in the dressing room. She took an ice bag, pressed it to Ali's jaw and whispered in the ear of the fallen fighter, who had just lost by judges' decision after 15 brutal rounds against Joe Frazier. Ali managed a wink. With his jaw the size of a small pumpkin, Ali then traveled 73 blocks north of Madison Square Garden to Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital for X-rays. Doctors said the jaw wasn't broken, but they suggested Ali stay overnight. He refused. Ali was already talking about a rematch with Joe Frazier, and by refusing medical care he was launching the first attack in his psychological battle.

Not long after the Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971, Ali was training again, preparing for a July 26 fight against Jimmy Ellis, his former sparring partner and Louisville friend. Ali said he intended to retire after three or four more bouts. Once he beat Frazier and won back the championship, he would quit, return to the Nation of Islam as a minister and pass his days in the company of his wife and children. "I can't represent the Muslims again until I quit sports," he said. "I spoke with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and he told me, 'If boxing's in your blood, get it out.'"

Once the legal battle over his draft status finally came to a close—the Supreme Court ruled on June 28 to reverse Ali's four-year-old conviction for draft evasion on a technicality (thereby not setting a precedent)—he said remarkably little about race and politics in public. He gave the impression of a man who, above all else, was glad to be a boxer again.

But Ali's body told him that boxing was not a good long-term option. He had gained at least 10 pounds since the Frazier fight. Ever since he'd taken that beating, he'd found that he lacked the energy for training. Before his three-year exile from boxing in 1967, he said, he would run five or six miles a day, then hit the gym for sparring, jumping rope and heavy-bag work. Now he ran two miles and needed a nap. Ali wasn't the same in the ring or out, and he knew it. "I used to dance every minute, to the left, to the right, always moving and sticking," he told reporters before the Ellis bout. "You don't see that no more. I got another year, and that's it. I could fight for eight more years but I'd be flatfooted. I'd start getting bruised up. I'd start getting knocked down more."

On June 25, Ali fought several rounds in an exhibition against a young fighter named Eddie Brooks, who hit the former champion with sharp shots, "right on the button," according to Rolly Schwartz, an Olympic boxing referee who watched the sparring match.

Ali wanted his sparring partners to hurt him. He believed that suffering was an important part of his preparation for a fight, that a man could build up tolerance for blows to the head and body in much the same way that one might build up tolerance for spicy food by eating jalapeño peppers. The effect of all those blows over the course of a career would never be quantified, but sometimes, even in the short term, it was clear that Ali's strategy backfired. While sparring one day in July, Brooks hit Ali on the chin and Ali went down, flat on his back, as suddenly and stunningly as he'd gone down against Frazier. According to some accounts in the press, Brooks floored him two more times in the same session, which suggests that Ali may have suffered a concussion from the first knockdown. In another sparring session, the European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner popped Ali consistently with quick left jabs, and Ali, flat-footed, seemed either incapable of or uninterested in getting out of the way.

Against Ellis, Ali was lazy. But while overweight and sluggish, he was still 30 pounds heavier than his opponent and much stronger. He used his cracking jab to keep Ellis from working his way inside the way Frazier had. Comfortable and confident, thumbing his nose, lowering his hands, even daring Ellis to try to hit him, Ali still let the fight go almost the full distance. Only in the 12th and final round did Ali open the kind of full-throttled attack that fans had been waiting to see.

When it was over, Ali made no apologies for his lackluster performance. "I wasn't going to kill myself for this one," he said. "I'm training for Frazier."

Ali: A Life

by Jonathan Eig

The definitive biography of an American icon, from a New York Times best-selling author with unique access to Ali’s inner circle. A story about America, race, a brutal sport, and about a courageous man who shook up the world.

If Ali was indeed training for Frazier, he went about it in a less than optimal way. Over the course of 27 months, beginning with the Ellis bout, Ali fought an astonishing 13 times, or roughly once every 60 days. In that same period, Frazier fought only four bouts.

Why would a man fight 13 times in 27 months when he didn't have to? Why would he endure 139 rounds of punishment, plus thousands more rounds of sparring? Why would he absorb about 1,800 punches in those 13 fights? Was his schedule an acknowledgment that he disdained the rigors of training? That the only way he could stay sharp was by scheduling a steady string of bouts? That he needed the money? That he needed to prove he deserved another shot at the championship?

Or was it something even worse? Was Ali's judgment clouded? Ferdie Pacheco, the doctor working in Ali's corner at the time, said he saw signs of lasting brain damage after the Frazier fight in 1971. Pacheco said he told Ali to quit after that fight. Why didn't Ali listen? "There is no f------ cure to quick money," Pacheco said.

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No one can say with certainty when brain damage begins to affect a person, although scientists have become much better in recent years at recognizing signs of trouble. When a person nears the age of 30, his brain tissue becomes progressively less elastic, making him more susceptible to permanent damage with each passing year and each passing shock to the skull. Boxers are especially susceptible. After all, the point of boxing is to concuss the opponent, to knock him down and out. If attempts were made to render boxing safe for boxers, it would likely mean the end of the sport. When Ali bounced back up after he was floored by Frazier's left hook, boxing fans and writers admired him for his grit. No one stepped in to offer a concussion test. The crowd cheered. The men in his corner urged him on.

The sport's long-term hazards have been studied since 1928, when an American doctor first used the term punch-drunk to describe fighters suffering cognitive dysfunctions, including memory loss, aggression, confusion, depression, slurred speech and, eventually, dementia. Today, punch-drunkenness is sometimes associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive trauma. Scientists now understand that even small jolts to the brain, when repeated, can cause lasting damage. A boxer with a busy schedule probably takes more than a thousand shots to the head a year in bouts and thousands more while sparring.

Did Ali suffer for all those blows to the head? In all likelihood he did. Even as he entered what would later be described as the greatest phase of his career, there were signs of trouble, and they were noticeable every time Ali opened his mouth beginning around 1971.

The act of speaking is not as simple as it seems. Speech and language circuits in the brain work together to form a message, translate that message into movement across more than one hundred muscles from the lungs to the throat to the tongue and lips, and execute those intricate muscle movements to produce sound waves. That's why slurred speech is often one of the first indicators of moderate to severe neurological damage or disease. That's why drunks and stroke victims and victims of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease often slur their words.

In 1967, according to a study published this year by speech scientists at Arizona State University, Ali spoke at a rate of 4.07 syllables per second, which is close to average for healthy adults. By 1971 his rate of speech had fallen to 3.80 syllables per second, and it would continue sliding steadily, year by year, fight by fight, over the course of his career. An ordinary adult would see little or no decline in his speaking rate between the ages of 25 and 40, but Ali experienced a drop of more than 26% in that period. His ability to clearly articulate words also declined significantly.

The brash boxer was slowly being hushed, and not by the government or by his critics; he was doing it to himself.

One hundred fourteen days after his fight against Ellis, Ali fought Buster Mathis. Ticket sales for the Houston Astrodome fight were moving sluggishly, and Ali couldn't think of anything nasty to say about Mathis to stoke interest. His act was getting old. His poems had grown familiar. His teasing of Howard Cosell had the feel of a well-polished routine. A crowd of only 21,000 showed up as Ali beat Mathis by a unanimous decision in 12 rounds.

MARTINI/SVEN SIMON/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP

Ali fought Juergen Blin 39 days later, winning in a seventh-round knockout. Ninety-seven days after that, he fought Mac Foster, who lasted 15 hopeless rounds. Thirty days later Ali beat George Chuvalo. He stopped Jerry Quarry 57 days after that on cuts in the seventh round. Twenty-two days later he took out Alvin Blue Lewis in the 11th round. After another 63 days he danced around with Floyd Patterson for a few rounds before landing a punch that opened a cut over Floyd's eye and caused the fight, Patterson's last, to be stopped. And 62 days later Ali knocked out Bob Foster in the eighth. (Foster fired off a lot of sharp jabs and one of the best lines about fighting Ali: "He was never in one place at the same time!")

Eighty-five days after that, on St. Valentine's Day 1973, Ali battered Joe Bugner but couldn't knock him out, winning in a bloody unanimous decision. Ali made it all look easy—that thudding jab, that smooth footwork, that surprising power. But it was still a business, of course. And in the summer of 1972, in the midst of that 27-month run of fights, a new figure entered Ali's life and made a play to supplant Bob Arum as his promoter, someone who would change the business forever.

Don King was a hustler from Cleveland, a large man (at about 6'3", 240 pounds) given to large assertions. "I transcend earthly bounds," he once told a journalist. "I never cease to amaze myself; I haven't yet found my limits. I am ready to accept the limits of what I can do, but every time I feel that way—boom!—God touches me, and I do something even more stupendous." It was no wonder he and Ali hit it off. King carried himself like the black Al Capone, with a big Afro, lots of sparkling jewelry and pockets full of cash. Mark Kram of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED called him "a 50-carat setting of sparkling vulgarity and raw energy, a man who wants to swallow mountains, walk on oceans, and sleep on clouds." Before his foray into boxing, King allegedly ran an illegal gambling operation. In the late 1960s he was said to be grossing $15,000 a day, most of that money coming from poor, black Cleveland men and women who hoped to hit it big playing his rigged numbers games.

One day in April 1966, King walked into the Manhattan Tap Room in Cleveland. Sam Garrett, a former employee of King's operation, sat at the bar. Garrett owed King $600, and King wanted the money. An argument turned into a fight, and the fight turned into a beating, with Garrett on the sidewalk outside the bar and King kicking the smaller man in the head until blood flowed from Garrett's ears. He later died. A jury found King guilty of second-degree murder, punishable by life in prison. But, in a move that puzzled prosecutors, the judge hearing the case reduced the conviction to manslaughter. King emerged from prison after serving three years and 11 months, and he was later pardoned.

In 1971, on his first day out of prison, King got a visit from his friend Lloyd Price, the legendary singer and songwriter. The men talked about what King would do now that he was free. King said he was interested in the boxing business because it would give him a legitimate way to make money and asked if Price, who knew Ali, could arrange an introduction to the champ.

Neil Leifer

Price arranged first for King to speak to Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad. King told Herbert he wanted to bring Ali to Cleveland for a boxing exhibition that would raise money for a hospital in a black neighborhood, on the verge of bankruptcy. Ali, he said, had to come to Cleveland and save this black hospital. Ali had to come or else poor black people would die and black doctors would lose their m------------ jobs! Herbert Muhammad agreed. Ali went to Cleveland to box a 10-round exhibition for charity on Aug. 28, 1972. Later, Boxing Illustrated reported that King made $30,000 from the benefit and the hospital got $15,000. The hospital closed its doors a few years later. But from King's standpoint, the exhibition was a huge success because it allowed him to establish a working relationship with Ali and Herbert Muhammad.

King knew little about the business of boxing, but he was a huckster. He could sell anything—even freezers to Eskimos, as he liked to brag. When Ali first visited King's home in Cleveland, there was cash everywhere, much of it lying loose in dresser drawers. As Ali's eyes bugged wide at the sight of so much green, King asked the boxer if he was familiar with the claw machines commonly found in bars and arcades, the ones that allow players to drop a metal claw into a pile of toys and grab a prize. King told Ali he could reach in one of those drawers one time—only one time, like the claw—and he could keep as much cash as he cleanly grasped.

Ali rolled up his sleeve and stretched his fingers wide.

"All he could pick up, he could keep," King said with a smile. "You know what I mean? You couldn't scoop, you had to pick it up, bring it out.... But knowing the psychological elements of humanism ... Greed! You know what I mean? You gonna get too much in your hand, it's gonna fall—plop, plop, plop, plop, plop." King laughed at the memory. If Ali had taken his time, he could have looked carefully in the drawer. But King assumed, correctly, that the boxer would get excited, rush and fumble. Ali played the game every time he visited King in those early years, and every time the boxer tried it, he rushed and fumbled. "One time, he got $35,000, and a couple times $25,000," King said, laughing harder and harder as the story went on. "You know what I mean? But if he would've stopped, reconnoitered, looked around for the $10,000 [bundles], he could've got much more.... He would wind up trying to grab so much, and he would lose it all. That teaches you a lesson. Be patient, be objective, and go out there and get it all. So it was a thrill for me."

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The thrill for King was that he had spotted vulnerability. Greed is a kind of fear, and fear is a kind of weakness. King was a master at exploiting weakness.

By flashing cash, King did more than use greed to his advantage. He also sent the message to the black men with whom he did business that he understood them, understood that black success looked different from white success in 1970s America, understood the inherent suspicion that if a black man struck it rich, the white man could take it all away. But cash! Cash was difficult to take away!

"Cash is king and King is cash," he said. "This is what it's always been. Dealing with human nature. And dealing with those who are the downtrodden, the underprivileged, people who have been denied, you've got an opportunity, because white and black alike, that green is always there, it stands out.... You give 'em a check, you got to wait till they cash it.... But if you give 'em cash, it's instant; they can't stop payment on that."

King related to black boxers in ways white promoters could not. He reminded fighters that he shared their plight. Like them, he'd been cheated and mistreated by a white power structure designed to subjugate black men. Yet he'd clawed his way to wealth and fame, as he reminded them again and again.

But for all his intelligence, for all his powers of persuasion, and for all his cash, Don King still needed the blessings of Elijah Muhammad to do business with Ali, so he made an appointment to see the Nation of Islam leader in Chicago. During their meeting, Elijah Muhammad tried to convince Don King to join the Nation of Islam. King said he would have considered joining if not for one big problem. "I just couldn't give up pork," he said.

King went on to talk about the importance of putting black men in positions of power surrounding Muhammad Ali. Why continue to let Bob Arum promote the champ's fights, King asked, when a black man was ready to do it better?

That was the right approach. The Messenger gave King his blessing.

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