Fast talk and a slow fight

A brash young Olympic champion gets his eighth straight professional victory, but shows little flair and less power
July 30, 1961

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the 19-year-old Louisville fighter who won a gold medal in last summer's Olympics, is, by his own reckoning at least, just marking time until he disassociates Floyd Patterson from the heavyweight championship of the world. But by the reckoning of the syndicate of millionaires which is managing him, Cassius is going through a training program designed to teach him his business while keeping his record as unblemished as his youthful features. Last week in his home town he fought his most formidable opponent yet, Alonzo Johnson, and though he won the decision after a drab 10 rounds—his eighth straight professional victory—confident Cassius got a glimmer of how much he has to learn.

"I have got me a secret weapon," said Johnson, 26, whose birthplace is Mississippi, whose home is Pittsburgh and whose career is over the hill. He said it starkly and without drama—Alonzo Johnson is no man for sly inflections and cunning winks—the day he arrived in Louisville. And with that he went off into hiding with his secret, sharing it only with Bob Baker, a retired heavyweight turned trainer, and Mike Bazzone, the manager who gives the impression that his patience with Alonzo Johnson is running out.

"Well, ain't that something?" said the irrepressible, impish, cocksure and sometimes utterly unbearable Cassius when he heard the news of the hideaway workouts. "I think," Clay said, "that Johnson's secret weapon is something that will keep him from flying out of the ring when I hit him. But don't worry, I've got two secret weapons. One I calls my left. One I calls my right.

"Am I scared of getting beat by Johnson?" he inquired rhetorically. "Let me ask you this: If a man intends to buy a Lincoln Continental next month, does he worry about the cost of a Ford to get him around in the meantime? Floyd Patterson is the Lincoln and Johnson is the Ford that will help me drive down to the showroom." With that he scheduled a postfight victory party.

Quotes and a Cadillac

Up from his Miami training grounds at the beginning of the week, Cassius characteristically treated the business at hand as a lark. Between the interruptions that daily roadwork and drills imposed he made television appearances ("I will systematically eliminate Alonzo Johnson," he told one audience). He granted repeated interviews to sportswriters ("I'm the best friend a reporter ever had because I always give good quotes, changing them around so everybody gets a fresh one"). And he took occasional arm-waving rides around town in the triumphantly pink Cadillac he got last fall when he turned pro.

On the day of the fight, exercising a new and fast friendship he has recently made with money, Cassius strode out of the Sheraton Hotel, returned with a $110 pair of binoculars (he used them later that night to pick his mother out of the fight crowd) and a $95 book-sized transistor radio-phonograph (he used it immediately to astonish friends lounging in his eighth-floor hotel room). "My only comfort," said Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, "is that I have him here under my nose." Even so, Dundee looked disgusted. He also looked helpless.

One floor below, meanwhile, Alonzo Johnson had put his sad and battered head upon a pillow and gone to sleep. With 26 pro fights behind him and only two wins in the last eight, not even the prospect of being on national television could excite him.

Next door, relaxed and recumbent upon another bed, Trainer Baker assessed Cassius Clay. "Let him talk, let him talk, Clay still looks like an amateur, still is an amateur," said Baker. "Alonzo has been ranked sixth in the heavyweight division. He's got nothing to worry about. Clay sparred with Alonzo down in Florida this spring and he's got the idea he had Alonzo going. Well, the truth is, Alonzo was toying with him, didn't want to hurt the kid, you know. Oh, they say Clay is great, but I don't see it that way."

Back upstairs, Cassius Clay claimed there was no other way to see it. "I got to win tonight," he said, while a friend dabbed white polish on his shoes. "I talk too much to lose."

If Johnson had in fact been toying with Cassius last spring during that sparring session, he had no intention of showing consideration for Clay's youth and unproved talent now. Handicapped by a shorter build and reach, it was Johnson's plan and his only secret to press hard upon Clay, to concentrate his punches in the midsection and sides and to build up points. "We don't intend to box fancy," Baker had said. "We intend to fight, period."

But as the fight began before a crowd of 5,000, Clay showed Johnson he was as fast with his hands as he was with his tongue. Johnson, his face stamped with a resolute grimness that did not vary for 10 rounds, stalked Clay, trying to pick off his left jabs and repeatedly forgetting the flicking right hand that Clay frequently used for his lead. Only during the few times Johnson could back Clay against the ropes was his body attack effective, and Cassius, though fighting with caution and without notable vigor or enthusiasm, continued to build points with his jabs.

The little excitement the fight had was compressed into the 10th round when a tiring Clay (this was his second 10-round fight) apparently caught his second wind, reducing Johnson to a sagging heap against him. The upshot was a unanimous decision for Clay.

Cassius was not hurt by Johnson, he said later, but he was troubled at times that he was doing so poorly against the attacking Alonzo. He had openings to spare, but not the technique to take advantage of them. The crowd shared his dissatisfactions. "Take away his pink Cadillac," someone roared.

For a prizefight it didn't amount to much, but for the work of a 19-year-old barely out of the amateur ranks against an older, wiser man it could have been far worse. "He don't have it," Alonzo said of Clay, an admittedly curious remark for a beaten man lying supine on a rubdown table with an ice bag over a closing left eye.

But if Alonzo is even partly right, Cassius better get it quick. No sooner was the Louisville fight over than a matchmaker was talking to Dundee about a September fight for Clay against Alex Miteff, whose background includes fights against top heavyweights. Dundee didn't look overjoyed. "Yeah, man, bring him on," said Cassius Clay.

PHOTOCASSIUS CLAY'S LONG RIGHT MAKES ALONZO JOHNSON RETREAT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)