The fight was not an artistic success. But when Floyd Patterson, slower and heavier than the man who twice won the world heavyweight championship, outslugged rock-hard George Chuvalo in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1, there suddenly was excitement and broad interest in a division that for most fight fans had all but died. By virtue of the publicity surrounding this one fight, Patterson was projected—in some ways surprisingly—straight back into the heavyweight picture. Although any assessment of current heavyweights must begin with Champion Muhammad Ali—or Cassius Marcellus Clay as he is better known—Patterson for the moment is the golden boy.
"Nobody care too much about me fighting Sonny Liston," Clay said in his Chicago office the other day. He had come from his new home (he no longer lives in Louisville) for a sometimes serious, sometimes mischievous talk about the future of the heavyweight division, and he was sprawled luxuriously behind his desk in his paneled front office. He also has a paneled back office.
"We both villains," he went on. "So naturally, when we get in the ring, the people, they would prefer if it could happen for it to end in a double knockout, because they don't want either one of us to win."
He glanced sideways at a reflection of himself in a glass on a framed picture. He felt his cheeks and paused a minute.
"I'm a little too heavy," he said thoughtfully. "It don't look good on me."
"Now, with The Rabbit," he went on, "it is entirely different. Everybody love Patterson because he got this nice, humble manner and he is so loving and everything. They all going to be cheering for him and booing at me, and they all going to come to see the fight to see him whip me. I am the most popular fighter in the world, but right here in the U.S.A. I am not. Come on, let me show you something nobody ever seen before. It's back in my back office."
He got up and led the way down a short hall to another office about the same size as the first. He sat down at another desk and began taking out double handfuls of letters and spreading them on the desk top.
"This side here," he said as he worked, "it's gonna be all U.S. mail. And this side over here, this is gonna be all mail from all over the world. All these people on this world side, they write and tell me how much they like me. Some of it I can't read, but I know what it say. Look here. Look at this one. Come right to me, and all it say on the outside is Cassius Clay, Heavyweight Champion of the World, U.S.A. I get it like that all the time. Everybody knows I am the champion."
He opened one letter from Pakistan.
"Ain't that pretty writing?" he said. He had been serious for some time now, and the strain was beginning to tell on him.
"You want me to read you what it say?" he said. "I bet you don't think I can read this language, whatever it is, do you? You listen." He leaned back in his swivel chair and peered intently at the letter.
"It say here, 'Gibble gabble gibble gabble Muhammad Ali gibble gabble gibble gabble the champion of the entire world gibble gabble gibble gabble BIG MOUTH.' "
He laughed at himself and put the letter back on the desk.
"It don't really say big mouth," he said. "I was just making that up. What was we talking about? Oh, who am I going to fight. Well, first, of course, I got to fight Liston again. We ain't set the date, but we gonna do that soon as I get a checkup in Boston this Monday. I feel real good, so I know that gonna be all right. Now, The Bear [Liston] is gonna be more dangerous this time because he is gonna be ready, so I ain't gonna keep him around so long. I ain't gonna predict the round, but he is too dangerous to play around with, so it will be soon.
"Then I would like The Rabbit, because it would be a big fight. People think I call him The Rabbit because he is so timid, but it ain't that. I make up these names by the way they look. Now, Floyd, he look like a rabbit, don't he? Got that little piece of hair sticking up in the front, and the way he move those little eyes around when he sit in the corner. Put me in mind of a rabbit, but he don't fight like no rabbit. Anyway, he didn't against Chuvalo. He tried to fight like me against Chuvalo, but he ain't near as fast as me, because they ain't no heavyweight ever lived been as fast as me and probably never will be. So I fight The Rabbit, and I think I will beat him pretty quick, because he is not so hard to hit. I ain't going to tell you how I'm gonna do it, because that would be telling secrets, but I am gonna do it. You can expect that."
He broke off to fish an obviously ancient Egyptian bronze statuette out of a desk drawer and, with appropriate ceremony, put it on his desk.
"That there is 23,000 years old," he said. "I got another one just like it here, too. Nasser gimme them. Must be worth 20, 30 thousand dollars apiece. Goes to show how people love me all over the world."
"What comes after Patterson?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "People always making up lists for me. Before I was champion they got this list of fighters I got to beat before they say I am good. Archie Moore. They say old Archie gonna stop the big mouth, and he fell in four and 16,000 people come to see. There was that big fella died later—Lavorante—I say he gonna fall in five, and another full house come to see can I do it, and I did. Then 11,000 fill Wembley Stadium in England to see me and Henry Cooper, and I got a little careless but I won. Doug Jones and me—that's another sellout in the Garden, and I took him too light and played around too much and didn't train hard enough, and I still won. So now they getting up these new lists."
"How about Ernie Terrell, if he beats Machen?"
"I call him The Stringbean," Muhammad said, grinning. "How come they can say him and Machen fighting for the championship? Ain't but one champion, just like they ain't but one President of the U.S. And I figure I am going to go on for maybe another 20 years. What year would that take it up to?"
"Nineteen eighty-five," he was told.
"We ought to be on the moon by then, shouldn't we?" Muhammad asked.
"Then when we meet them people on the moon—or somewhere else out there if they ain't any people on the moon—I'm gonna still be the champion of the world. And when they come down here to the earth and one of them little green men steps out of his saucer and looks around and says, 'Who is the baddest man on earth, because we want to have a tournament of the universe?' you know what they going to have to say to him? 'Muhammad Ali is the baddest man on earth,' they gonna have to say, because it is true."
He fitted an arrow to a bow which is another souvenir of his trip to Africa. The arrow had no feathers, and he shot it gently against the wall.
"Don't know how they can aim them arrows with no feathers on 'em," he said. "But I understand they can shoot them real straight."
He put down the bow and shuffled through the letters happily.
"Why don't they just admit I am the king of kings?" he said. "After we beat The Bear, we will go after The Hare. I had a good poem all ready after the Patterson-Chuvalo fight, but I didn't get to use it. It wound up, 'No matter who won February first/I could whip them both if worst come to worst.' "
He started stuffing the letters back in the desk.
"I getting hungry," he said as he finished. "I better call my wife and see if she is cooking or if I got to bring something home."
He dialed, then said, softly, "Hello, fox. You cooking, fox?" He listened for a moment and grinned. "Then I'll just bring home some ice cream," he said. "Goodby, fox."
He swung back and leaned on the desk.
"I'll have a ball with that Patterson when we fight," he said. "I make them so mad, they forget what they doing. And I'll really get him upset, as strange as he is."
He left then, driving away in a maroon 1965 Cadillac, leaving behind some unanswered questions about Ernie Terrell and not having mentioned the fighter many, including Liston and Terrell, consider the toughest in the division, Cleveland Williams. (Liston and Terrell may not be exactly unbiased in their appraisal of Williams. Liston has beaten him twice, Terrell once.)
Terrell, who is training in Chicago for the Machen fight March 5, is as unimpressed with Clay as he is with Patterson and Chuvalo. "You hear him talk all the time about how he can whip Liston and Patterson and Chuvalo," Terrell said. He is, at 6 feet 6 inches, the tallest heavyweight around with championship pretensions, and he probably has the best left hand in the division.
"But every time Clay puts on his gorilla suit and goes around selling wolf tickets about how good he is, he never mentions Ernie Terrell," Terrell went on. "He wants Patterson, and I don't blame him. I went to that fight in New York. Patterson fought like he had lost something, and Chuvalo fought like he needed to find something. I wouldn't have any trouble with either one of them. Neither would Cleveland Williams. Clay don't mention him, neither."
Williams, the heavyweight with—apparently—neither luck nor connections, is convalescing after having been shot in the stomach in Houston, supposedly while resisting arrest. Visiting Williams last week was Sonny Liston, just cleared on his latest traffic charge in Denver. While he was in Houston, he inspected the new domed stadium.
"It's out of this world," he said. "Only thing that would make it better would be to pack it with people watching me fight. I can't fight Clay here, because we put up a lot of money and promised the people in Boston that we would hold the fight there."
Despite his loss to Clay, Liston does not seem worried about the return match. "I don't think Clay is a good fighter," he insisted stubbornly. "He runs. He surprised me in the first fight by running. I didn't think he'd do that. If I had it to do again, I would go out for that last round. It was my trainer who told me not to go out. He said I might damage the shoulder so bad I might never fight again."
And Liston sings, perhaps more conveniently than convincingly, the praises of Williams, who he considers a better fighter than Clay.
"Williams caught me some shots in our first fight," he said. "He didn't run. Clay ran. I weighed 224 or 225 for that Miami Beach fight. I didn't train properly for it. I was ready for him this last time in Boston, before they called it off because of his hernia. I could have fought for 30 rounds. I'm only 215 now, and I've never really quit training since the postponement. I'm going back into training Monday, the 8th. I've kept up my roadwork."
Looking beyond Clay, Liston is not overly impressed by the new Patterson either.
"He fought different than he usually does," Liston said. "He moved from side to side and he moved back. But Chuvalo is awful slow. It was a good fight, but Cleveland Williams wouldn't have had any trouble with either one of them. I wouldn't either."
He thought about that a moment.
"Patterson hasn't improved," he said. "He's slowed up. He still don't like to get hit, either. Did you see how he would throw all those punches and then fall in and grab? If I find out I can hit a man that many punches, I'm not going to stop."
In the battle of words now raging among the contenders, Muhammad Ali appears to have a clear superiority, with Terrell a good second, Liston a distant third and Patterson out of the running entirely. Whether Patterson will fight again before he has the opportunity to meet the winner of the Clay-Liston fight is doubtful. He and Terrell posted $5,000 bonds to guarantee a match between them should Terrell, as seems likely, win over Machen, but Terrell is not optimistic about Patterson's fulfilling this obligation.
"He don't want any part of me," Terrell said. "And why mess up a big money fight with Clay for $5,000?"
The Clay-Liston fight is now expected to come off on Monday night, May 24, in the Boston Garden, and it is probable that Clay will win again, perhaps more decisively than he did in Miami Beach. When he does he will not have difficulty finding another opponent. The line is long and clamorous, and the public, suddenly awakened by the strenuous efforts of Floyd Patterson and George Chuvalo, is ready for almost anything, even a good fight.