Both of the principals were finally on the scene last week in the garish, befuddling, time-is-out-of-whack oasis that is Las Vegas, and if Cassius Clay was riding horseback at dawn out at Thunderbird Downs and Floyd Patterson was gloomily walking The Strip at dusk, it meant only that each was concentrating on the November 22 heavyweight championship fight in his own predictable fashion.
Clay had hardly arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday when it became obvious that his fashion is still mercurial. He is training for Patterson with a seriousness that he cannot maintain for more than a round or two. Then he must pause to clown or quip. He will somberly protest against the use of his "slave name," Cassius Clay, in prefight publicity and demand that it be expunged from a sign outside the Stardust Hotel. The sign reads: MUHAMMAD ALI (CASSIUS CLAY) TRAINING HERE DAILY AFTER 1 P.M. He told Fred Brooks, president of SportsVision, which will telecast the fight to Europe by Early Bird satellite, that the sign would have to be corrected or he would refuse to fight.
But the sign remained unchanged. After all, it is hard to live a good name down. And Muhammad Ali (accent on the last syllable, as in The Rose of Tralee), having made his point, did not raise the question again. He seems to make such demands essentially for the record and for their propaganda effect, and always in the presence of his Black Muslim companions. Moments after such a resounding declaration he can be found ribbing his idol, Joe Louis, with impertinent questions.
"Joe," he asked at dinner one night, "do you think I could have beaten you in your prime?"
November 15, 1965
"If you even dreamed it," Louis replied, not entirely appreciating the insolent humor, "you should apologize."
As for Patterson, he is at the opposite extreme. He is grim almost to the point of surliness, except in public appearances on radio or television. At those he answers questions with polite aplomb. To Patterson this fight must be the most important of his life, more important even than the exhilarating battle against Archie Moore in which he won the heavyweight championship of the world. Defeat is a sorry business for all prizefighters, but in the introverted, introspective Patterson it causes an agony of shame. He knew and cherished glory, quietly, and when he thought he lost it he felt that he had lost everything, even though the history books of boxing record that he was not only the youngest heavyweight champion, he was the only one to regain his title after defeat. History is important to Patterson, but not so important as the moment.
Almost everything happening in Las Vegas now emphasizes the fact that these opponents are two entirely different men, in boxing style and in temperament. Clay has been concentrating on defensive maneuvers that can only be described as masterly and, at the same time, perhaps ill-conceived. He treats sparring partners with gentle regard. Even his jabs, as his trainer, Angelo Dundee, pointed out at one sparring session, "are delivered at half speed."
Patterson, on the other hand, has been thumping his men without mercy. He is concentrating on offense, and even more on what is known in the sport as "viciousness," though that is a misnomer. One might as well say that Mickey Mantle hits a baseball viciously. Not since the second fight with Ingemar Johansson has Patterson trained so fiercely. One day he downed a hefty sparring partner with a straight left—something that does not happen often. The punch was so effective that many thought it a hook, but it was, in fact, the rarely seen "slip jab," delivered after moving half a step to the right.
Clay's concern with defense is nothing new. The day after he won his gold medal at the Rome Olympics of 1960 an impressed spectator, wondering if he could take a punch, asked him if he ever had been hit hard. "Man," he said, "I don't ever want to be hit ever." Well, he has sometimes been hit hard, and he has risen to each such occasion, but these tests have been few. Offense is less important to him, because he hits instinctively, seeing opportunity and responding to it reflexively the instant it appears. In sparring sessions last week he was performing marvels of blocking or otherwise avoiding punches, deliberately letting himself be cornered against the ropes, leaning backward over them with chin exposed and hands down. He was even displaying the rarely seen feat of slipping punches with his body, turning it away from a blow to render the punch less effective when it lands. There is also Clay's footwork, so graceful and so effective as to be astonishing in a heavyweight, and each day he was working on it, round after round, backing up, turning and twisting—maneuvers that have frustrated every professional fighter he has met, with the possible exception of Doug Jones.
His defensive training is not merely evasive, however. Each day, for at least one round, Clay lets his brother, Rahman Ali, the erstwhile Rudolph Valentino Clay, pound his belly with such force as to make one marvel that Cassius can tolerate it for three minutes. Dundee holds that the medicine ball is less effective than the human fist in toughening the belly muscles and, since Dundee once had five champions in his care at the same time, what Dundee holds is worth trying to grasp. "It took me months to do it," Dundee said, "but, thank God, I got him off the medicine ball." Patterson, though, sticks to the big ball.
All this training goes on in a curious setting, one that is a world away from the stark, austere and lonely camps that Patterson chooses for himself when he can. Clay works out in the Stardust Hotel's Continental Lounge, Patterson in the Thunderbird Hotel's Concert Theater. Both are nightclubs when in normal use, and the rings, speed bags, heavy bags and other equipment are set up on stages where chorus girls are wont to prance. The crowds who attend, and pay $1 for the privilege of watching each session, are not like the knowing ones who used to journey to Ehsan's or Greenwood Lake in the New York City area. They want entertainment. Clay supplies some, with quips and clowning, but also retains the services of the oldtime comedian, Stepin Fetchit, whose earlier days were palmier. Step's favorite assessment of himself: "You're looking at a man who made a million dollars in the movies and lost three million on the horses."
There are no paid comics in Patterson's entourage, nor does he appreciate those from the night clubs on The Strip who turn up at his workouts. He was disturbed in training one day by the appearance on his stage of such showfolk as Eddie Fisher, the singer, and Comedians Jackie Leonard and Don Rickles, all of whom are appearing in Las Vegas. Leonard was especially ebullient, in his customary style, and Patterson glowered as his concentration was disturbed by the fat comic. This was entirely out of line, in Patterson's estimation, with the requirements of the sacred rite of training. But Leonard is not easily quelled and, after a bit, Patterson was forced into a meager smile. Eventually he consented to pose for photographs while Fisher and Leonard pretended to box him.
The show-business complexion of the fight is unavoidable, since Hollywood is less than an hour's flight from Las Vegas and Las Vegas itself is clogged with stars. In the happy opinion of Harold Conrad, publicist for the match, it will be the "dressiest fight" since Georges Carpentier lured the society mob to Boyle's Thirty Acres for the French fighter's brief encounter with Jack Dempsey. Conrad has already received reservations from such as Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, and from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The promoters expect Eddie Fisher will sing The Star-Spangled Banner, though some doubt has been cast on this by Clay, who would prefer a Negro singer named Roy Hamilton.
"You want Fisher because he's white," Cassius protested to SportsVision's harried Brooks. "Fisher has had all the breaks he needs, because he's white. You say Fisher is a bigger name than Hamilton? I say he isn't." The matter rested there, Clay having again made his point of racial discrimination, and preparations moved forward for Fisher to do the singing. Incidentally, Patterson's favorite singer and a constant member of his entourage is Mickey Allan, who is white. (It is awkward to bring up such matters, but they are part of the scene.)
On his first full day in Las Vegas, where he arrived with a fanfare of predictions that he would "punish" Patterson for the latter's statements about him and the Black Muslims in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (Oct. 11), Clay and four members of his party made a point of visiting the city's Negro section. There he complimented himself on his gesture. "You ever heard of a champion coming out here to meet the people like this?" he demanded. "With those other champs you'd have to make an appointment and wear a tie to get to see them." He went to a Negro barbershop, where all five got haircuts and attracted a small crowd. "Come down in a group," he told them, "and I'll get you into my workouts free."
Perhaps because it will be seen in Europe on home television, though only on theater TV in the U.S., the fight has attracted an extraordinary number of applications for ringside seats from the foreign press. From Sweden, where Patterson is a national hero, there have been no fewer than 32 applications, and there have been 15 from British newspapers. There have even been three from Tokyo, which has hitherto not been noticeably interested in heavyweight prizefighting.
At the weekend the going Las Vegas odds favored Clay at 14 to 5 in the equivalent of man-to-man betting. The spread might have been even wider but for a certain amount of sentimental wagering on Floyd as a personable and modest fellow when he held the title. And it may also take into account Clay's crusading for Black Muslimism. Neither consideration will be of much value when the two men enter the ring.
There is nothing in Clay's manner to indicate he has given any thought to the possibility of losing to Patterson on November 22, and when he looks beyond that date he is equally contemptuous of the man whom the World Boxing Association now proclaims as holder of its version of the world heavyweight championship, Ernie Terrell.
Ernie retains his title at the other scene of heavyweight prizefight action last week, Toronto, where he scored a unanimous 15-round decision over George Chuvalo, the Croatian Canuck, who protested afterward, with tears and sobs, that his defeat was all the fault of his manager, Irving Ungerman. Chuvalo explained that he could not, for some reason or other, expect to enjoy the benefit of impartial officiating in Toronto, which is his home town. The accused Ungerman, who in real life is a poultryman, all but copped a plea. He, too, ranted against the officials. It made a fascinating, if inharmonious, duet.
But the officials were right. Terrell thoroughly beat Chuvalo with a single weapon, his left jab, which is a very sound piece technically, and vastly enhanced by a reach of 82 inches—five inches longer than Chuvalo's—and a long thumb, which is yet to be listed in his official measurements. The jab found Chuvalo's head with monotonous insistence, and the thumb found Chuvalo's eye with equal artistry. In the eighth round Referee Sammy Luftspring halted the proceedings briefly to explain to the contestants that they really ought to fight like gentlemen. Chuvalo had been responding to the thumb by stomping on Terrell's feet and by trying, with indifferent effect, to spit in his eye. (George should not be blamed too much for missing. It is very difficult to spit accurately through a mouthpiece.) He also butted on those rare occasions when he was close enough to do so. As for Terrell, "His thumb got longer and longer as the fight went along," Luftspring said, and when he clinched with Chuvalo he scraped the Canadian's back with his wrist tape, leaving two vertical red welts, one of them a foot and a half long. It was a fine brawl, but not an edifying spectacle for the young. The oldsters in the crowd loved it.
Terrell vs. Clay or Terrell vs. Patterson is all but certain to be the outcome of the Toronto affair and the coming Las Vegas encounter. This is logical, for it would end the boring confusion of having two simultaneous claimants to the heavyweight title. It would be an interesting fight, too, because the Terrell jab, which is effective both offensively and defensively, would present a problem to either Clay or Patterson that would have to be solved.
Angelo Dundee has thoroughgoing respect for Terrell's jab, since he taught it to him, but he feels that the 6-foot-6 Terrell does not use it to best advantage. With left foot extended fully forward and right foot similarly extended backward, says Dundee, Terrell is unable to use his right hand effectively. From such a position the right invariably will fall short and, knowing this himself, Terrell seldom bothers with it. But he does have a good left hook, and once in a while, when his mind is not fixed on the jab, he throws it. Nor does Terrell take proper advantage of his great height, in Dundee's opinion, since, instead of standing upright, he bends forward. Someone should have told Chuvalo.
But to Clay's men in Las Vegas, Terrell's jab is a long way in the future. It is Patterson that Clay is jabbing now—verbally, until fight night. Predicting a knockout along about the seventh or eighth round, he has added another couplet to his own Garden of Verses:
Before you bet your money,
Remember what happened to Sonny.