He was seeking to humiliate Floyd Patterson, but Cassius Clay, known to his fellow Black Muslims as Muhammad Ali, only succeeded in ennobling him. While a great, improbable rain poured on the desert and upon the dome of the Las Vegas Convention Center last Monday night, Patterson, indisputably beaten and horribly bent by back pains so that he had to clump about like man in the days before he was able to stand fully erect, gamely pursued Clay, lashing out from time to time with largely ineffectual hooks. As Floyd hobbled to his corner, one of his handlers would grab him about the waist, lift him and squeeze him, desperately trying to alleviate the pain and make him whole again.
In the 12th round, when it had long been clear that Patterson had no hope at all of landing a blow with enough force to knock Clay out, and Clay, standing at a distance, was freely hitting Floyd with innumerable punches, Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, full of pity and disgust, cried from the corner, "Ali, knock him out, for Christ's sake!" Coincidentally, Referee Harry Krause compassionately signaled that the fight was over. Krause, in fact, wanted to stop it in the 11th because, "It was hurting me to watch, but he is such a good boy and has such a great heart, and I just couldn't do it."
Patterson protested when the fight was stopped, and it was a gesture that deserved applause, if not Krause's concurrence. Floyd said later, "In my honest opinion, if I was watching the fight at home on TV, I would have wanted it stopped, but I preferred to be counted out."
In losing, however, Floyd Patterson brought something back to boxing that has seemed to be missing of late, particularly in the heavyweight division: a sense of high valor that characterized it in the past and made it such a grand and eminent spectacle.
In winning, the incomparable Clay, that child of scorn, showed that he will possibly be champion as long as he wants, that he has everything going for him except a true knockout punch and, perhaps—for who can divine the strange things that move this man—he has that, too, but for peculiar reasons did not try to throw it early enough. It might have been cruelty, but it might also have been sympathy, for he had said a day or two before the fight, "Animals are vicious. Humans shouldn't be vicious. I'm just an aggressive, classy, creative fighter. I may be the last heavyweight champion. If there's fighting after I'm gone, it'll just be a dull old thing. No more poems, no predictions, no more hollering. Ooh, I'm the popularest thing."
As for Patterson, who could never really get untracked against the elusive Clay, he said the day before the fight, "I was a champion. I was a good champion, and I know I am nearing the end." He also said that he was a sore loser, but if this fight was indeed his valedictory he could not have made a more fitting one. He had little chance of winning, he could not get inside Clay or even catch up to him, and when he did Clay tied him up. His only hopes were his vain leaps, mostly serving to launch left hooks, mostly short of the mark. Yet even when in pain he never stopped essaying them, doggedly advancing after Clay, standing up under an infinite variety of quick blows, his face showing the hopelessness of the task he had undertaken but his will driving his arms nonetheless. In a very real sense, he was once more the fighter who stormed through the mid-'50s in that he regained the single-mindedness and purity and ferocity of motive he once had. Alas, he was not the better man. "A fight is a fight," Patterson had said. "And the better man usually wins."
To be accurate, the better fighter usually wins.
Patterson entered the ring first, so early that the crowd, diminished by the rain ($100 seats were reportedly being unloaded for $25), was unprepared for his appearance. He looked almost absurdly grand in a red-velvet robe with Hotel Thunderbird written across the back. Clay, much booed, wore an ordinary, even tacky, white terry cloth bathrobe. It would have been more appropriate to their respective natures if the robes had been reversed. Eddie Fisher, who was a 9-to-5 shot to forget the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, sang it uncommonly well. During the anthem Clay jigged in the corner, occasionally spitting, which provoked one patriot at ringside to yell: "Stand at attention, you bum."
In the first round Clay showed Patterson a lot of nothing. With his hands down he drifted insolently about the ring, inviting Patterson to do what he would, or could. Floyd tried a few left hands, jabs and hooks, but with a notable lack of success, and when he tried to get inside Clay easily tied him up. From time to time Clay had something to say to Patterson, but to little effect. "I didn't know what he was saying," Patterson said later, "but I was disgusted that I couldn't do anything about it." What Clay actually said was, "Come on American, come on white American."
It was an eerie scene, as though Clay were enacting a role in a play to which Patterson had not been shown the script. Undoubtedly, it was part of his juvenile scheme to embarrass Patterson. In part, he succeeded for Floyd became acutely aware of Clay's speed and, as a consequence, was somewhat embarrassed to punch—he knew he would be hitting only air. Though this may have given Clay private satisfaction, it was uncomfortable to watch. The spectators were as embarrassed as Patterson.
In the second round Clay began attacking, advancing on Patterson with left hooks and jabs as Dundee shouted, "Snake licker, snake licker," a pet name for Clay's jab. Whenever Patterson sought to get inside, Clay would grab him around the neck and pull his head down, which served to disarm him. From the outside Patterson was still unable to reach Clay.
The overwhelming advantage of Clay's reach was demonstrated in the third round, when Clay stopped moving about so much and more or less stood his ground. It was, in truth, demeaning. By the very fact of holding his left out there he prevented Patterson from closing with him. As though he sensed the futility of reaching Clay with anything more than a lucky, leaping hook, Patterson slowed down, becoming an almost pathetic figure that Clay jabbed at will.
In the next round, the fourth, Referee Krause, fed up with Clay's remarks to Patterson, warned him to "stop the chatter," although there doesn't seem to be a rule of boxing prohibiting free speech. Floyd got off one good hook in this round, driving Clay against one of the posts. From Patterson's corner Buster Watson told Floyd to "move in," but he was either unwilling or unable to do so, and after Clay had hit him with a good left hook at the bell Patterson smiled regretfully at Cassius, as if to say: "We are both aware that I won't be able to beat you, but you're not going to make a fool of me or make me give up."
And so it went, Patterson, surprisingly, showing a decent defense as he blocked or slipped many of Clay's punches, but woefully inadequate insofar as any meaningful offense was concerned. The course of the fight had been indelibly set. The only question was how long Floyd could take it, how much he could ultimately endure.
In the sixth round a left hook without much evident force behind it dropped Patterson to one knee, but he was up almost instantly. Because Clay, who is a bit of a genuine hysteric, declined to go to a neutral corner immediately, Krause did not start the mandatory eight-count until five, seconds had elapsed. It was then that Patterson began to show his singular courage. Simply, he fought in return and at the bell hobbled to his corner, now obviously suffering from his injured back. Later, his doctor, Michael Blatt, said Patterson had actually dislocated a disc last Wednesday and that he had begged Patterson to call off the fight.
"Dance, dance. This is it, this is it," yelled Dundee at the start of the seventh, but Clay—though he had, in a way, predicted this would be the round in which he would knock Patterson out—backed off reluctantly and seemed tired, even dispirited. Floyd stayed in there and punched, as though his arms, independent of his now useless legs and body, had been endowed with their own vigor.
When he headed for his corner at the end of the ninth Patterson almost fell down, and one wished that Clay would knock him out to save him from his suffering. But Clay didn't, perhaps couldn't. And so it all came to its inevitable end, Patterson instinctively bobbing and moving in, for he could not move back.
"I wish I could have given you a better fight," Patterson said later. "I will not make an excuse for what happened tonight. I will just say I am sorry. I can do much, much better. That I know."
How much better Patterson could have done is a moot question. Although the bad back cut down his mobility, in the first two rounds, before it started to hamper him, he seemed too slow to cope with Clay. Indeed, off this first lengthy test of his boxing splendors, almost any heavyweight in memory might be too slow to cope with Cassius Marcellus Clay.
His pretty face unmarred, Clay greeted the press with, "O.K. what's the excuse? Just give me the new excuse. Carrying him, nothing. He took my best punches. He surprised me. He's a good fighter, determined. He wouldn't fall. He just wouldn't go down. I have two swollen hands to show for it. I'm mad about only one thing—too many people cheered me tonight. There weren't enough boos. Who do you want me to fight? The best man? Well, find him." And in his black silk suit, white shirt and black knit tie he left amid a formation of Muslims.
Because of the rain, Clay could not see the Mother of Planes, which he knew was hovering in the sky over Las Vegas and which he had seen in the past. According to Elijah Muhammad, the Muslim leader, this is the plane that will destroy the white devils. Clay explicitly believes this. As Elijah has written, the Mother of Planes is "a destructive, dreadful-looking plane...a half-mile by a half-mile square; it is a humanly built planet. It is up there and can be seen twice a week. It is the largest man-made object in the sky. It is capable of staying in outer space six to twelve months at a time without coming into the earth's gravity. It carries 1,500 bombing planes with most deadliest explosives."
Said Clay the day before the fight: "On a clear night when you can see all the stars, look for the brightest. Watch it for a while. You'll see it shaking, that high up. Little white objects jump off it, make a circle, come back. Those are the bombers. On them are black men who never smile...."
What strange times we live in. What a strange, uncommon man is Clay. Who can fathom him? We can only watch in wonder as he performs and ponder whether, despite his often truly affecting ways, he doesn't scorn us and the world he is champion of.