Muhammad Ali, who has grown from a cheerful, ingenuous boy into a cruel man, proved beyond any question that he is the heavyweight champion of the world when he destroyed Ernie Terrell in Houston's Astrodome Monday night. He fought with élan and power and with a consummate sense of timing and distance, and when the fight was over he had punished Terrell unmercifully.
It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.
"I want to torture him," Ali said two days before the fight. "I want to give him the Patterson humiliation and punish him. A clean knockout is too good for him."
For the first six rounds of this one-sided match, Clay moved cautiously, staying well beyond the range of Terrell's long left hand. Terrell, surprisingly, looked a bit like an elongated Floyd Patterson, using the same peekaboo style that Patterson employs but lacking the flashy punching speed that allowed Patterson to be effective.
"He just came to survive," said Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer. "You can't knock out a fighter if all he wants to do is last."
Terrell came to do more than to survive. In the past he has used his right hand only as a defense; against Ali, he tried several right hooks to the head and body in the early rounds and once or twice reached Ali's ribs with a right. But none of them did any damage.
In the earlier going, Terrell's peculiar stance—both hands held high and elbows close together in front of his belly—frustrated Clay's two-handed volleys to his head. He caught most of the blows on his gloves, and when Clay, acting on instructions from Dundee, shifted the attack to the belly, Terrell simply hunched over more and brought his elbows together. In these rounds Clay's most effective weapons were a right-or left-hand uppercut between Terrell's gloves. In the second round he opened a small cut under Terrell's left eye.
It seemed an inconsequential injury, and Terrell was still fighting strongly and well, scoring on those occasions when he could crowd Clay into the ropes. But, according to Terrell, Clay had damaged his eye so badly that he was unable to see clearly.
"He rubbed my eye against the top rope in the second round," Terrell said. "He rubbed one eye on the rope and put his thumb in the other eye, and for the rest of the fight I was seeing two or three of him. His speed didn't bother me and he didn't hurt me with his punching, but I couldn't see him."
If Terrell's vision was impaired from the second round on, the fact was not apparent immediately. He fought surprisingly well, and his peekaboo style seemed to puzzle Ali. Indeed, in the fourth round he hit Clay with the best punch he landed all night, a sharp, crisp right cross over a tentative Clay jab. Ali slid away along the ropes and countered with a left, but Terrell hit him again with the right before Ali could escape. Muhammad weathered a storm of lefts and rights in this exchange by beautiful shifts of his head and body. This was to be the last really good round Terrell had.
From the fifth round to the end of the fight Clay moved in close. He had remained well away from Terrell before this, gauging the length of the left. After he had marked the outer limits of the long jab, he moved up so that Terrell's left time and again missed his face by only an inch or so. Then Clay began to plant himself, hitting with the flat-footed power that had disposed of Cleveland Williams. The hard, rapid-fire punches occasionally jarred Terrell's hands apart so that Clay was able to finish off a flurry with a left or right uppercut between Terrell's hands.
In the sixth round he stabbed Terrell through these openings with sharp left hands, but there was no visible damage, and Terrell fought back.
But early in the seventh, now fighting as close to Terrell as he pleased and almost ignoring the threat of the left hand, Clay slammed a series of punches against the side of Terrell's head, and Terrell momentarily opened his guard. When he did, Clay lifted him with a short, immensely powerful right uppercut that caught him flush. The punch opened a deep, bloody gash over Terrell's right eye. Terrell staggered crabwise across the ring, where he splayed out on the ropes. Clay waited and then hit him in the face again, this time with a violent left hook.
Terrell was dazed and floundering, but he retained enough of his senses to bring his hands up once more to protect his head. Perhaps too eager now, Clay wasted himself with a fruitless, wild bombardment that bounced harmlessly off Terrell's gloves. Bleeding heavily, Terrell almost unbelievably survived. He regained his composure so well that he finished the round with a strong rally of his own in which he managed to hit Clay with a good right hand.
For the next eight rounds, however, the question in this fight was whether Terrell would be able to avoid being knocked out. The offensive spurt at the end of the seventh was the last truly aggressive move he made. For the rest of the fight he seemed groggily, grimly determined to accept whatever punishment Ali administered, and he fought back only in curious, desperate bursts that were oddly sad to watch.
Muhammad Ali recognized this as surely as Terrell must have, and he showed clearly the cruel streak that has recently become a dominant factor in his character. After the seventh round he knew that he could not lose the fight. He taunted Terrell throughout the eighth round by coming well within the range of the now almost useless left hand and yelling, "What's my name! What's my name!" The question stemmed from Terrell's refusal to recognize the Muslim name that had been given to Clay by his leader, Elijah Muhammad. Each time the question was followed by a tattoo of lefts and rights to Terrell's head. At the end of the eighth, as the bleeding and beaten Terrell plodded hopelessly after him, Clay stopped, glanced at the clock and yelled, "Uncle Tom."
Then Clay punished Terrell ruthlessly. It might have been well to have stopped the fight as no contest—and many in the crowd, wincing at the flow of blood, were yelling for it to be stopped, but it went on remorselessly. Terrell shuffled forward hopelessly, peering mistily through his upraised hands while Clay baited him, moving just beyond his reach and hitting him.
At the beginning of the 10th round Clay stood in front of Terrell and tapped himself gently on the jaw as though he were promising Terrell that this is where the blow would land to knock the WBA champion out. Despite the terrible" punishment, Cassius never managed to fulfill the prediction.
By the 12th round Dundee was yelling at Clay, "Finish him! Finish him!" And Sam Solomon, the round, gray-haired Negro who trains Terrell, was yelling at his fighter, "Hit him! Hit him! You got nothing to lose now!" He certainly did not. But just as certainly Terrell had nothing left with which to go after Clay. Only some dim determination to finish kept him on his feet.
Between the 13th and 14th rounds Harry Kessler, the referee, leaned over and called for a doctor to examine Terrell's right eye. A bald-headed man in a red coat climbed to the apron of the ring and leaned part way through the ropes for a quick glance at the cut and then climbed down again. Kessler called down to a friend at ringside. "It isn't a bad cut," he said.
So Terrell came out again for the 14th round, an act of considerable courage. He must have known that he did not have the physical resources for even a desperate punch that would knock Clay out. The few times he tried to retaliate, the punches were weak and wide.
By now, although he forced himself at rare intervals to fight back, Terrell could no longer control his tormented body. Instead of reacting normally to a Clay feint, he flinched instinctively with his whole being, and when he ventured to lead with his left, his recovery into a protective crouch was exaggerated and somehow pitiful.
Luckily for him, Clay by then was arm weary. Clay did not mount another serious attack until the fight was almost over. Then, with 17 seconds left in the 15th round, he glanced up at the clock. He pushed Terrell away and pounced on him savagely, spending the remaining energy he had hoarded, and Terrell took the beating submissively, his hopes of victory irretrievably gone.
In the dressing room Clay was almost unmarked. He had bled slightly from one nostril during a late round following a wild lunge by Terrell, but that was the only sign of battle on him.
"He never hurt me," Cassius said in the time-honored words of all fighters. "Never reached me with the left. I don't know what I hit him with in the seventh cause they was too many punches I thrown. I got to say he a brave man. I jes' couldn't put him down, so I had to back off now and then and get my breath."
He made a big point of asking Herbert Muhammad, son of Elijah, to climb up beside him on a training table and say whom he would fight next. He ignored Angelo Dundee.
"He was out of condition," said Herbert, when he got the floor. "If he had been in condition, he would have knocked Terrell out in the third round." "Out of condition?" said Dundee, who was changing clothes in a small cubicle to one side of the dressing room. "This man went 15 hard rounds and threw Lord only knows how many punches against a guy hard to punch against, and he's out of condition? I never saw him in better condition."
As long as he stays that way no heavyweight in the world stands the remotest chance against him. This fight, as so many before, was built up as a real test of Clay, and again it was no test at all.
After the fight Clay told Zora Folley that he was the next contender. Waiting in the wings are Thad Spencer, George Chuvalo, Joe Frazier and Buster Mathis.
By now, though, it is very clear that the only foe who will defeat Muhammad Ali Cassius Marcellus Clay is age—or his own bigotry. He taunted Terrell because he felt Ernie had betrayed the Negro race by calling him Clay. Ali is, truly, a devout Muslim and he believes in the Muslim tenets.
It will not be surprising, then, if he disposes of one of the last non-Muslims in his entourage, and maybe that move will be as damaging to him as the slow encroachment of age. Herbert Muhammad may be his manager, in fact, for his next fight, and Angelo Dundee may be out. Clay provided the physical talent to win and defend a world championship and Dundee the brains. Somehow Herbert does not seem smart enough—as a trainer or manager—to take Angelo's place.