The bouts were good and honest in Houston's Astrodome as Jimmy Ellis and Thad Spencer became the first winners in the elimination tournament to pick a successor to a morose and fatalistic Muhammad Ali
August 13, 1967

The cars moved through town, the car lights from across the other lane passing over the fighter's face. Quickly they reached the hospital. "Four or five stitches, Jimmy," said Angelo Dundee. Inside, the doctor worked, his hands moving beautifully. Dundee watched. "You can't have a butcher," he whispered. "The stitching has to be delicate so the cut is tight. You got to watch some doctors. I can't take any chances with this guy now." He nodded toward Jimmy Ellis, who was not a sparring partner anymore or just a fighter you never watched when he was taking five above the eye. Jimmy Ellis, who had just beaten Leotis Martin, was a property now.

"He is the best banger around in the division," said Dundee. "He proved that today and he will prove it throughout the tournament. He and this tournament can't miss."

Maybe so. There certainly was no question that the first round of the WBA heavyweight championship elimination tournament held in the Houston Astrodome last weekend did whack the roar out of its critics—and out of all the promoting competitors who had tried to submerge the tournament with the innuendo, delicate conspiracy and evil arts that are good business in boxing.

Before the fights it seemed that the tournament, shrouded by the gigantic shadow of Muhammad Ali and the brilliance of Joe Frazier, who refused to participate, was off to a smashing failure. The mysterious uncertainty of the packagers, Sports Action Inc., the sleight-of-hand moves by Madison Square Garden, Ali's unsuccessful passport plea in Houston and the absence of Frazier—peripheral things all—gave the promotion a massive inferiority complex. But the fighters, cruel, valorous, a blend of beauty and brutal awkwardness, rescued the afternoon in Houston and the world of boxing from what was figured to be another era of greed. They made a start toward an interesting aftermath to the age of Ali, an age Ali dominated by sweeping exhibitions and ring ballets rather than by conventional fighting.

Thirteen thousand nine hundred and forty-six people paid $92,560 to see the fights—Ellis vs. Martin, Ernie Terrell vs. Thad Spencer—in an atmosphere that was as cozy as a group of people sitting in the middle of a frozen lake. It was as if the fights had not been produced by natural forces but by the great god, Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was the promoter and sort of distributor for the packagers and had decreed: "Let there be a fight." Fortunately, the fights were not as repelling.

All four of the boxers, Ellis, Martin, Terrell and Spencer, came to Houston on the lam, looking for a slice of the moon. Ellis was trying to crack out of a strange, engulfing area of boxing. He had been Ali's sparring partner for so long a time that he became a sort of object that you expected to find in a training camp, like the light bag or a damp headgear. Martin, out of the violent, devouring pits of Philadelphia, had been ducked by everyone, including Frazier, who would not fight him with a shotgun. Spencer, with his bad feet, his lack of motivation, his tendency toward corpulence and his eager shuffle toward neon, sticky bars and sweet-scented foxes, was just ridiculous. Terrell? He had copped a plea against Ali, and he has always been poison at the gate.

In terms of effort expended to sign each fighter, you can measure each one monetarily: they got Martin for $1.75, Terrell for $17.50, Ellis for $80.00 and Spencer for $600. Willie Ketchum, Spencer's manager, wanted to be coaxed. All received $50,000 for their fights, except Martin. He was offered $22,560, but he paid heavily for his end. His fight with Ellis, in the argot of the business, was life and death. Ellis did a vicious job, and few will forget the way Martin's mouth looked as he lay in his dressing room. His eyes never moved from the ceiling, this anonymous kid who sometimes seemed like a solemn friar reading from a breviary or at times like an Edgar Bergen dummy; he is, because of a speech impediment, quite withdrawn, Nobody talked to him while he was there on the table. Finally his eyes looked around. He seemed like a frightened deer in the middle of a stream. The trainer every now and then moved the gauze away from his battered lip.

"Never," said Joe Polino, one of the master cut men in boxing, "never in my whole life have I seen a cut like this."

"He's gonna need plastic surgery," someone said. "Forget stitches."

"He never did a damn thing," roared Pinney Schaefer, his manager. He is called Pinney because he has a pinhead. "Didn't do one thing we planned."

The head on the table tried to turn, but only the eyes could make it in Pinhead's direction.

"We couldn't do anything with him," screamed Pinhead. "He's got to have earplugs in there. Nothing. He don't think one cent's worth."

The eyes turned back toward the ceiling.

Martin was whipped early in this fight. He never really had a chance, or anything left after the first round, and he survived as long as he did only because he has a soccer ball for a heart. Ellis wasted him with right hands in the first, and, had not Martin been hurt so badly, the heavy expenditure of energy might have been costly for Ellis. He was punched out in the second round, and Martin made a gallant recovery. But Martin's lip started to tear in the third, and blow after blow crashed into his face until the ninth round, when Ellis jabbed the cut and it opened frightfully.

"He sure do have a hard head," said Ellis later.

Martin also has a destructive pair of hands, but he never managed to make effective use of them. His plan was to stay on top of Ellis early in the fight, when Ellis has always been most dangerous, and then catch him in the late rounds. Martin knew that there was a serious question as to whether Ellis, whose early explosions seem to drain him, was more than a five-round fighter. The allegation may still have substance. Ellis has never really believed in himself, which is quite understandable in a person who has been carrying Ali's bag for too many years.

"Yeah," said Angelo Dundee, Ellis' and Ali's trainer (page 64). "He was there. He could've been caught good any number of times, could've been in real trouble. He stopped moving, you know, side to side, but Jimmy's right hands beat Martin and he knew Martin didn't have anything left. Ellis'll be much better from now on. He's getting the confidence."

"I'll be all right, I'm on my way," said Ellis, who seems surprised that people suddenly want to know the details of his life. "Now, when the day comes I fight Clay, I'm gonna go bing, bing, bing in that pretty face and say, 'Hey, boy, what's my name?' "

Muhammad Ali was much more than a spectre in Houston. He was very real a few days before the fights when, in court, he was denied a request to travel abroad and was ordered to surrender, his passport. For the first time, it seems, he is resigned to going to jail and is exuding unfaked fatalism, trying desperately to camouflage his moroseness with wild exuberance.

"I can see 'em at the gate now," he jokes. "This is the way it's going to be." He then describes this scene:

TV reporter: Ladies and gentlemen, Muhammad Ali is finally going to jail. Here he is now, coming through the gates. Ali. Ali. Ali. How do you feel about all this?

Muhammad (big, deep, very masculine voice): I is ready. I am strong. And I'll do this here time easy, and I'll be back to fight again.

End of scene. Cut to five years later.

Reporter: Ladies and gentlemen, here comes Ali. For five years he has been behind these here walls. Ali, will you fight again?

Muhammad (soft, very feminine voice): I don't want to fight anybody, luv.

"Seriously, though," said Ali. "I've been visiting a few prisons to get accustomed to them. They say you're all right in them federal places. You can pay for your own food. You get TV. Only thing you don't get is your girl friends."

"Well," said Dundee, "you better learn to do a lot of reading."

"I don't think I'll crack up," said Ali. "I really don't." He paused for a long moment and then said, "I think I'll get married soon, and then retire. It'll be good for the tournament. With me around, nobody gonna take these guys seriously. If I retire, there'll be some significance." Silence again. "You know I gotta go back to Chicago now, and I don't care if that plane does go down."

Ali, before he left, picked Terrell to beat Spencer and win the tournament, but, like most fighters, he is not a good judge of talent or an accurate selector. Spencer looked better than Ellis in winning his fight. Terrell started quickly. His jab rammed into Spencer's face consistently and he succeeded in doing what he had planned, until Spencer broke him in half with body blows. He would take or pick off a couple of Terrell's jabs and then slide under and rake the big guitar player over the body. Spencer sent Terrell to the floor in the second round with a short right hand, and Terrell hung on to Spencer's foot as he sat on the floor.

Despite the knockdown Terrell was leading slightly going into the eighth round, but Spencer, hammering at the body and coming out of a crouch with a right hand, won the last five rounds. A pitiful, wheezing figure toward the end, Terrell fought a sloppy, stupid fight. He rabbit-punched, hit Spencer below the belt (he lost the 10th on twp blows to the groin) and inexplicably kept moving toward Spencer's right hand. This, besides being risky, reduced the power of his biting jab. Spencer fought an extremely intelligent fight, motivated by an acute dislike for Terrell, who was unbearably patronizing toward the other fighters going into Saturday's showdown.

"I'm tired of ham and eggs," said Spencer during a press conference before the fight. "I'm gonna have me some steak from now on." "Yeah," said Terrell, "he can have steak. He can come over to my house for it after he loses. Who is Thad Spencer, anyway?"

"Ha," said Spencer after the fight. "Who is Ernie Terrell? Where is Ernie Terrell now?"

The answer to that was not difficult. He was out of the tournament, which, to be certain, is what was greatly desired. An unpopular fighter with the crowd, Terrell would have strangled any excitement the tournament hoped to produce. Now, thanks to three fighters who made tough, honest fights, the tournament and boxing itself have climbed a sizable step up.

PHOTOEarly in their bout Jimmy Ellis, who learned his fighting as Muhammad Ali's sparring mate, slams a hard right into the face of Leotis Martin. PHOTOThad Spencer, who came on strong in the late rounds to beat Ernie Terrell by decision, raises a tired hand with aid of Manager Willie Ketchum.