It was one of those romantic, perfumed Mexican nights—moon over the Aztec Stadium and all that—and Ernie Terrell draped himself as comfortably as possible on top of Manuel Ramos and looked dreamily out into the audience. This pose was rather difficult, since Ramos kept wriggling irritably and trying to hit him, and Terrell had already had plenty of that nonsense. He was bleeding thickly around his eyes, all his ribs were unhinged, and with each new jolt his mouthpiece became disconnected from his head. Ramos was hitting him so hard he was sending a rainbow of Terrell's perspiration out into the third row at ringside, and 10 rounds of this can get pretty grim. Thus, last Saturday night a new career in show business was born. Sic transit uppercut.
As will happen in fighting, Terrell went out in a blaze of boredom. Halfway through the fight, people were turning to each other and saying, "So how are the wife and kids?" And others who still had interest enough stood and threw their seat cushions and a few centavos into the ring. Worse yet, Terrell's farewell performance came as second billing to a featherweight title bout so superb that for years Mexicans will speak of it with tears in their eyes.
All this activity took place in the middle of a very special month in Mexico. The Little Olympics, a dress rehearsal for the big show that opens next autumn, had drawn thousands of people to Mexico City; the Harlem Globetrotters were playing somewhere; there were world-famous racing drivers on hand for the Mexican Grand Prix; there had been a bank robbery; there was a subway strike on a subway that was not even built yet and the traditional "second summer" was turning out rainy and cold instead of what all those programs had promised it would be.
Into this scene—for $30,000 in American dollars plus expenses—came Terrell. He was brought to town by Atlantic City entertainment czar George Hamid Jr.—shame on you, Mr. Hamid—who had agreed with Terrell that they could win easily and restore Terrell's status, which has not been outstanding of late.
"This is the crossroads for Terrell," said Hamid, on arriving at the stadium. "I am not a boxing man au natural: that is, I picked up Terrell when he was stranded in March of 1966 after the Clay fight. We then fought Thad Spencer for $50,000 and figured he was made to order for us. He wasn't. We then tried for Frazier, couldn't get him, got a tentative bid for Sonny Liston, which didn't work out. And all the time the name of Ramos kept coming up."
The name of the Mexican heavyweight champion, ranked sixth in the world by The Ring magazine, came up so often that Hamid finally brought the show to town. "If Terrell wins," he announced, "we will threaten, persuade or shame Frazier into a fight. If Ernie loses, I will ask him to get out of the game. Terrell has a great future in show business: he is a marvelous entertainer, and we could get bookings for him right now. This will be it."
This was it. Terrell came out with his customary mean look, which is supposed to strike wide terror, and began belting Ramos in the stomach. Ramos, who still lacks considerable polish, responded by holding up Terrell and occasionally belting him in the short ribs, head, kidneys, kneebones and thorax. Usually, though, the pair looked like a pair of waltzing elephants.
"I have no excuse for losing," Terrell said in his dressing room. "I hit him some good punches, and he kept coming back." And how about his future? "I am going to have an announcement about that pretty soon."
If this was to be it for Terrell, it was even more so for the featherweights, Vicente Saldivar and Howard Winstone, who were responsible for drawing most of the 90,000 cushion-tossers—boxing's fourth largest crowd ever—in the first place. Saldivar is 24 and won the title after 25 fights and 24 wins. In fact, he had fought—and beaten—the Welshman Winstone twice before. What makes him particularly exciting to the Mexicans is his style. As one Mexican sportswriter said minutes before the bout was to begin: "Saldivar must win by the 10th round because he has this tendency to stop thinking after 10. I don't know what it is, but he starts out as a picture boxer. Then the evil spirits seize him, and he becomes a sort of beast and just goes wild without stopping."
Saldivar had agreed to fight for one million pesos, a national record, and the promoters figured they had the fight of the century. Never mind the fact that featherweights weigh 126 pounds and wear lifts in their shoes. It was everything any country would want. The promoters got together early in the week at an old police headquarters in a huge, hollow building on the outskirts of town to work out the details. The meeting room smacked of countless interrogations over stolen cars. Everyone agreed that if one fighter was knocked out of the ring he would have 10 seconds to get back in. And halfway through the thing, Mexican Boxing Commissioner Luis Spota got up to open a window to let in some fresh air. The window promptly slammed shut and shattered with a hollow tinkle of glass in the courtyard below. Everyone, conscious of symbolism, figured they were in for a hell of a night at the fights.
The promoters first knocked together a ring: a few handy boards covered with shiny red oilcloth. They sprinkled sawdust and wood chips on top, stretched a canvas over that and everybody got slightly seasick looking at the result. Next they scaled the house from $40 ringside all the way back to four pesos (32¢) for seats high up in the bowl, figuring—correctly—that those who would occupy the 32¢ seats would be so far out of town they couldn't hit anybody down front with anything.
As early as 2 o'clock last Saturday afternoon traffic began creeping into the stadium—which is also called the Coloso de Santa Ursula—and by fight time the place was full of tension. All week long, Winstone had been ready. He arrived in shape, so confident that he bought an $84 gold wristwatch that figured to weigh about 70 pounds all by itself. For balance and for his other wrist he turned up with a simple gold identification bracelet with his name spelled out on it in chip diamonds.
Saldivar, who is known as Zurdo de Oro, which translates into something like, "The Lefty of Gold," showed up wearing his customary look of absolute purity. Saldivar is darkly handsome. His hair is cut in a sort of early pompadour, and his face is no more marked than, say, the face of any average guy who has been thrown through a windshield.
The fight went almost according to the plot: Winstone, who does not believe in trancelike states, started off strong, snapping a left hand that was clearly picked up at an old Gene Fullmer rummage sale, and winning points. And Saldivar, changing from handsome to savage, went into his trance three rounds early.
In round 7, while the fans howled their heads off, Saldivar began blasting in with a wild attack, hitting Winstone with flurries that nobody quite believed, fighting alternately out of a combination crouch and upright, leaping, staggering, lurching. In round 9, Saldivar leaned back and hit Winstone so hard he sent drops of his sweat into the fourth row, which is a Mexican all-conference record—and by the 11th round he had completely turned off the world and tuned in Winstone. In the 12th he knocked Winstone down. For the boxing record, the knockdown punch was at least 86 of those fast, golden left hands, and in the next instant Winstone's manager, Eddie Thomas, sailed a towel into the ring.
In Saldivar's dressing room afterward there was, above all, emotion. Saldivar announced he was retiring—to consider a movie offer, everyone said—and that he figured Winstone would be his successor as king of all the featherweights. "He didn't hurt me," Saldivar said, "although he opened my left cheek with a tremendous punch." He was suffering what fight people casually refer to as a four-stitcher, and the fight had left his handsome face in ruins. Well, he can always play mini-Brando roles.
When the fight ended and everybody had stood up and pitched his seat cushion into the ring, the organ suddenly burst into song. The Aztec Stadium was filled with Las Golondrinas (The Swallows), which is Mexico's equivalent of Auld Lang Syne and a stunning farewell to Saldivar. A lot of people cried. It is a nice tune at that. Maybe Terrell can work it into his act.