The word we use in our business is resurgence," says Harry Markson, who is managing director of boxing for Madison Square Garden. "It's a nice-sounding word." Mrs. Aileen Eaton, the promoter for the Olympic in Los Angeles, prefers "renaissance," which, admittedly, has a nice sound, too. In short, there's a boxing boom. For example, last October in Mexico City 90,000 watched the bill on which Manuel Ramos beat Ernie Terrell. "Which is a lot of people even if you close your eyes," says Angelo Dundee. In March the Garden set an indoor-record gate of $685,503 for the doubleheader in which Buster Mathis was knocked out by Joe Frazier, who as a result was somewhat capriciously recognized by New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maine as the world heavyweight champion. And in April the largest "live" audience in the history of boxing—more than 120 million—saw Jimmy Ellis outpoint Jerry Quarry to become the heavyweight champion of the world in the nations, states and cities that belong to the World Boxing Association. This, by the way, was the final bout of an elimination tournament that Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, has characterized as "a complete success in that it successfully eliminated all the fighters."
Then the boom, which to a great measure was stimulated by efforts to find a successor to Muhammad Ali, nearly became a bust. Although everyone assumed that the two pretenders, Frazier and Ellis, would meet to determine who was really the champ, nothing of the sort took place. Ellis went back to his old Kentucky home, and Manager Angelo Dundee said that Ellis might just shoot a little pool, bowl, fish for cat and perch and lend his tenor to The Riverview Spiritual Singers of Louisville until some new contenders were developed.
Meanwhile, Frazier agreed to fight Ramos in the Garden on June 24. Ramos, who is 6'3", is the Mexican heavyweight champion; more to the point, he is really the only Mexican heavyweight. He is reputedly fast, well schooled and has a good punch, and he has beaten Eddie Machen as well as Terrell; he also once went eight straight fights without a win. Against Frazier, however, Ramos is deservedly a 4-to-1 underdog, and as Markson ruefully observed last week, "I wish he was Mexican-Jewish."
More confounding were the rumors about Ali. "All over L.A. people are talking about Ali fighting again," says Heavyweight Charley Powell. "In the gyms guys are whispering, Ali's coming back, Ali's coming back.' I asked one guy what the hell was he whispering about, and he didn't know. That cat Ali drives everybody crazy."
One rumor has it that Ali will fight Bob Foster, the new light heavyweight champion, in Salt Lake City. Another had Ali going 10 rounds apiece with Mathis and Quarry on the same night, also in Salt Lake. This extravaganza presumably fell through when Quarry 1) went hunting, a) was gashed in the forehead by the recoil of his rifle and b) got a poison-oak rash, and 2) went swimming off Newport Beach, Calif., where a) he got caught in a riptide and was swept 300 yards to sea, and b) went under twice before being rescued by a surfer. However, according to one Aliologist, the proposed bouts were merely another Ali put-on. "Ali's just promoting himself," he said. Indeed, last month Ali had his best take on the lecture circuit—an estimated $30,000.
But there have been attempts to make an Ali fight. Henry Winston, an Oakland soul brother who owns an ambulance service, has been trying for the past eight months. "Winston got close to the mountaintop," is the way Chauncey Eskridge, Ali's attorney, admiringly puts it. "Ali doesn't sit around and think about fighting," he says, "but if there was some economic advantage he'd like to fight again. There are a bunch of ordinary fight states where he could be licensed, but the promoters feel they'd be doing him a favor. They insist he take a straight percentage."
The reason Salt Lake keeps getting a call in these rumors is that the Utah commission acquiesced to the Ali-Floyd Patterson rematch, which was switched to three other states before it never came off. But, as Eskridge implied, there's no way Ali is going to fight in Utah: 40% of a live gate in Salt Lake wouldn't pay the bills at Ali's kosher butcher.
As a matter of fact, a promoter had Ali-Eduardo Corletti made, but the fight fell through when Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, balked at 40% and a two-fight contract. Corletti, who is rated second by the WBA and seventh by The Ring, is an Argentine who resides in Rome and frequently fights in London. His high ranking is rather mystifying, as his most notable win was over George Chuvalo, who has had many notable losses, and Corletti was once knocked out in five by Raymond Patterson, Floyd's kid brother, who now works in a filling station in Savedalen (pop. 5,075), Sweden. Says London Promoter Jack Solomons: "Corletti's a powderpuff puncher who has to struggle to beat fighters who are not even ranked. With Corletti in the ring you can go to the toilet and when you come back everything will be just as it was when you left."
Says yet another promoter, "The truth is if Ali wanted to fight, he'd take low-ball to do so." But often of late Ali has said he was too involved with the bigger fight—freeing 22½ million blacks—and the likelihood is he is done with boxing. Shortly after his title was taken from him, Ali said he'd come back to bug the game, and so he has. "There I'll be, wearing a sheet," he said, "and whispering, "Ali-e-e-e-e-e, Ali-e-e-e-e-e.' I'll be the ghost that haunts boxing, and people will say Ali is the real champ and anyone else is a fake."
And, in the best of all possible worlds, he would be champ. The heavyweight championship is, in a sense, an apostolic succession, what the late Joe Liebling termed a laying on of hands, in that in most instances the current champion defeated his predecessor, who in turn defeated his. and so forth—or so back. When a champion voluntarily retired, as in the cases of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, he sanctioned the tournament to discover his successor, so that the descent remained unbroken. However, Ali hasn't blessed either Frazier or Ellis—or Waban (Tugboat) Thomas, for that matter—as his legitimate heir.
Be that as it may, the rumors of All's comeback are growing fainter and are being drowned by the noisy preparations for battle. Last week Angelo Dundee called Ellis and told him of an offer of a $125,000 guarantee against 40% of the gate to fight Floyd Patterson on August 10 in Stockholm, which Ellis somewhat reluctantly accepted. "I had hoped to stay home and catch up with my family," he said. "But Angelo says when we go. I was lying in the weeds when he took me and managed me to the title, so he knows his job."
The Patterson fight would be the start of something big—the inevitable confrontation with Frazier. "That will be a big one," says Dundee, "but first we have to steam it up. We have to stir up controversy, make the fans choose sides. It has to be boiling before we jump in."
What Dundee is really saving is that Ellis has to come to a boil before the public will jump in. "I won the title, but I didn't excite the fans," Ellis says bitterly. "That's what some writers say. They rap me for not being exciting. People say. 'James, why didn't you go get Quarry when he was on the ropes?" Well, maybe I should have and maybe I could have, but maybe if I had I wouldn't have come home with the title."
Cus D'Amato has said, "A fighter's image is often an illusion. It's not dishonest; that's the business. It's the color, the glamour of the guy that brings in the customers. Ellis needs two fights in which he can appear dynamic."
Says Ellis, "I won my title by beating everyone in front of me, all top-rated fighters—Oscar Bonavena, who knocked Frazier down twice, Leotis Martin, who Frazier ran from, and Jerry Quarry, a guy Joe Frazier is still not anxious to meet. How did Frazier get his championship? By reaching down and picking out fighters ranked 43 and 45 [Chuvalo and Mathis], fighters so far down he had to find them with a microscope."
But more makes up the illusion of a fighter than whom he fought. Beginnings, style and record contribute, too. Frazier became a star in 1964 when he won the Olympic title, and this image was nurtured by the careful handling of Cloverlay, the corporation of 581 shareholders that manages him. He is undefeated as a professional and fights with an indomitable, straight-ahead, relentless style which, in its own way, is reminiscent of vintage Liston. Sonny, incidentally, will fight Henry Clark at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on July 6 and a convincing victory would put him back in contention.
Ellis, as he says, came out of the weeds. Four years ago he was a broke middleweight with five losses; next he became Ali's sparring partner. Although he is undefeated as a heavyweight and is an exceptionally able fighter, he hasn't thrown off his lackluster antecedents and he realizes that he must lick Frazier to gain the public's adoration.
First, he would have to prove himself against a desperate Patterson getting another of his last chances at the title. Floyd would also be fighting in what he calls "my place"; he has had three bouts in Sweden without a loss and is regarded as something of a national hero. Ellis, with his sneak right hands, would have a good foil in Patterson, who can be knocked down in the early rounds. Ellis also prefers an opponent such as Patterson, who would carry the fight to him and provide him with an opportunity to counter, which he does so well. However, Patterson still has a good left hook, and if the fight went the distance, his pressing tactics would test Ellis' stamina.
It is likely that the Frazier-Ellis fight will occur early next year and will be promoted either by the Garden or by Sports Action, Inc. or even by both. Sports Action, which put together the WBA's tournament, is the successor to the moribund Main Bout, Inc., which promoted several of Ali's last bouts. The outfits are similar except, as Bob Arum, secretary of both, explains, "Sports Action's lighter." By that he means it has only one Negro officer, Jimmy Brown (arrested on an assault charge early this week), while Main Bout had three—Brown, Herbert Muhammad and John Ali, the Black Muslims' national secretary.
Sports Action feels confident it will land the fight, and it already has a date and site, namely, January 13, 1969 (about the same date the Garden has in mind) and the Astrodome—Judge Roy Hofheinz's son is Sports Action's executive vice-president. The reason January 13 was selected is that the National Home Builders' convention is in Houston at that time, and Mike Malitz, Sports Action's president, claims there is a guarantee of sorts from the Home Builders to purchase 10,000 seats for $350,000. Malitz further asserts that Sports Action has two advantages over the Garden in obtaining the match: it has a contract with Ellis, which enables it to designate the local promoter and site for his first title fight, with the right to waive this privilege for such lesser defenses as Ellis-Patterson, and it has an exclusive on the ancillary rights to all Ellis fights through 1969. Secondly, Malitz contends that if Sports Action has to bid with the Garden for the match, it will be no contest. "On the right date, the Dome in any kind of bidding war will beat anyone," he says.
The Garden's strong point is that it has the power base—the building, the organization and the boxing continuity to assure big gates for big fights, while Sports Action has to go outside New York, where gates cannot be taken for granted.
Money will surely be the major factor in making this match. "The time for glory is past," says Ellis. "Now I'm fighting for money. Money is what boxing's all about, and if Frazier wants more money than me then he don't want to fight. I don't care what they give him, but it ain't going to be 50-50."
To which Yancey Durham replies, "Joe's the champ. He'd be the one who would put people in the place, so we'd have to get the big money. If Angelo thinks different then maybe we won't fight. We don't need Ellis. We can make money with any fighter, and Ellis can't draw flies."
Another obstacle is who gets top billing. But, as Dundee says, "Money, big money, will knock over all obstacles. When you talk Frazier-Ellis, I dream of 10 figures."
Whether those are the figures young Hofheinz dreams of is something else, as is whether he could, in truth, outbid the Garden. Perhaps the solution is for Sports Action and the Garden to get together. "We're two camps," Malitz said last week, "but we're certainly not armed camps. We can do business with the Garden. The question is, can they do business with us?" If they can, gentlemen, you may be interested to learn that Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder has already made a line—2 to 1 Frazier. You can also lay 1,000 to 1 that Robert Goulet won't be called upon to sing The Star-Spangled Banner.