Muhammad Ali, it seems clear, was wrong. The heavyweight division, which dominates boxing, has survived his departure. The World Boxing Association's eight-man tournament gave urgently needed continuity to the division and exposed new faces. Madison Square Garden, which tried to subvert the tournament, failed but created its own champion and is once again in a position to be constructive or destructive among the heavyweights.
Certainly, the exile of Ali, the absence of his presence—that rare blend of volcanic improvisation and serene certitude in and out of the ring—left a void and scattered disinterest, but it also opened up the division. With Muhammad at the top, it was fast becoming inert. It was obvious that Ali, long before his impeachment, was running out of opponents. Each of his title fights had become a performance and an exercise in desperate, high-powered flack.
With Ali gone, three fighters emerged, each of whom attained confidence and polish. The tournament produced Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, the WBA champion, and the Garden gave us Joe Frazier. Any of the three, but particularly Ellis, could now provide sharper opposition for Ali than that which he encountered in any of his title defenses. It is seldom that any division these days can develop three such fighters at the same time, all having youth, ability and public identification.
Yet the progress of the heavyweights has once again been retarded. Quarry, the Californian with powerful gate appeal and striking (but untutored) skills, has never been healthy, and now his future is seriously in doubt. First, just a few months ago, he nearly drowned while swimming. And recently he suffered a bad back injury in a motorcycle accident. It is questionable whether California will ever give him a license again, or if he will even be able to fight.
A major fight for Frazier at this point also seems remote, mainly because he, too, developed a sudden fondness for motorcycles. "I got a stupid fighter," says his manager, Yancey Durham. "I told him he was too stupid to drive one. I got on with him and he nearly killed us both. 'Look,' I told him, 'you got a Chevrolet and you knocked that to pieces, and then you did the same with the Cadillac. Now it's a motorcycle. Man, you gonna kill yourself.' "
Frazier neglected the warning and, only a few weeks ago, while driving his motorcycle home to Beaufort, S.C., he collided with an automobile. His leg injury may be more severe than the public statements indicate, but even more alarming to the Frazier camp is the fighter's sudden change in character. All fighters, when training, talk of retiring, but Frazier is forever bringing the subject up. He seems to have lost—perhaps only temporarily—his edge, that great joy for combat that he so often exuded.
Jimmy Ellis, who defends his title against Floyd Patterson September 14 in Stockholm, is a different sort of problem: no one really believes in him. The fight with Quarry in April, in which he won the title, surely did not help his reputation. A brilliant fighter on the ropes, Quarry was determined to make Ellis fight him there. Ellis refused, and the fight was marred by long dull periods.
Ellis was abused by the press and the public, but it was Quarry who was at fault; the inflexibility of his fight plan ruined the show. While Ellis took the rap, few observers appreciated the discipline he exhibited, or the beauty of his whiplike right hands. Instead, his victory was contrasted with the passion and violence of Frazier's humiliation of Buster Mathis. Ellis—it was unanimous—had no star quality, in or out of the ring.
The result is that Ellis is difficult to sell. He is constantly being compared to Frazier, an Olympic hero, primitive, and a heavyweight whose style is so reminiscent of Henry Armstrong. Ellis, on the other hand, is a gospel singer and a former sparring partner of Ali, and after you have said that you have said it all. He is simply a silent, pleasant man, devoid of anger and opinion, who does not inspire enthusiasm. His personality, unfortunately, has obscured his talent.
Ellis is often regarded as a poor imitation of Ali, but this is far from accurate. Ali was a magnificent dancer, but Ellis only gives the impression of movement. Ellis is always in punching position, his feet planted and his weight balanced, ready to shift. His grace and the splendid control of his body allow him to throw punches from weird positions, especially the right hand, which he loops over. The right hand is similar to Ali's, and it may be quicker and deadlier. Multitudes would disagree, but Ellis may well be the most complete fighter in boxing today. There is no question that he has smoothly handled much tougher opposition than Frazier has. Ellis destroyed Leotis Martin, a sharp puncher whom Frazier ducked repeatedly. He nearly broke his hands on the head of Oscar Bonavena, a clumsy, difficult opponent who once floored Frazier twice in one round. And he beat Quarry, an instinctive, cruel counter-puncher.
"Jimmy is hard to mess around," says Shotgun Shelton, his sparring partner. "He uses trickoration. He's a thinkin" fighter. He lays traps, waits for you to fall in them, then he sets up and...pow! That's trickoration. There is no pattern to his style. What Jimmy does is to tell you, 'Now watch my right hand,' and then he hooks you. He jabs, jabs and then throws a right hand. You look for the pattern and he feints a single jab and hooks off of it."
Still, Ellis has one serious defect, which could be disastrous for him when he does finally meet Frazier. Ellis is an anxious fighter whose energy is bled by his self-constructed anxieties. Before a fight, sitting there and dripping sweat, his face is pale, vacant, almost frightened. Once he is in the ring, all the anxieties locked inside him explode into thrilling fury in the early rounds. Then, usually around the eighth round, he becomes dangerously weary and quite vulnerable. Ellis' tendency to tire seems to be Floyd Patterson's only hope in Stockholm; Patterson's chances of beating Ellis improve with each round he survives. Floyd, of course, knows he is being "used." He still has one of the biggest names in boxing, or sports for that matter, and the Ellis camp hopes that Jimmy will emerge from the fight—assuming he wins—with a new "image" which will divert much of the attention now being drawn by Joe Frazier.
But Floyd could be quite troublesome for Ellis. He has nothing to lose, and for one of the few times in his career he will enter the ring unencumbered by mental distractions. He is also aware that an impressive performance, even in defeat, will not only help him remain an entity among the heavyweights but will contribute greatly to the movie career he is now pursuing.
One hopes, however, that Patterson's film future does not rest too heavily on such a performance, because Ellis, using no trickoration, should end the fight somewhere between the second and fifth rounds. To be specific, I believe he will complete his evening's work (pay $125,000) in the third round with one flashing, beautiful right hand that Patterson will never even remember.