I've never wanted to whup a man so bad," said Muhammad Ali, while fanning his usual hysteria last week. "I'm gonna put some soul on his head." The head belonged to Oscar Bonavena, and whatever else Ali put on that massive object for 14 rounds Monday night in Madison Square Garden, it was far from soul. Then in the 15th, long past his prediction of "nine and he's mine," Ali—with his body worn from Oscar's inexorable, crude rushes—laid a left hook on the Argentinian's jaw. It dropped Bonavena and consequently saved an evening that can be critically called a muddled performance—but with a zinger of a finish.

Muhammad leveled Oscar twice more in that last round, the final time coming at 2:03 as Bonavena, his hands nearly at his sides, caught a straight right. It ended a long, grueling night for both fighters, although hardly one that ever seemed in the balance; had Bonavena survived, the bout would have belonged to Ali, say, 11-3-1. More questionable was Ali's display against a fighter who, in another time, he would have carved up, hung out to dry for a while and then neatly executed. That was what many thought he would do in this second fight of his comeback, especially since he had seemed genuinely angered at Oscar's references to him as a homosexual and a black who did not smell very nice.

As it was, Ali's usually brilliant orchestration was quite disconnected. Whether his determination to follow his script got in the way, or whether he was confused and repelled by Oscar's grotesque style, he seldom resembled the fighter who once made each round a masterpiece, if not with his punching, then with imagination and control. His blows, often without snap, were fewer and more feckless than at any time in his career, causing Bundini (Ali's witch doctor) to sob imploringly into Muhammad's ear between rounds.

Joe Frazier, who waits for Ali, reacted less emotionally. After the seventh round he wanted to go to sleep, calling the fight "the dullest I ever saw."

THREE PHOTOSNEIL LEIFERMoments before the last knockdown Ali closes In (above), steps back as Oscar struggles to rise, then raises his arms in victory.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)