Everything looks a little bigger than life now. Muhammad Ali, moving on the old familiar red canvas of the ring in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, belaboring a squatty heavyweight from Jamaica, is thicker in all of his dimensions. A barely discernible pad of fat blurs the outlines of a waist that once was slim as a girl's, but the weight is spread evenly; the shoulders are thicker, with heavier muscles, and the arms and legs give the impression now of solid, mature power. He was once a big heavyweight who looked like an overgrown light heavy; now he is a big heavyweight who looks like a big heavyweight.
On this first day of serious preparation for his fight with Joe Frazier, Ali worked six rounds. He went two with the squat Jamaican, two more with a tall, light heavyweight and a final two with a middleweight. He worked with all the spirit and fire he had before the first Liston fight, talking to the hundred-odd people gathered in the grimy gym to watch. Once the middleweight hit him a light blow to the jaw with his right and Muhammad fell heavily. He climbed laboriously to his hands and knees, shaking his head dramatically, then toppled over again, for all the world like Liston in the first round of their second fight, in Maine. It was a good act and a fine put-on, and the small crowd howled with laughter.
Later, having finished a virtuoso performance on the light bag, a skill he developed after the Liston fights to toughen his hands, he sat on the edge of a rubbing table and shook his head, his face for once serious.
"These first days are hard," he said, though he was breathing easily. "Ain't in my lungs—they all right. It's in my muscles. They get tired. Ain't like when I was a young man. Now I'm older, gonna be 29."
February 1, 1971
He no longer has a baby face. The planes are wider and stronger, and he looks tough. There still are no marks on his face, but somehow it belongs to a fighter. "The dancing is no longer necessary," he said. "When I fought Mildenberger, Patterson, Liston, all of them, I could feel their strength when they leaned on me. Now that ain't true no more. Now I hit with mature strength. All of them punches I threw—bop, bop, bop, bop—maybe a thousand punches, nobody goes down. Now it's gonna be different. Bop! And down he goes."
He looked down at the thickened waist and felt himself there. "I'm 228 now," he said. "I'm gonna fight maybe 215, 218. Used to be I wanted to keep that slim, beautiful body, but I'm getting older and I'm getting stronger, and I'm naturally getting bigger. I ain't so slim, but I don't want to be. Now I'm a mature man. A strong man."
A photographer from Ebony magazine asked him to pose with Jimmy Ellis and he got up, kidding with Ellis. They feinted at each other a few times and he reached out and held Ellis off with a long left arm, demonstrating that Ellis could not get to him. Ellis broke up and the photographer asked them to look serious. They glared at each other for a moment and laughed again after the picture had been snapped.
"You next," Ali said to Ellis. "Seven days after you fight me, you gonna be a week-old ghost." He sat down in a chair against the wall and kept talking.
"Tomorrow morning I start running," he said. "Three miles. I get up to five, but no more. People ask me if I lost anything, if I ain't as sharp. I'm just as sharp. I just fight different now. They worry about my condition. They should worry about Frazier's. He's rustier than me. He went only two rounds with Foster and just a few rounds with Ellis. Meantime, I had three rounds with Quarry and 15 rounds with Bonavena. Oscar did me a favor. He got me in shape for Frazier."
He got up and hunched over and threw some short, awkward punches. "The Quarry fight," he said. "Now Quarry don't move much, look for you to come to him, so I fight him one way. I move around him, hit him. I felt good. I been away 3½ years, no other heavyweight in the history of the world could come back and beat up Quarry like I did, quicker than Joe Frazier. And I felt good. Strong. Never got tired. Fought him the way I wanted to.
"But I got to get used to the lights and all the people and all that. I felt kind of tight and tense, but not in any way but in my mind. I had to get used to all that noise, all them people dressed up like peacocks come to see the champion of the world fight. Once I got used to that I was all right."
He was obviously enjoying himself, happy to be the center of attention, confident, full of talk. "The Bonavena fight," he said. "I was fooled by Bonavena. I most surely was fooled. Yeah. And maybe I took him too light. It was the kind of lesson could have been too expensive. No, I wasn't my best. Maybe it was my worst performance, but I won. I knocked out Oscar and that's something Bad Joe Frazier hasn't been able to do in 25 rounds. Everybody's yelling and screaming, 'Joe Frazah! Joe Frazah!' Joe Frazah whupped Bob Foster in two rounds! Knocked him dead! And Ali had life and death with Oscar Bonavena! Humpf. Bob Foster, a li'l ol' 180-pounder. Now ain't that something! I wouldn't even spar with a man that size. But the press and the bookies are shouting who-e-e-e! Joe Frazah knocked him out, knocked him dead!
"What they should have done is to look what I did to Oscar and what Oscar did to Joe Frazier. Now, you tell me what Bonavena did to Frazier. All he did was to knock Joe Frazier down twice in their first fight and then whip his face so bad that his eyes were swollen closed. And when it was all over, Joe Frazier fainted in his dressing room. Exhausted. Dead tired. Unable to move.
"Now ain't that something? I don't say Oscar was easy—he wasn't. But me, I won 13 rounds and then I knocked him out. I'm satisfied. I beat Frazier's toughest opponent, and that should be the measuring stick. I would have beaten Oscar worse, really whupped him, if he had fought the way he did in his other fights. But Bonavena is tricky. Instead of chasing me, like he usually does, he just stood in the middle of the ring. ...No point in dancing with him 'cause I'd be dancing alone. I had to come to him, and that's when he tried to fight. But I'm a scientific fighter. I know how to tie up, how to spin a man, turn him around in a corner and walk away—and that's what I did with Bonavena. He was strong, I could tell it, much stronger than Joe Frazier, but I handled him.
"I made a lot of mistakes in that fight, and it cost me. I got careless with him in the ninth round, and you can't do that with Oscar. He's awkward and sneaky—a sneak puncher. In that ninth round I got hit by a hook harder than Frazier could ever throw. Numb! Like I was numb all over. Just numb. Shock and vibrations is all I felt, that's how I knew I was alive. I mean I was jarred. Even my toes felt the vibrations. Bong! Like you take a piece of spring and you hit it. B-o-n-g. That's how I felt. The first thought that came to mind—another good one or two might have dropped me. But see, a real champion can react to the occasion.
"Like Ellis, for instance. Now Ellis got hit, tagged, shook by Frazier. Here it is the biggest thing in his life and what does he do? He gets right up, goes right back in and starts slugging again. Another big punch and he goes down again. Gets up and starts slugging while he's still numb. Now everybody knows you're most vulnerable then and you go down even quicker. So you're not brave to do that, just foolish. And dumb. The crowd knows it. They start hollering because they know if you get hit again, it will make you go quicker. So the minute I'm hit—two steps backward and I'm on the other side of the ring. Out of danger. Messages race out of my mind—retreat, retreat, danger, danger. I hear the messages and I'm moving, moving away. But I'm still watching and thinking.
"When you're in condition it takes only 10 seconds, then you're usually out of trouble. If he gets too close just clinch him. It don't take long to clear your mind when your body is right. Grab him, do anything, anything. Just stall for time and not let him know you're stunned. You have to be experienced enough to keep dancing with him like nothing's wrong. And all this happening while the crowd is hollering, the Garden is full, smoke's in the ring...pop, and then you're hit, hurt. When Joe Louis knocked down Max Schmeling, he gets up holding the rope—too dumb to back off, too dumb to grab him and hold him. When I saw Frazier knocking Ellis out with those little old short-handed hooks, I could just see me eating Frazier up. I could just see me leaning, jabbing and moving and him reaching and falling.
"Hit hard—how many times I been hit hard? Sonny Banks, a hook. Henry Cooper, hook. Sonny Liston, three times to the head. Body punches don't bother me. Chuvalo beat me to the body all night until he got discouraged. I don't think about Frazier's body punches. I take them in training for the fun of it. Jack Dempsey say Frazier gonna knock me out. I'm gonna prove I'm a better fighter and a better judge than Jack Dempsey. Never been a fighter like me, not in the history of the whole world. Never been a fighter so fast, so quick, so strong, so graceful, so good."
He talks easily, never at a loss for words, his eyes moving constantly, assessing the impact of what he is saying. Some of what he says is a put-on, but as he talks, he believes it himself.
"It's gonna be the champ and the tramp," he said. "Frazier never been in there with nobody like me."
He got up and began shadowboxing. "You got to move and stick," he said, sidling quickly around the room, his big left arm jabbing out with speed and precision. "Move and stick. Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop. Quick. Hit him fast, he cain't get away. Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop.
"I hit so much harder now," he said. "I hit Bonavena so hard it jarred his kinfolks all the way back in Argentina. I really hit him. And in the 15th round I hit him harder than Frazier ever could hit him. And I hit him with a left hook. I been working on the left hook so I can hit harder with it.
"Get up," he said to a listener. "Lemme show you."
The man got up reluctantly and Ali reached out with the long left hand and tapped him gently, delicately on the forehead just over his eyebrows. "There's old Joe Frazier," he said. "Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop. He trying to get in and hit me with body punches and while he come in, I'm reaching out here and hitting him in the head like this."
The left hand flicked out a few more times, so carefully directed that the taps an the forehead were just barely feelable. He touched his own forehead and said, "As long as a man can't get to here on me and I can get to here on him [another light tap from the big left hand], he in trouble. He in big trouble. Now he coming in, he get maybe three, four body punches on me, I'm hitting him maybe 20 head shots. You think that doing him any good?
"People say Frazier is so busy throwing punches that he throws more than any other heavyweight. They tell you he's a big Henry Armstrong. Well, he can throw all the punches he wants, he's not in there with a amateur. He's in there with the best professional and the fastest in the history of the whole world. I want for everyone to read what I say 'cause I know how some people are, they try to make up for their bum predictions. No, I'm not putting Joe Frazier down. I'm just telling the truth. Liston was the greatest thing that ever was until I beat him. Then they called him a bum. Before I beat him he was the greatest of all times, badder than Joe Louis. That stare! After I beat him they said aw, he quit. The second time they didn't know what to say. Patterson, well you know Patterson was fast and good and I just played with him. So now Joe Frazier is supposed to be so good. I was defending against Sonny Liston when Joe Frazier came to my camp to see me. There he was, a little old country boy wearing suspenders. Just back from the Olympics. Now he is undefeated. Right—we can't deny that, he's undefeated. He's just whipping everybody. He is the favorite. He is the favorite to whip me! So what I want to say is that Joe Frazier is good, but I want people to say that after I whip him. I don't want them to write poor Joe was this or was that and Ali is this and he ain't that. I want them to say not only was Joe Frazier a great fighter but Ali said just what he would do to him.
"Now Joe Frazier ain't a great fighter to me. He's a great fighter to the fans been reading his clippings. But to me he can't even dance. See, I'm used to watching films of pretty fighters, Sugar Ray Robinson, Johnny Bratton, Kid Gavilan. I watch the action, watch the punches they throw, watch the footwork. These are some of the prettiest and best fights up until myself, I would say. It was hard to be the cameraman. He had to be quick to follow the action, and it's the same way when I fight. You can tell by watching the way the film angles, moves—that's the way it is with me. The difference between me and them is that I don't get it. I don't get hit nearly as much as Robinson, Bratton and Gavilan, and they were masters. It's a race for the camera to keep up. I notice all this when I'm fighting. I notice the cameraman sweating to keep up with my dancing, switching and turning.
"I'll be dancing on March 8. I'll be dancing, moving and hitting, and Frazier won't be able to find me. Joe Frazier will be reaching and straining with those hooks, and they'll get longer and longer, and he'll get more frustrated. Where's Ali? Why won't he stand still? And he'll start lunging and jumping, and that's when I'll be popping and smoking. It's like a horse race or a foot race. One man starts with a five-block head-start 'cause that's what I'll have on Joe Frazier. The first five rounds are mine. He won't be able to reach me. Yeah, he might not be able to find me for five rounds. But I'll be punching him."
He rested a moment, and he was reminded that two years ago he had discussed with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED what would happen if he met Frazier. At that time, he got up in his living room and fought a two-round pantomime bout in which he was knocked down twice in the first round, saved by the bell, then came back to knock Frazier out in the second with a thunderous left-right-left combination. He grinned.
"I ain't going to say what round it will end," he said, more seriously. "I'm a different fighter now, so is he. I train different. I even run different. Now I run maybe a mile, then I sprint, hard as I can run, maybe four or five blocks. What the sprinting do, it gives you speed."
He began throwing punches again, still sitting down. "You stick and move, stick and move," he said again. "He's moving in, ain't reaching me because he's too small to reach mc. I'm looking for the opening, looking and picking and then I see it."
His eyes widened and he began to punch harder, banging his right elbow against the wall of the small room as he drew his arm back, the familiar "unnnh-unnnnh!" marking each punch.
"Now I'm sprinting, but I'm sprinting in the ring," he said, still banging away, his elbow thudding off the wall. "Now I got him in trouble and I'm chopping him with the right hand, and he don't know how to run, where to go."
He slammed the right hand twice in succession and stopped punching and leaned back, a film of sweat on his face. "He ain't going to withstand that," he said. "Ain't no heavyweight in the history of the world could withstand that."
"Then this fight won't go 15 rounds," someone said, and Ali shook his head.
"Ain't no way it gonna go all the way," he said. "One of us is gonna get knocked out."
One of us? That's what he said. Of course, it could have been just one more put-on.