Muhammad Ali can be as good a fighter as he ever was. The five fights he has had in the year or so since the end of his involuntary retirement have scoured away the rust of 3½ years of inactivity; against blubbery Buster Mathis last week in Houston's Astrodome, he moved with the old graceful speed afoot that is his trademark. He easily avoided the long punches Mathis whaled away with, leaning just far enough to escape them by inches. Both his left hand and his short right-hand chop were quick and accurate.
Yet the punches had no real sting, not because Ali has lost his power, but because he seems to have lost the desire to use it. He knocked Mathis down four times in the 11th and 12th rounds and he won by a unanimous decision, but he fought with compassion in a business that requires a measure of cruelty.
During the first 10 rounds, all of them dull, Mathis plodded doggedly after Ali, occasionally trying a leaping left hook that made him look ridiculous, as if he were an overstuffed Floyd Patterson. Ali avoided most of these wild swings, but one of them bounced off the top of his head when he was against the ropes near Mathis' corner and Joe Fariello, Mathis' trainer, screamed, "He's hurt, Buster. He's hurt!" Ali looked at Fariello, winked and moved easily out of punching range.
In the 11th round Mathis was still forcing the fight, lumbering after Ali energetically enough. If he was tired, he didn't show it until late in the round, when Ali hit him with a short, chopping right on the side of the jaw and he dropped to his hands and knees, shaking the ring with the weight of his fall. He was on his feet again at the count of eight, legs rubbery and eyes glassy, and Ali hit him with a volley of punches, the last a right hand that landed on the top of Buster's head and drove him to the floor again. This combination was thrown almost reluctantly, none of the punches fired with the real power Ali possesses when he wants to use it. Certainly none of them was strong enough to deck Mathis had he been fresh. The bell saved Buster at the count of four this time and his cornermen dragged him back to his stool and labored over him. Later, Fariello admitted that he wanted to throw in the towel.
"I knew he couldn't defend himself," Fariello said. "He was tired and he was still dazed when the bell rang and I asked the referee to stop the fight if he saw Buster could not defend himself."
This was evident at the start of the 12th round. When Buster stood up, he staggered a couple of steps to his left before he caught himself and moved toward Ali. Ali reached out a long left and tapped Mathis rapidly on the forehead, like a man knocking on a door. Even these feathery punches made Buster's legs wobble, and when Muhammad hit him with a gentle right hand he went down again.
He struggled to his feet and Ali flicked him lightly with the left hand as he staggered around the ring and again hit him with the caressing right, and Buster was down. To his credit, the big man hauled himself up yet once more and tried to return to the attack while Ali patted him even more gently with the left and did not throw the right, although in Ali's corner Angelo Dundee, his trainer, was yelling, "Take him out, damn it, Ali! Take him out."
Later in the dressing room Ali defended his lack of a killer instinct. "I don't care about all them people yelling, 'Kill him!' " he said, his voice raspy and raucous when he imitated the fans. "I see the man in front of me, his eyes all glassy and his head rolling around [he walled his eyes and slumped in his chair and waggled his head drunkenly]. How do I know just how hard to hit him to knock him out and not hurt him? I don't care about looking good to the fans or to Angelo. I got to look good to God. I mean Allah."
He mopped his face with the towel and looked around at the writers.
"I got to sleep good at night," he said. "How am I goin' to sleep if I just killed a man in front of his wife and son just to satisfy you writers?"
"Do you think you're in the wrong business?" asked one of the writers.
Ali looked at the questioner soberly for long moments before he replied.
"Yes, I am," he said quietly. "I been watching fights on television and thinking what's the sense two men getting up there and beating each other up for other people to watch. We got enough killing and hurting in the world. What we need is peace. If there was something else I could do, I'd do it. I'll quit after I whup Frazier. That is, if he can fight me. I beat him up so bad the last time he went to the hospital and I just hope he's well enough to fight me again."
"Would you have carried Frazier the way you carried Mathis?"
Ali nodded slowly.
"I would have carried any man, white or black, even Frazier," he said. "I won. That's the big thing that counts, not hurtin' a man."
Someone pointed out that in previous fights, notably against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell, he had not been kind. In both fights he unmercifully beat almost helpless opponents, carrying them for reasons of cruelty, not kindness.
"Them was the days of the draft thing and the religion thing and black against white, all that," Ali said. "Now them days have gone forever. I don't need to do like I did then. I'm more educated and more civilized."
The only flashes of the old Ali at this fight came in some of his prefight shenanigans, when he was taunting Mathis. Once he popped into Mathis' dressing room at the Astrohall, where the fighters trained, and slammed the door shut. Mathis was lying naked on a rubbing table behind a flimsy partition, and Ali held his finger up to his lips, then picked up a steel chair and threw it against the screen. The partition fell, revealing Mathis, looking like a beached whale, to a surprised and interested crowd of a couple of hundred spectators on hand to watch the workout.
The spectators didn't get to watch Ali work out the day before the fight. He didn't bother, although at 227 he was the heaviest he has ever been. He feels he is at his peak physically, but does not expect to stay that way. "Right now I'm at my best at 29, but from now on I'm going to be going downhill," he said, philosophically.
Oddly enough, the fight was probably more satisfying to Mathis than it was to Ali. Mathis wept in his corner when it was over and was consoled by Ali. Then he wept again in his dressing room. But a couple of hours after the fight, when he had had time to think about it and reflect upon his performance, he was relatively happy. He had vindicated himself, he felt, and ended what must have been 2½ very unhappy years after he was badly beaten by Jerry Quarry in a fight in which he showed no great ability and no great courage.
"Nobody can call me a dog anymore," he said. "I gave it all I had. I know I can fight and someday I'm gonna be the champion." His face was unmarked, except for a slight puffiness around the eyes, which may have come more from the weeping than from anything Ali hit him with.
Certainly no one could call him a dog. He fought with unlimited courage and some skill and if the skill grows to match the courage, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one day he could win the championship.
Someone asked Mathis what Ali hit him with in the 11th round, when he went down for the first time.
"Exhaustion," Mathis said.
A couple of days after the fight Dundee was back in Miami Beach, at the Fifth Street Gym. Ali had signed to fight a German heavyweight named J√ºrgen Blin in Zurich on Dec. 16, continuing the bum of the month campaign he seems to have embarked upon while awaiting a rematch with Frazier.
Asked when Ali would begin training for the Blin fight, Dundee shook his head. "I don't know," he answered. "He was in good shape at 227 and could be at his best with three weeks hard training. But I'll expect him when I see him."
If exhaustion really did Mathis in, ennui and a growing concern with the finer things in life may eventually whip Muhammad Ali. His brilliant career now seems likely to end not with a bang, but a shrug.