In the beginning nobody thought there would be a fight. In fact, the Japanese Boxing Association had just finished saying there could not be a fight, but Yoshio Kou, who must have as much confidence and con in him as Muhammad Ali himself, got talking. Kou painted a picture of thundering rights, cataclysmic lefts, crashing bodies, short counts, long counts—in general, a merry bedlam. The fight was on.
Well, not quite on, and that is the rub. Ali, still proclaimed (by Ali) as "the world's greatest boxer," was there, bigger almost than life and so was his sacrificial victim, one Mac Foster, a gung-ho ex-marine who was said to be just the man to put up a stirring struggle before, of course, crashing. But somewhere along the way in their 15-round bout in the lovely octagon-shaped Nihon Budokan (Martial Arts Hall)—say at about the 10-second mark of the first round—it became clear that this was not going to be quite the bout that Promoter Kou had promised would save Japanese boxing. In truth, it might have killed the game, slowly, lingeringly. As the fight ended, some Japanese were shouting, "Damasareta," which on the other end of the overseas broadcast translated roughly to "We wuz robbed." They wuz.
Not, of course, by the buildup. If Muhammad has lost some of his old, beautiful skills—and there was ample evidence last week that he has—he still gives 110¢ on the dollar in the weeks preceding his less-than-artistic triumphs. He may have given even more than that in Tokyo, where he seemed to find soul mates in all the people. He refereed matches between Japanese Pee-Wees, he prayed at the Tokyo-Islamic temple, he visited a U.S. Air Force base near Tokyo at the invitation of the Brotherhood of Military Airmen and Black Americans Association, he got "knocked out" by his middleweight sparring partner as cameras clicked and the large crowds at his little training sessions roared with delight. And he talked—oh, how he talked.
Cassius Clay, as the Japanese press referred to Ali, possibly because they did not want to confuse their readers any more than Ali had already done, was a new experience for the writers, and they filed reams of copy about his everyday antics. Foster had arrived in Tokyo first, with his manager George Stassi, trainer Ralph Gambia and sparring partners Wayne Kindred and Henry Culpepper. Everybody was impressed by his size and speed and heavy punching, and he became an instant favorite of the newsmen, who told their readers of Foster's fistic genesis, of the career that had begun some years earlier when he was a marine stationed at Yokosuka, an hour by train from Tokyo. But then came Ali. End of Foster ink.
At his first news conference Ali warmed up with one of the many verbal attacks that were to last to the weigh-in. "Foster," he said, "has been talking too much. Usually I do the talking. Tokyo is too small for two big mouths. Foster had better get out of town by noon of April 1 [about half an hour before the fight was supposed to start]."
One day, after negotiating three rounds each with sparring partners Dave Adkins and Alonzo Johnson, Ali shouted. "Round five. It shall be over not in round four or six but round five. I like the number five. I get up at five in the morning and I run five miles. I eat five poached eggs for breakfast. I drink five glasses of orange juice and five glasses of ice water during the day. I take a nap at five p.m. My daughter is five years old. I have been married five years and I met my wife on June 5."
Ali's boast was one of the reasons a surprisingly large crowd—Kou claimed it was 15,000—turned out for the fight, although it was held at the unearthly hour of 25 minutes past high noon on a Saturday, making it possible to show the fight live by satellite in the U.S. and Canada on Friday night. The prices alone should have killed the attendance. They ranged from 3,000 yen ($10) to 30,000 yen ($100), which would be high anyplace but were gross by Japanese standards. So were the telecasting fees paid by five Japanese sponsoring companies. The bout was not even being blacked out in Tokyo.
But Ali had prepared well and he was still working the promotion as he marched, characteristically late, into the ring. He was wearing a gorgeous Japanese gown with an elaborate tattoo design that he said had cost him $600. He was also carrying the sign attached to a long pole that would be used to signify round five if and when the fighters got that far. The crowd loved it.
At the bell both men came out fast and then danced, not feeling each other out so much as pawing the air. Foster, with a record of 29 knockouts and one loss to Jerry Quarry by a knockout nearly two years ago, weighed almost 212 pounds and looked strong and imposing. Ali was bigger, a lot bigger. His weight was announced as 226 pounds, and he was all of that. While there appeared to be no obvious fat on him, even around the middle, it was hard to square this man with the lithe athlete who had danced and stung and bombed Sonny Liston eight years before in winning the world heavyweight championship.
Getting going, finally, Ali jabbed with his left and crossed with his right hand while staying away from Foster's slightly longer punching range. Foster guarded his face and bored in, trying to score with short combination punches, but except in the second round he could not catch Ali. In the second he did get in several good punches to the head and body as Ali, seemingly setting the tone for the rest of the fight, coasted. The tempo picked up in the fourth. Despite his evasive tactics and a close guard reminiscent of Floyd Patterson's peekaboo style, Foster was being hit. It was possible to convince oneself that Ali was doing considerable damage, that he could do more, but that he would prefer to wait for the fifth to put on the crusher.
It appeared even more likely that this indeed was the case when Ali charged from his corner—the red one reserved by Japanese custom for champions; Foster's was blue—at the beginning of the fifth. He seemed determined to make good on his prediction. Ali swung looping lefts and rights, trying to open Foster for the one blow that could dump him. But Foster stayed in close, preventing any serious damage. As the round drew to a close, Foster seemed almost buoyed. He moved with assurance, he looked strong and potentially dangerous. And something was going out of Ali. At the bell he returned to his corner with a slightly deflated look and an air of frustration. The arena rang with boos.
Except for a Foster rally in the seventh, when Ali once again indulged himself in that curious, almost penitential rite in which he lets his opponent pound at will on his middle, neither moving away from the pain nor lifting a glove to prevent it, that for all purposes was the fight, although there were other, lesser, moments of drama.
"I gave up trying to knock out Foster after the fifth round," Ali said later. He said that in the seventh he was hoping Foster would tire himself out punching, but all that stratagem really did was slow up both men. Foster rallied briefly in the 10th—Referee John Crowder, an Air Force sergeant on duty in Japan, gave him the round—but for the rest of the time Ali contented himself with dancing clockwise out of the way of Foster's reduced armament and scoring with fast left jabs to the face and an occasional one-two combination.
In the 11th Ali did cause a flutter when he caught Foster with a right that set the knockout-conscious Japanese clamoring for a real put-down. Just previously some of them had heckled, "Shinken ni yare," which means, "We want some serious fighting." Since Ali's grasp of the native tongue is not exactly fluent, it is more probable that he was responding to the hostile attitude of the crowd than to anything it might have said. At the end Foster was puffed around the eyes and he was tired. Ali was unmarked. An official decision was long in coming, but nobody cared. It was obvious that Ali had won—and, unhappily, lost.
Angelo Dundee, in Ali's corner as usual, said, "Foster put up a great defensive fight. I'm grateful Ali didn't hurt his hands." He denied that his fighter had been slowed by his newfound weight. "Just look at his condition after 15 rounds," he said. "He is not puffing."
But Dundee was not very convincing. The fact was, Ali's shots were mostly slaps. His blows lacked authority, and if he was faster than Foster, he was a lot slower than the young Ali who floated like a butterfly etc.
This time, anyway, the Japanese saw the wrong Ali, and maybe the wrong heavyweights. The Japanese Boxing Association had to rescind a recent order banning fights between two foreign nationals—it had wanted to protect a sagging boxing industry—in order to permit the fight. The association was stung a lot worse than Mac Foster.