It was billed as the party to end all parties—a 90-hour, nonstop blast that would get under way four full days before the Ali-Chuvalo fight in Vancouver, British Columbia, pick up speed and momentum as it spun through daylight and dark, gathering fresh merrymakers along the way, and stagger finally to its red-eyed finish at the opening bell. Like all good parties, it would resemble a hurricane, building slowly but inexorably toward a climactic expenditure of energy, its course and its side effects equally incalculable. There would be drink and damsels without surfeit—huzzah!—madder music and stronger wine—ah yes indeed!—and certainly, somewhere, an orgy or a poker game. Or maybe both—oh yeah!
Half the glamour of any party lies in its setting and, on that score at least, Vancouver was a natural. Canada's third-largest city is a heady blend of frontier exuberance and high-rise sophistication: McCabe and Mrs. Miller country updated but gone a bit soft, perhaps, with electric blankets and leather-walled cocktail lounges. The abrupt mountains surrounding the city keep their pine-tufted heads in the mist, while salmon circulate between their toes. There is rain, yes, but that damp fact only ensures good skiing on the nearby mountains well into June. On the brassy waters of Georgia Strait, sport-fishing craft and day sailers mingle with trawlers, tugboats and vast rafts of timber—a challenging scene for the boat freak. Within the city limits of Vancouver itself, a thousand acres of Stanley Park offer something for nearly every sportsman: tennis courts and golf links, redwood trees and bird life, trails for biking and hiking, beachcombing and girl watching. As the nonstop party progressed, certainly some of the merrymakers would be moved to indulge in these extracurricular activities.
The other half of a party's glamour—perhaps the dominant half—lies in the nature of the guest list. That was in the hands of Murray Pezim, the 51-year-old Canadian mining magnate and stock speculator who was producing both the fight and the party. "Yes, indeed, we'll have some glamour here," said Pezim as he glad-handed his way through the luggage in the lobby of the Hotel Georgia on the eve of the party. "We got, let's see, Samantha Eggar coming, and the great Joanne Pettet, and Yvonne Craig—you know Yvonne, she was Batgirl on TV?—and, of course, Edy Williams." Whodat? "Edy Williams," quoth Murray with a twitch of his long, sallow nose, "was the sex-symbol star of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Yes, of course, how could anyone forget....
But the real grabber was the fact that Pezim had sent an invitation to Howard Hughes, sent it direct to Howard himself up there in his two-story aerie atop Vancouver's esteemed Bayshore Inn. As they primped and powdered and gulped their various pills in preparation for the Big Blast, the partygoers could talk of little else. "He's just eccentric enough to do it, you know? I read how he used to show up places dressed just like an ordinary dude, and then if some waiter or captain gave him some lip, he'd buy the place and lire the guy.... Yeah, he'll probably come in disguise, like in a wheelchair, or wearing a fake nose.... Maybe he'll come in blackface. That'd be something—Muhammad Ali is standing there with the party squirreling around him, Dapping his lip like he always does, and this tall, skinny, old black man comes shuffling up in a tatty cotton suit and Ali tells him to get lost and the next day Hughes buys all the other boxers in the world and refuses to let any of them light Ali...."
May 14, 1972
So it went, with the imaginations of the would-be revelers growing more levered by the minute as party time approached. But reality can never match the lurid projections of the human mind, and Pezim's party was no exception. Indeed, for most of its duration and on most of the levels by which parties are commonly judged, the Big Blast came across as a feeble snort, a muffled burp, a cautiously concealed yawn.
Most of its failure could be traced to a pinchpenny lack of inspiration on Pezim's part. Early in the week preceding the party, it became painfully evident that the fight was not selling as well as Pezim had hoped. At the prices he had scaled for the live action—$100 at ringside, ranging through $50, $30 and $20 to $10 for a perch in the upper altitudes of Vancouver's now 17,000-seat Pacific Coliseum—there was no way Pezim could have sold out the house. For one thing, Vancouver was in the grip of a construction strike and a province-wide lockout that had put many of its workingmen on their uppers—and it was precisely this group, the traditional fight crowd, that Pezim had counted on to pay off the bulk of his $400,000 investment. For another thing, Ali had fought an exhibition in Vancouver only last Jan. 28 on a card that included George Chuvalo successfully defending his Canadian heavyweight title against one Charlie Chase. Thus the town's appetite for heavyweight boxing—not too ravenous to begin with—and its curiosity regarding Ali had already been sated, and at far lower prices. Faced with a bath of Niagara proportions, Pezim decided to skimp on his party, if only to keep from drowning altogether.
He shifted the affair's locale from a ballroom in the elegant Bayshore to a pair of adjoining but ill-ventilated warrens on the third floor of the Hotel Georgia. "This is where the action is," Pezim explained with a sideways glance around the lobby. Two old ladies in Salvation Army uniforms were sneering at a cigar butt near the elevators. "Fight headquarters—here we'll get the real atmosphere of a heavyweight fight. The hard little guys from New York with their wisecracks and their broads wrapped in ermine and mystery, the smoke-filled rooms, the trainers and cut-men getting nervous as the big moment nears...that kinda thing."
There was indeed one great advantage to the Georgia location: the presence of Ali. No major sports figure in the world, with the exception of Jackie Stewart, is as articulate and accessible as Ali. Each morning, after his three-mile run in Stanley Park, Ali took his ease in the lobby, signing autographs, posing for joke pictures (he rolled his eyes for the camera when one of the Salvation Army ladies planted an uppercut on his chin) and otherwise doing his charismatic best to enliven a deadly dull scene. One evening he appeared on a radio talk show emanating from the hotel in what was billed as the "Battle of the Windbags." His opponent was Gene Kiniski, a Vancouver wrestler whose cauliflower ears and zigzag nose belied his quick wit and quicker tongue. After an hour and a quarter of outrageous hyperbole from both contestants, the show's host, a jolly Scot named Jack Webster, declared himself the winner. Ali smiled and shook his head. "Kiniski," he said, "if only there was a white heavyweight boxer like you from Alabama or Mississippi, we could make us a skillion dollars."
Right after the great debate between Ali and Kiniski, the Big Blast began. Ali himself refused to attend—"Herbert Muhammad would get verrrry angry if I showed up, even to preach against such alcoholic evil." But George Chuvalo was there, sipping a ginger ale and trying to smile through his scar tissue. His right eye, which Joe Frazier had punched deep into Chuvalo's skull, was back up front where it belonged, and the shattered cheekbones, which had had to be mended with wire mesh, were bulging like alternative-noses. The Canadian Chopping Block, indeed. Chuvalo's manager, the Toronto Poultry Prince, Irving Unger-man, was also in evidence, a brisk, flat-bellied and wide-shouldered little man who taught Chuvalo to box when George was a little boy (his parents plucked chickens for Ungerman) and who has led him to his present eminence as the world's largest, toughest, most mobile piece of walking callus.
"How are you, George?" the revelers asked.
"You gonna whup that Ali?"
A jazz combo blared bravely in the corner and the drinks were flowing free, but when Chuvalo departed the revelers paused in what might have been sorrow. Perhaps they were wincing vicariously in anticipation of the blows that would fall on Gristly George when the bell rang. Perhaps they were still waiting for Howard Hughes.
Samantha Eggar had not showed yet, nor had Batgirl or even the Valley Doll—indeed they never would. Pezim, who was committed to paying their first-class air fares plus accommodations plus free $100 seats at the fight, had canceled them out for economic reasons. But there were a few celebs on hand. For instance, Larry Rose, 28, a watch-charm dentist from Houston who serves as supervisor of Ali's dental health during such Million-Dollar Fistic Classics as this one. Rose, who recently finished a tour of Army duty in El Paso, stands about 5'6" tall—"Just the right size to get into Muhammad's mouth in case he needs a foot extracted," said one jokester around his Demerara and Coke. "A fighter really needs a dentist," said Rose in defense. "What if he gets clipped in the jaw just as he sticks his tongue out? A fighter could lose a lotta blood that way." And, in Ali's case, a good bit of his livelihood.
Also on hand was Tom Larscheid—you all remember old Tommy. Back in 1960, as a running back for Utah State on the same team that produced Lionel Aldridge, Merlin Olsen and Jim Turner, Larscheid ran for 1,044 yards, which was second only to Bob Gaiters of New Mexico State in collegiate ground gaining that season. He led the nation in average gain per carry at 8.42 yards, quite a feat for a man who stands only 5'8".
"After Utah State, I played three seasons with the British Columbia Lions," he said over the music and the slosh of strange-smelling liquids. "I was a flanker, and in my rookie year I caught eight touchdown passes for a league rookie record. After that, I caught three knee operations, two on the right and one on the left. Now I'm 32 and a stock promoter up here. Meet my wife, B.R.—that stands for Bank Roll, haw-haw!" B.R. smiled sourly: Beautiful and Resentful.
Though Samantha & Co. would not be present, Hollywood was ably represented by Charles James, a 27-year-old black character actor who doubles as a sparring partner for Ali. "Boxing and acting don't conflict," he philosophized.
"There's a lot of acting in boxing, sure enough, and plenty of aggression in the film business. I was into music once—played with a rock group culled The Sledgehammer out in the San Fernando Valley—but music was a troublemaker at home. All them groupies. Now I got me a family and a Honda 750 chopper and a few television and movie jobs. Just finished a Mod Squad and a bit in The All-American Boy with Jon Voigt for Warners. And I got my lists. I've sparred with both Ali and Frazier. Ali is all head, all stick and move and smarts. He can hurt you or not hurt you at will. Frazier always hurts you. He don't know how not to. Joe, a country boy, just diggin' all the time. In the belly. You come away from three rounds with Joe, you don't walk tall for three days. Still, I like to work with them all. It keeps the meter runnin', as Joe says."
By now a crowd had gathered around Charles James. This was good stuff for $100-a-seat fight fans, a man who had actually been pummeled around by both Ali and Frazier, wow! What does it feel like, does it hurt much, how do they move, etc.? But at this moment, Murray Pezim decided to call a "brief timeout" in the nonstop party. A smoked turkey contributed by Irving Ungerman had been consumed down to the wishbone and no more food, not even the stalest of hors d'oeuvres, was in prospect. Indeed, Ungerman's turkey had been the only food on hand all night. "Some orgy," muttered one Vancouver swell. "Right now I'd settle for a cheeseburger and coffee."
After a hiatus of 16 hours, the nonstop party resumed in a less riotous key. Those two cutups, Larry Rose and Tommy Larscheid, were now wearing ties, and the aura of decorum that these additions in wardrobe engendered had permeated the gathering. Men who only the night previous had been standing around yawning in wild abandon now snored in the corners, models of adenoidal propriety. Sheldon Saltman, a Hack from Los Angeles who was serving as "coordinator of promotions" and ring announcer for the fight, walked into the scene and stared about in disbelief. "Jeepers," he said finally, "what a bacchanal." Murray Pezim nodded happily in utter agreement, then went back to looking pezimistic.
"My name is Marilyn." said a handsome young woman in a long dress. "I'm Murray Pezim's fiancée and when we get married, you know he loves boxing so much although this is only the first light that he's produced, when we get married we're thinking we might get married in the ring. You know, like we could both wear tuxedoes, only mine would be a tuxedo pants suit with lots of frills and gold studs on it, like that." She glanced around a bit desperately. "What would you think of that?"
"Far out," said Shelly Saltman, tugging on his mustache. "I'd think that was far flamin' out. Perfectly appropriate for Vancouver, British Columbia, The Fight Capital of the World."
After watching his guests carry on in that manner for nearly five hours, Pezim once again exercised his hostly prerogative and declared the party suspended until such time as participants recovered their strength, not to mention their wits. Some of the guests, their appetites for revelry still unappeased, repaired around the corner to a nightclub called The Cave where Ella Fitzgerald was appearing. "Boy," exclaimed Shelly Saltman, "Lady Ella—her voice is an instrument! She's the Muhammad Ali of song!" Ah, the sapience of publicity; will it never fail?
Others waited in the lobby for Ali to appear for his morning roadwork in the park. By now it was Sunday, and first light broke with the distant euphony of church bells. Out in the clean cold air of downtown Vancouver, the taste of booze and inane conversation seemed out of place, absurd. Ali walked down to the park as a warmup—a fast, 10-minute hike. He had gotten his weight down to 218 from the 226 he had carried for his lackluster bout last month in Tokyo with Mac Foster. He was dead serious in the grip of his rubber sweat suit, not even looking up when he passed the Bay-shore tower that allegedly contained Howard Hughes. In the park he was stopped by members of a Canadian rowing team practicing for the Olympics. "Come on and row with us, Champ," they asked. "Gotta run," said Ali. "Thanks, but I can't afford to cool off now." He pelted into the park with a miler's stride.
If only Murray Pezim had brought his party down to Stanley Park to witness Ali's dawn run...a breakfast of champagne, perhaps (domestic, of course), and caviar (cheap in Canada), there amid the ducks and geese and leaping trout, the redwoods rising into the mist as the Champ rolled alone through the forest, thinking dark thoughts of Joe Frazier, pouring sweat and dedication into the early light, stopping now and then to deliver six-punch combinations at his shadow...if Murray Pezim had only had insight enough to do that one inexpensive thing, his party would have been a grand success. Ali loping along beneath the totem poles of a tribe long dead. Ali sprinting past a rusty freighter fighting its way against the tide. Ali hissed at by an outraged Canada goose and studied closely by black squirrels as he went galloping up the final hill of the morning. Little flashes—"those images that yet fresh images beget," as Yeats put it. Or as Ali himself restated it on the ride back to the hotel: "Look at the trees and the birds and water God has given us, all these beautiful things. The man who has no imagination stands on the earth. He has no wings, he cannot fly."
"Great," said Trainer Angelo Dundee from the back seat. "Now we don't have to go to church today."
That evening, with the fight still 24 hours in the future, the party nearly ignited. The catalyst was the music of Ella Fitzgerald's sidemen, who dropped by to sit in with the rather routine combo Pezim had hired. There was Ed Thigpen, Ella's near-legendary drummer; Tommy Flanagan, for 20 years her piano accompanist; and Keter Betts, one of the great jazz bassists, who dragged his ax all the way over from The Cave in order to play. Their supple rhythms drew in a whole new batch of party-goers, most of them black Ali fans who shared their hero's sense of fast movement and fun. Bob Owens, a dapper Jamaican clothing designer now in New York; Charlie Mitchell, the former University of Washington and Denver Bronco running back; Willie the Weeper, a burly "entertainer" from Detroit and Vancouver; and a bevy of black beauties, mainly from Seattle, but including one Lady Captoria, bewigged and leathered and loaded, as they say, for bear. One of the white newcomers whose presence assured that the party would jump was Pat Ryan, the flamboyant Toronto entrepreneur who patented the Jolly Jumper, a sort of trapeze for exercising babies that hangs from doorways. When Pezim's whiskey ran out and the Fitzgerald crew split, a record player was quickly produced, along with two gallons of homemade sake, contributed oddly enough by a German-Canadian named Willy Voigt from his own cellar. "Yeah," laughed Charles James, "the Axis lives!"
But not for long. By four in the morning the fire had died out and the nonstop, 90-hour party had ended—13 hours before fight time, and having lived a grand total of 22 hours 47 minutes. There remained, of course, the fight itself. Ali's intention was to repair the image of sluggishness created by the Foster debacle, to prove he could get down to the fighting trim that had eluded him since Frazier, and if possible to become the first man ever to knock down (much less knock out) George Chuvalo in the Canadian's 16-year, 86-fight career. At the weigh-in, Ali proved one of the points: he was 217½ pounds, hard-bellied and with only a bare hint of plus above the waistband—much his best weight and shape since Frazier. There was no jive at the weigh-in, and when the reporters asked Ali why he came on so serious, he said: "There's $5 million at stake for me with the Frazier date. You watch those Wells Fargo guards when they unload a payroll. They look serious, too."
As to sluggishness, Ali dispelled any doubts about his quickness right from the opening bell. With the survivors of Pezim's party looking on bright-eyed and loud, Ali stayed on his toes for most of the 12-round distance, jabbing the slow Chuvalo at will and throwing some combinations that seemed to get sharper as the light progressed. When Chuvalo tagged Ali hard with a right cross off two left hooks late in the fifth round, Ali fell back against the ropes and waved Chuvalo in to slug it out. That is one of Ali's reactions when he is stung, as he later admitted he was, but Chuvalo refused the opportunity. Early in the next round Ali turned it on full blast for the only time in the fight, jolting Chuvalo with a series of combinations, forehand and backhand it seemed, that almost blended together. When Ali backed off, Chuvalo was bleeding from the brow. But Ali failed, then and later, to overturn the Chopping Block. It was a clear victory for Ali and it promised more serious discussions about a Frazier rematch.
As for Murray Pezim, his worst fears had been largely realized. Total live attendance for the fight was 8,800, leaving him, insiders figured, $100,000 or more in the red. As heavyweight boxing, the show was a good one of its kind. But as overall entertainment, especially the party to end all parties, well, perhaps it did just that, but for reasons Pezim had not anticipated. Nonetheless, as Drew (Bundini) Brown. Ali's manager and resident intellectual, said over a vodka martini a few hours before the fight: "We're living on the Kindergarten Planet, brothah. All we're doin' here is tryin' to learn how to do better later on." For Murray Pezim, it was quite a costly kindergarten class, but he's bound to do better later on. Has to.