At 10 o'clock in the morning there were two couples at the counter in the hotel coffee shop on the Nevada south shore of Lake Tahoe. They were solid-looking people who talked about the snow and played Keno while they ate breakfast, glancing up at the electric scoreboard on the wall.
"Does Mo-hammid Alley eat in here?" one of the men asked a waitress.
"Does he eat regular food like everybody else?"
"Sure. Steak and prunes. Things like that."
"Steak and prunes! Hear that, Ethel?"
Just then Muhammad Ali himself walked up to the counter and ordered a cup of tea. Ali had been running. He still wore his sweat clothes and had a towel around his neck.
"That's him, Ethel."
"Think I don't know it? I want to touch him."
"So touch him," her husband said.
"Ethel, you're kidding," the other woman said.
The two women looked at each other. They both wanted to touch him. Ethel stood up first. "I'm going to," she said. "Watch me and see if I don't."
"Listen, get an autograph for the kids," her husband said. "Be sure and don't call him Clay."
Ethel laid down a place mat and a felt-tipped pen in front of Ali and asked for his autograph. He nodded and started signing. Ethel bent close. Her hair brushed his ear. "I'm going to touch you now," she said.
Ali looked up, vaguely alarmed. Ethel poked a long finger into his ribs and then did it again. Ali kept looking at her. Ethel snatched up the place mat and stepped back.
"Mo-hammid, you behave yourself!" she said loud enough for the whole room to hear. She went back to her seat, giggling like a broken pipe, and showed the place mat to her friends.
"Should of got him to write 'To Buzz and Scooter' on it," her husband said.
Ali stared down into his cup of tea. "Sure is some strange things in this world," he said.
It is peculiar what people can think up to stick on the edge of a beautiful blue lake in a pine forest in the snowy mountains. Wig shops, for one thing. Houses that look like cuckoo clocks. Camps of condominium apartments. Honey wagons. Motels. Gambling casinos full of chrome-plated slot machines. Forty-one-pound mismatches.
Part of the Tahoe shore is parkland where the clean snow shone in the sun last week, and even from the porch of a pizzeria on the north bank or a taco hut on the south one could look across the water and see the mountains rising above all of it. One could imagine a conversation among the people who started building around Tahoe.
"There's too much nature here. We got to do something that tops nature."
"Let's get the guy that did Phoenix."
"Naw, not Phoenix. We need a guy that can work with water. The Miami Beach guy is the one we want."
"He don't do Western."
"What's the big deal about Western? All you got to do is put a bunch of wagon wheels out front."
So they built the towns around Lake Tahoe. On the California side there are motels, houses and souvenir shops. On the Nevada side are motels, houses, souvenir shops and gambling casinos. The Nevada side is also where they hold their 41-pound mismatches that can be seen on TV as far away as Uganda. That, in fact, is why Muhammad Ali was in the coffee shop that morning. He was working himself up for the mismatch.
All week Ali never did seem happy about what he was doing. The billboard at the hotel entrance said LIVE LIVE NOV. 21 MUHAMMAD ALI VS. BOB FOSTER NEXT ATTRACTION NOV. 23 ISAAC HAYES. When he was heavyweight champion, Ali was a lot more than just another nightclub act. Now here he was, getting ready to perform in the same theater where Steve & Eydie and Johnny Cash and the rest of them perform. No matter that Bob Foster is the light-heavyweight champion of the world and had knocked out 42 men in 54 fights, and that Ali was being paid $250,000 for the work ($125,000 for Foster). It still didn't seem right. Maybe it was the place—in a nightclub in a gambling casino in Stateline, Nev.
Not that there is anything wrong with a fight being held in Nevada. There probably have been more fights in the state than it is worthwhile to think about. But here was Ali, a Muslim minister, one of the greatest men in the world by his own admission, having to walk between slot machines and dice tables and waitresses in orange boots even to reach his room. "The champ don't care about this stuff. He just goes right through it without seeing it," said Bundini Brown, Ali's old friend and assistant trainer.
But the unseen seemed to get Ali down anyhow. His sparring sessions were conducted either in a big meeting room in the Sahara Tahoe Hotel or in the hotel nightclub itself. Waiters and waitresses moved through the crowds ($1 per head to get in) selling drinks. At the final workout, some people in a booth at ringside had a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. There is no way this could be thought of as entirely bad, of course. A boxing writer from London said, "I've waited all my life to be able to take a shower, dress, eat dinner, go see a prizefight and get drunk without ever having to step outdoors." That was him. Ali looked happy only when somebody like Bill Cosby (the big act across the street) would show up to joke with him.
One day, predictably, Cosby got into the ring with Ali and they clowned around. It was good for the crowd. In most of Ali's sparring sessions he lay against the ropes with his gloves in front of his face while Ray Anderson, Billy Daniels or Bossman Jones thumped his ample stomach. Ali looks more like a pro linebacker now than the lean and smooth man who knocked out Sonny Liston almost nine years ago. After one workout Cosby told Ali he looked fat. "I guess I'm getting old," Ali said. "Why don't you get me a role in the movies?"
"I suppose we could start you off playing Othello and then work up to the bigger roles," Cosby said. "Cosby has a hard time matching wits with me," Ali said. "Lucky for him I don't need his job."
The promoters busied themselves trying to make the 41-pound mismatch sound like a serious affair. They ballyhooed it as the North American Heavyweight Boxing Championship, which it could have been if Joe Frazier had stayed in Europe. They claimed the 6,200-foot altitude in Tahoe would deprive Ali of his wind but would not hurt Foster, who is a deputy sheriff in Albuquerque (4,943 feet). They pointed out that Foster had once beaten Ali when they were amateurs. They said that Foster, who is three years older than Ali, was quicker. Foster is half an inch taller than Ali, which was made to sound important, but his arms are an inch shorter. Foster was knocked out by Frazier in the second round, and people were afraid he had been killed, but the promoters said Foster nearly won the fight. One promoter said Foster's punch would make Ali retire from the ring forever. Cosby picked Foster to win by a knockout in the fifth round. What the promoters elected to overlook was that Ali, even slightly overweight, was not exactly a cripple. At 221, in fact, and 41 pounds heavier than Foster, Ali was fighting a man who had never lost to a light heavyweight—or beaten a heavyweight.
The crowds that paid their dollars to see Ali and Foster train (tickets for the 41-pound mismatch itself were scaled from $75 to $150, although a lot of them were given away to good casino customers) were very different from the usual gym crowds, or even from the crowds in Las Vegas. About half of those watching Ali and Foster work out were long-haired kids dressed like Hollywood outlaws who had wandered down from the mountains with cocktails in their hands. There were a bunch of ski-week couples, an amazing number of Orientals, quite a few blacks and here and there a Vegas stereotype in shades and an alpaca sweater.
Because of the drinking, voices were often raised to heckle Ali, who did not like it. The day before the fight Bundini and Trainer Angelo Dundee knocked on Ali's door, but he refused to get up and do his roadwork. "That's O.K.," Bundini said. "The champ needs rest. He's the kind of strange man people call a nut but turns out to be a genius. One day he's a little boy, and the next day he's 106 years old. But no question that he's got Foster under control."
Ali, 20 minutes late for the weigh-in, looked almost morose when he finally showed up. "I'm not excited about fighting anymore," he said. "You people are the ones who're excited, not me. It's like a pilot living through a storm. The passengers are scared, but the pilot knows what strain the equipment can take. I've been fighting since I was 12. To me Foster is a joke, Frazier is a joke, fighting is a joke. It's just another night to jump up and down and beat up somebody."
On that note of enthusiasm the 41-pound mismatch began in a red, white and blue ring set up on the nightclub floor. Waiters moved among the booths and tables serving drinks. Ali danced around at first and kept tapping Foster with a jab, apparently just to show that he could. Then for the rest of the first round and all of the next two Ali stood flat-footed, moving only to push Foster around, pat him on the head and paw him like a bear. He passed up countless obvious opportunities. People began booing. One loud voice cried, "Phony!" Bundini shouted, "Stop playing with him, champ!" Turning completely away from Foster, Ali looked at Bundini and said, "Shut up."
In the fourth round Foster put a purple mouse under Ali's left eye, but Ali refused to get excited. He was waiting for the fifth—the round he had predicted for the knockout. Suddenly the 41-pound mismatch developed drama. The moment he decided to Ali knocked foster down. In fact, he knocked him down four times in the fifth round but couldn't keep him down. And Ali was bleeding from a cut beneath his left eyebrow—the first time he had been cut in his pro career. Ali danced and bled in the sixth, knocked Foster down twice more in the seventh and was himself shaken at least three times by right hands. But after 40 seconds of the eighth round, Ali knocked Foster down for the seventh time, and Foster did not get up before he had been counted out. Ali hugged him. No doubt they were both relieved it was over.
In Ali's dressing room—the sort reserved for nightclub stars, with a bar, stereo, color TV and mirror with lights around it—five stitches were sewn into his eyelid. "Now people know he's got blood," Dundee said. "I don't know if the cut came from a butt, a thumb or a punch, but the important thing is Ali won and we can go home."
Ali was putting on his shoes and talking on the phone to his wife Belinda when Isaac Hayes, the musician, shoved past the guards and entered the dressing room that would be his next.
"Hit a note for Belinda," Ali said, handing Hayes the phone.
"This altitude done got my throat," said Hayes.
"Hit a note," Ali said.
"He's a little mad because he got cut. You better hit a note," said Bundini.
Hayes took the phone and did something that might have been called hitting a note. Cosby came in and faked crying. "You were bleeding," Cosby said. He knelt and stroked Ali's feet. "My master," Cosby said. He sat beside Ali and motioned for a photographer to take their picture. "Now, Lazarus, get up and walk again," said Cosby.
"I gotta whip Frazier," Ali was saying, fingering the bandage on his eyelid. "I gotta whip that man. Then make a couple of defenses. Then that might be it for me. That might be the end." He looked at himself in the mirror. "I'm still pretty," he said and put on a pair of dark glasses.
Upstairs, Foster was recovering his senses at a cocktail party. "Clay wobbled when I hit him and he wasn't fooling," Foster said. "I hurt him. Clay can't punch hard enough to knock out Joe Frazier. Clay will never beat him. Joe don't mouth-off like Clay does. Joe works. He breaks his sparring partners' jaws. He figures he's got to pay 'em anyhow, he might as well break their jaws. Clay can't hit that hard."
What was it, then, that caused Foster to keep falling down? "Clay hurt me with shots I couldn't see," he said. "He's got a trick. He jabs and covers your eye with his thumb. When he comes off the jab, he hits you with a right that you can't see. It's a good trick. But I could have beaten Clay if I'd used my left hand more."
That's all Foster needed to do? Use more lefts? "That and gain 10 pounds," Foster said, smiling. "Clay beat me because he's fast and he's 41 pounds heavier than I am. But he sure made me more money in one night than I ever made in my life." It was, you see, a 41-pound mismatch.