Each evening about nine, just before the king of all he see goes to sleep, an odd and dumbing scene takes place on Muhammad's mountain. The day is dead. Great portions of steak and greens and corn bread have been devoured by his disciples at the camp in Deer Lake outside of Reading, Pa. His sparring partners in the bunkhouse have already begun to twitch in their sleep, and Muhammad Ali lies on his bed next to his gym listening to one of his followers, a slight and still man who makes you think of a Saturday night special. The man reads to Ali from the Guinness Book of World Records, and the words come haltingly but not without clarity.
"Thee tallest race in the world is the Tutsi," he reads. "They are also called...Ba...tutsi...Watut...si...or Waaa...tussi. Thee males average 6'1", with a maximum height of 7'6"." He reads on for nearly half an hour, and Ali, who has been quiet, interrupts: "Let me hear 'bout that star again." The man thumbs through the pages quickly. "The explosion of theee Crab Nee...bula," he reads, "which occurred in 'bout 3000 B.C., became visible...on earth by day in the year 1054...and its reemains are still ex...pandin' at theee rate of 800 miles per second."
Ali lets that fact float through the silence of the room and then says that he desires sleep, leaving you lost in the real darkness between least and most, a hard ground upon which Ali has seldom been caught. The word real has had no meaning for him, and he has looked into its dwarfing eyes maybe only twice. The draft, his exile, the financial drain and some of the abandonment that went with it, all of that he saw as real and he fought it well. As for his loss to Joe Frazier, it was something to which he gave no obeisance whatsoever.
Now, as he prepared last week for his second fight with Ken Norton a few weeks off in Los Angeles, it is quite evident that Muhammad Ali is again feeling the clammy touch of reality. Never before has he been so crowded by the inescapable, and not even his jet-stream monologues, fewer in number now, can blow what he deeply perceives to the side: for the first time in his career he stands smack on the edge of failure, not a conventional failure but one with shards of humiliation that only genius can feel.
This he knows well. He did get beaten badly by Ken Norton. He did get a broken jaw. He did lie in a hospital, acutely aware that he did not merely lose a fight, aware of the jolting aftermath: the kind of sympathy that drips on brilliant fighters who have stayed past their time; his gentle wife Belinda lying quietly in another hospital following her karate attack on three security guards who tried to keep her out of the ring; the whispers of those around him who were certain he was through.
"Some guy," says Bundini Brown, Ali's doctor of mysticism, "comes up to me in the hotel with 2,000 Ali buttons, you know, the ones with THE PEOPLE'S CHAMP written on them. He says, 'Well, I guess these aren't good anymore. He's had it.' "
"You can be rich or poor," Ali interrupts, "but ya don't know nothin' 'bout either until ya felt pain."
"Yeah, when there's no root," says Bundini, "there's no fruit. Been waitin' years to see this kind of Ali."
"That's right. Brother."
"You don't look in the mirror to see life," adds Bundini, "ya got to look out the window."
The next day ("the unveiling-of-my-jaw day") it is clear that Ali has been spending a lot of time by the window in his head. He walks into the gym. and the crowd reacts to his condition. His weight is down to 213, the best since the Liston days, and his reflexes on the light and heavy bags are searingly quick. All that remains is the question of his jaw. He steps into the ring and says, "Look, no headgear. No protection. Nobody tellin' sparrin' partners to hold back. If it's gonna happen, I want it to happen here." Over the six rounds he boxes on this day. he takes several shots flush on the jaw; as hoped and expected, nothing happens.
A broken jaw, if treated properly and given time to heal, is not a major injury in the ring, and often afterward it becomes much stronger than it was before it was broken. Of more significance is Ali's stamina, his moves and most of all his attitude, the intensity of concentration that he mayor may not have applied to his work for Norton. Gym work is deceptive, but it does appear that Ali is in the kind of shape needed for the most important hunt of his career. He is up on his toes. His breathing is easy. His punches come in sweeping blurs.
"He don't have to hammer no door down to get at a man in this hunt," says Bundini. "He gonna go 'round back and pick the lock."
The phrase "I'm goin' huntin' " is spoken often by Ali, and it seems obvious that he is referring to Norton. Then it becomes plain that that is not what he means at all. When he talks of huntin', he means one of his familiar swoops down on the country below him in pursuit of antiquity, old things that he might add to a cabin or the landscape of his camp. His hunts have become the talk of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and for a long time the careful Dutch did not know what to make of this aberration descending on their barns.
But now it is as if he has been living there forever. The camp has become sort of a rustic salon for all the local merchants who arrive each evening with the old-time wares, and it is a baffling sight, all of these hidebound Dutchmen who once looked upon Ali as a holocaust, the run of them up there on his mountain, the sun going down, laughing and posing for pictures with him, he directing them as to what he wants and when they should deliver it. And then there are those words Ali keeps using repeatedly: valid and oldest and real. "Get those benches away from there," he says. "I decided they not valid. I want my people to sit on logs and rocks, real logs."
Words like valid and oldest and real, they are not devoid of meaning. He uses them often when speaking of his camp, but there is no mistaking that he means them to apply to himself, his condition and attitude for this fight. The antique quarry wagon he bought and the huge rocks on his land, those are the objects that seem to mesmerize him. Throughout the day Ali will look at his ancient wagon of steel and wood that sits outside the window of his room. "Look at that old thing," he says. "Steel! Wood! Sooooo strong. It's worked sooooo hard. Must be 140 years old."
"Now what you think," asks one of the group, "was thee greatest invention ever?"
"Man's mind," says Bundini.
"Nooooo, it was the wheel," says another. "Why, without the wheel you wouldn't even have a wristwatch."
"The jet plane," says Ali. "Swoooooosh. You in L.A." No one debates further, and then Ali, looking over at his wagon, says, "Yeah, yeah. Got to be the wheel."
He walks over to the wagon, lifts a flap of wood and he sees hundreds of termites. "Eeeeeeee," he screams. "They goin' at my wagon!" Immediately, four cans of poisonous spray are produced and Ali and three others, choking and spraying furiously, erase the termites.
A fight camp can tell much about fighters. The atmosphere of where they work carries their personality, conveys sometimes what is on their minds. One watches the way a fighter treats his help, studies the people who have his ear, looks at all the small things until a picture evolves. It seldom has much to do with the fight itself, but it will help to solve the puzzle of a man. A word can describe some camps. Floyd Patterson: Hamlet. Sonny Liston: hostility. Dick Tiger: simplicity. Sugar Ray: tension. Joe Frazier: industry.
Frantic used to be the perfect word for Ali's camp, especially in the past year or so. It was not in his nature to train, to be forever alone with the hard facts of the ring. "Never trained more than three weeks for Liston, never trained more than three weeks for Frazier," says Ali. "Been up here now 14 weeks." That old element of intrigue—who was in, who was out—along with Ali's sometimes cruel ego is barely noticeable now. "There no little yous 'round him now," says Bundini. "He say we all the same." Walking through the place, Ali's own camp, listening to kids crying, screen doors banging, smelling the corn bread in the air, one is not certain whether Ali is a gifted stage manager or truly a new man.
The wagon is usually the first stop when he conducts a tour of his camp. Then comes the mess hall, which is the province of his Aunt Coretta, the cook who is backed up by a large sign on the wall that reads:
Rules For My Kitchen.
1. Please to keepe out, except on express permission of cooke.
2. COOKE. Shall designate pot scourers pan polishers peelers scrapers and COOKE has supreme AUTHORITY AT ALL TIMES.
3. No remarks at all will be tolerated concerning blackening of toast the weakness of soupe or the strength of the garlic stewe.
4. What goes in stews and soups is Nobody's Damn Business.
5. If you must stick your finger in something stick it in the garbage disposal.
6. Don't critize the coffee you may be old and weak yourself some day.
7. Anyone bringing guests in for dinner without PRIOR NOTICE will be awarded whacks on the skull with sharpe object.
8. Please waite Rome wasn't burnt in a day and it take awhile to burne a ROASTE.
9. If you must pinche something in this KYTCHEN PINCHE the COOKE.
10. This is my kitchen if you don't believe it START SOMETHING.
The rules were the work of Ali's father, who is a sign painter; they are here as they appear on the wall. Fortunately, for the safety of Ali and his Muslim brethren, who are all over the place at his camp, the father had nothing to do with the housing on the mountain. The camp, which has cost Ali roughly $200,000, contains four buildings constructed of pine trees and cement: a fine gym, a bunkhouse for the help, the mess hall and Ali's house. Ali calls the camp Fighter's Heaven. "A real place," he says, "a valid place for fighters to come and work and sweat like fighters should, not like all those places with chandeliers and thick carpets and all those pretty girls around."
Work begins early on the mountain. Ali is the first one up at 4:30, and the first thing he does is go to a massive bell that stands high over the camp. "I didn't want to sell it to him," says the man from whom he bought it, "but he wouldn't leave me be. He can be a charmer." The bell, says Ali, "cost $2,500, and it was made in 1896. It's a valid bell." After the bell is rung, awakening his trainers, he hits the road for four miles, with the headlights of a car showing the way through the possums and rabbits. "They nice to see," he says. He then returns to the kitchen where he poaches six eggs "from my own chickens."
After breakfast he picks up an ax and cuts down a couple of trees. "They not pine, they oak!" Ali says. He has been cutting down these trees, 85 in all, since January, and his camp is quite proud of the fact that he has busted one ax and dulled five others. "I'm borrowin' my strength from the trees," he says. Later, in the evening, he usually relaxes by watching films sent up to him by Jim Aubrey of MGM, or he may just sit quietly with Belinda in an old surrey, the two of them all alone looking down and out over the rolling hills. She then goes to her room, and he to his.
"I'm goin' to spend maybe the rest of my life up here," says Ali. "After I beat that sucker Norton and then Foreman, wherever he is, and old Joe Frazier, who I feel sorry for 'cause I think I made him sick. Right over there near my bell I'm gonna build an old log cabin. It's goin' to be made of 200 telephone poles. They gonna cost $85 each, and there ain't gonna be a piece of cement anywhere on 'em. Inside, there's goin' to be a potbellied stove and lanterns...nooooo electricity. And there's goin' to be a pump so I kin drink real water. And there ain't nobody gonna make me leave my mountain."
As he walks along, past his luxurious bus and Rolls-Royce, it is hard not to be amused by the juxtaposition of them to his new discovery of nature. It is hard to accept his valid and real camp for more than it is, an elaborate motivational prop designed for this most vital comeback against Norton, one that will mean so much to him emotionally and financially. Yet, something is astir within him, and it is quite clear when he talks of pyramids and the moon and bones in Africa, "how trillions of years old they all are," when he talks of all the people gone forever, "mothers and fathers you loved and big names like Nat King Cole...Dinah Washington...Sam Cooke."
He has looked deep into himself, it seems, and what he has seen is mortality, which belongs to all of us—even the king of all he see.