The French painter had just finished a still life, flowers in an apothecary jar, eggplant on a plate. A novelist friend glanced at the canvas and threw up his arms: "In a gallery of 5,000 pictures what is there to halt the sleepy procession in front of your work?" Pander to the blockheads, forget the connoisseurs, the novelist advised. The only way to escape from the horde of the unknown is to be a madman or clever; talent was not relevant. Paint a picture at the North Pole, he urged, dress like an Egyptian king, found a new school, or better yet, shoot your wife.
It is an old truth, of course, even in the far removed world of the prize ring, and it seemed to be the way things were last Friday night in fight-wise San Juan, Puerto Rico when Muhammad Ali, an exotic, gracefully and humanely sent Jean-Pierre Coopman back to his dreary Flemish village. The final punch in the fifth round—a right uppercut whipping up like a scythe flashing in the sun—stunned the thick Belgian and a shove left him groping serenely about the floor, making an awful liar out of Julius Caesar who said: "Horum Omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae."
Hard nationalists are the Belgians—about 1,000 of them made the trip to San Juan—and they still believe that of all the people in Caesar's Gaul they are the bravest. But Coopman, their Lion of Flanders, was a blow to their pride. When he lost, they cried freely and then, pulling themselves together, went to the food stand across from their hotel and ate Cuban sandwiches by the truckload and drank beer by the buckets; they are a hearty race. Listening to them between bites and swallows, it was evident that the Lion's fan club back home was in serious jeopardy.
But long before the Belgian spirit and the Lion's head were jointly bludgeoned in Roberto Clemente Coliseum, this much was irrefutable: never before has there been clearer evidence of what Ali has come to mean. He is much more than a mere celebrity. He does not have to box at the North Pole or talk of his work as if it were a dark mystery, and nobody cares much about his marital situation. He needs no gimmick to overwhelm the marketplace. He has become sui generis, a wonder of the world, a traveling theater that must be seen, else we may never see it again.
What is this road show, this marvellous attraction? A quick look, and it seems to be reeling scenes of repetition: old lines repeated over and over, familiar gestures of widening eyes and threatening fist being shaken at some opponent or planted heckler; mock fury that has to be restrained by handlers at weigh-ins. It is all so creakingly old. But peer closer and there is much more: his accessibility, the way he exposes himself to the crowds, his genuine humanity that is felt more than heard, his caring about what happens to us all.
What is this audience that has made him probably—certainly?—the most celebrated figure in the world today? His followers cut across all class lines. There are the masses of poor, who see him as a symbol of escape from their own miseries, as an enemy of tyrannous governments. There are the moneyed, who must always be near success. There is the white middle class, that huge engine of society that once so rejected him but now jockeys for position with miniature cameras and ballpoint pens.
There have been more emotional scenes than San Juan for Ali, more frenzied atmospheres as he has toured the globe he seems to have claimed as his own, but the hard facts of San Juan were eloquent testimony to the power of his presence. Here he was matched against Coopman, an amateur at best who was outweighed by 20 pounds, shorter by three inches and outreached by five inches. Not only would it be the worst mismatch in heavyweight championship history, but the most overpriced ($200 ringside) as well. In defense of the consumer, the press hammered violently all week at these facts, but still the tickets moved.
It was a matter of force against force: Ali's power against sense and reason. By the bell it was a unanimous decision for Ali. Each day more than 600 people, paying a fat $5 a head, jammed his hotel to watch him work out. By fight time there were 10,000 people in the Coliseum and another 11,500 paying customers ready to watch the bout on closed circuit in a stadium next door. Add to this the $1 million that CBS paid for the television rights, and if that is not a wonder, Jack, as the promoter, Don King, said, "There ain't no Leanin' Tower of Pizza."
Well, as every schoolboy knows, there is a tower called Pisa—and there is also Muhammad Ali, one of the phenomena of the century, artistically as well as in presence. In 1976, the phenomenon contemplates a year no heavyweight champion has ever dreamed of. It is tempting to recall Joe Louis' Bum of the Month Club, but the comparison is inaccurate. Boxing is only a small part of the Muhammad Ali picture; interest in ring esthetics did not generate the millions of dollars involved in this fight, nor does it move the multitudes that shadow his every step wherever he chooses to fight. It is the man that counts; there is a Ghandian aura to his journeys.
The road show will next play San Jose, Costa Rica, where Ali will fight Jimmy Young in late April for $1½ million. After that comes Tokyo in May for $6 million against who knows whom, and then who knows where or when against Ken Norton, the man who broke Ali's jaw three years ago. "I put a $14 million price tag on that one," says King. "Istanbul, and Khartoum in the Sudan, and Kuwait, all of them say they're ready to go. But I want it to go in the United States on July 4th. We're trying to put it in Shea Stadium for $12 million, and then there's that new stadium in Pontiac, Mich." Why would King sacrifice $2 million to have the fight in the U.S.? "We've been travelin', man, and we're tired," he says, "and we want the fight to go on the anniversary of the revolution against King George. We're patriots."
Ali plans to fight every two months for two reasons: he needs the money, and he wants to take his show to as many people as possible. Despite his impulse to buy things, to transport hundreds of people to his fights—he picked up the bill for 55 rooms in San Juan—he is far from being bankrupt. Sitting in the lobby of the El San Juan Hotel on a Louis XVI couch, he explained: "I'm doin' a lot of things for charity. I'm buildin' a school. I'm buildin' a hospital. I need money. I got a million for this fight, but look what's left. Taxes cut it to $600,000 here, and my expenses and taxes at home knock it down to $350,000. Then out comes my manager's end. I can't go on forever, but I'm gonna raise some hell while I can."
He was apologetic about the fight. "I felt bad when it was over. He fell and I felt sorry for him. You know that Belgium guy is a good fellow. I hate to fight, but I got to have money, got to have fame. He's got a wife. She was cryin'. His mother was cryin'. We live in a freakish world, a vicious world. People like to see blood. You saw me. I wasn't the fighter I was against Joe Frazier in Manila. So I beat up Coopman. So what?" He paused for a moment, and then said," Man, people want life and death all the time from me. Why, I got Norton and Foreman ahead of me. Let me have a little rest in between."
That seems to be agreeable to his public, but his manager, Herbert Muhammad, wants to control the form that his "rests" take. Mindful of Ali's economic future, and also the possibility of a freak upset, Herbert does not want cheap comedy to taint Ali's talent, to diminish his aura. Against Coopman, Ali started off clownishly, and as always his corner got on him. In the second round, Ali's brother Rachman kept pleading in a maniacal voice for the champion to "be tough." Ali finally looked down at him and said, "Shut up!" In the third, only the voice of Bundini Brown was heard, hoarsely advising him that "the Chief [God] was watching him in his living room." By the fourth, Herbert had had enough. "It looks like this cat's got a hard head, too," said Herbert. "Some of these cats got real hard heads. You don't know what's gonna happen." He then walked into the pit below Ali's corner and said a few indelicate words to Wally Muhammad, one of the handlers.
The message was clear enough to be heard. "Tell him to stop all this foolin' around, or I'm walkin' out of the building."
If Herbert had walked, it would not have been an ordinary manager taking his leave. It would have been the son of the late Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Muslims, it would have been the No. 2 man in the Muslim empire turning his back on a subject. Such a gesture would have grave implications. Ali got the message.
Shortly thereafter he did to Coopman what had to be done. In his dressing room the Belgian was smiling as he described what had happened to him. "I was not hit hard. I was not unconscious, but I could not get up. It felt like a 500-pound bag had me pinned down." The Lion smiled some more when he fled town in the 5 a.m. darkness, back to Ingelmunster in Flanders, back to a $4.50 an hour job chiseling stones for the restoration of medieval cathedrals. He can be content with the knowledge that there will not be one more poppy in Flanders' fields and that no man who climbs into a ring with Muhammad Ali can ever be a nonentity again.