Have you ever come up against a heavy German meal, a host who insists on playing Wagner recordings while sunlight pours brutally into the living room? Wagner, of course, can drug you all by himself, having been a genius who induces the head-in-the-hand posture, like some fights and fighters. Watching them, one's head easily falls into one's hand, perhaps to dream of a cool lake and fresh breezes. Nothing empties the mind better than a tedious fight. In an age of desperate anxiety, a bad fight is a social contribution.
Of this sort of fight, there was a classic last week in Capital Centre at Landover, Md. as Muhammad Ali, of the universe, defended his title against Jimmy Young, of Philadelphia. The fight, which was seen by a crowd of 12,500 and a national television audience, lasted 15 rounds—some of the worst and most numbing in heavyweight history. When it was over, Ali took his pick and shovel and moved his inglorious bulk on to the next gold mine. But he did not move on quietly, or with grace or dignity. He left part of the live crowd with the opinion that he had lost, the other part in disbelief at what they had seen. He left nearly all of the television audience aghast at what it viewed as an outrageous injustice to Jimmy Young, and a slack-jawed press to ponder words like avarice, dissipation and that old B-movie epithet "fix."
Indeed, Ali had come dangerously close to committing professional suicide. He flirted with the caprices of scoring. The scoring of a fight is subjective, as inexact as anything can be. It is emotional, even sentimental. Nonetheless a bout, especially a title fight, should be looked at as a stage production or a painting. It is the whole that counts.
A challenger is not given a champion's title. He must take that title, preferably with his hands, but with a ring post if necessary. Young never has been a positive fighter, and he was far from it against Ali. He is a fighter of slight craft with a few cute moves. On the attack, his jab is a trifle, his punching of no account. On defense, caution marks his every move, his eyes are always on the exit doors. As the old wheeze goes, Young is a fighter without bad intentions. He is also not a Philadelphia fighter, that primordial strain of workmen who have left a wake of blood and upsets in the ring; Philadelphia fighters know how to take titles.
For the most part, Young was a passive figure against Ali. On six occasions he ducked outside of the ropes and stayed there like a man looking out a window. It was not accidental. He was not slipping a punch. It was unconscionable behavior for a man who wants the heavyweight championship of the world. According to Maryland ring rules, Young should have been censured for this action; it is called a "stand-up knockdown." He was given a two count once. The rest of the time he was allowed to take the rarefied air of the $200 ringside. Ali eventually became so frustrated that he began leaning over the ropes to bang him on top of his head. Heroes do not do this sort of thing, and Young—though clearly wrong—won sympathy.
Ali did not behave creditably, either. Using superior weight and size, he often grabbed Young behind the head and pushed him to the floor. Lighter by 21 pounds, Young smartly went with the pulling, until there was no form to the fight at all; there was just Ali missing wildly and then holding, and then Young being totally unassertive. Ali's corner was restive from the start. It looked on vacantly at Ali's early comedies—hands by his head, doing nothing; the Mirage, they call it—and his manager, Herbert Muhammad, shifted nervously in his seat.
"Another day in the gym," Ali's brother, Rahaman, shouted.
"Turn 'em up, turn 'em up," screamed Bundini Brown.
"Shut up!" Ali yelled at Bundini at the end of the third round.
By the fifth round the crowd was booing. "I don't blame 'em," said Herbert. "I'd boo, too. I hope Young hits him on the side of his head and wakes him up." In Round 7, Ali did some wiggling, and Herbert shouted to Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, "Angelo, tell him to stop that stuff. He's embarrassin' everybody when he does that."
In the late rounds, Ali's corner was almost completely silent, except for the eccentric Rahaman. It was as if those in the corner could sense a strange wind beginning to blow. Knowing that Ali was in deplorable shape, sensing that he could make it to the finish—15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, that ought to be worth something in the market—Young's confidence grew, and he became more aggressive. He found Ali with right-hand taps, and came up with a lot of harmless motion. "You're losin'!" raged Rahaman. Herbert turned to him and said coldly, "Who told you to say that? Judges hear that, people hear that, they start believin' it. Now keep quiet."
By the end of the fight, Herbert's face was frozen. He looked over to a reporter and asked, "We in any trouble?" He was told there could be, for one never knows about judges. Herbert got up shakily and walked out before the scoring was announced, thinking of the $26 million Ali hopes to earn this year, including the $6 million match with the Japanese wrestler in Tokyo and the big money fight with Ken Norton. But most of all, Herbert confided later, he was angry because a genius had let some scared, awkward, ordinary fighter turn a simple fight into needless controversy that would surely leave Ali's golden image temporarily tarnished.
The scoring came, and so did more boos. The referee called it 10-3-2 for Ali, one judge saw it 7-5-3 for Ali and the other one gave it to him, 11-4. Despite the way their rounds were broken down—one judge didn't give Young a round until the 11th—the decision was correct. There was no way anyone could justify taking the title from Ali; Young had had his own vote, but he had chosen to abstain. Public sympathy now leans toward Young, but when it is dissected it is really only an emotional response to a champion who toyed with the sensibilities of the crowd and its intelligence, a champion who was not prepared to fight the way he could and should. Ali can play the philosopher in fool's rags and be believed, he can utter ridiculous and dumb things and be applauded for them, yet when he steps into a ring for $1.6 million, he owes it to himself and his position to be worth every cent of it, or else he can no longer talk of dignity—for anybody.
He let himself and his business down badly last week. He weighed more (230 pounds) than at any other time in his career. He missed with more punches than one could imagine, and his timing was awful. "He looked pitiful," said Ken Norton, a considerable threat to Ali. "I kept hollerin' up to him, 'Don't blow the money, Ali, don't blow the money, damn it!' But the Ali you saw tonight is not the guy I have to fight. I wish it was, but it won't be. He'll be ready for me. You can count on it."
Normally the most tireless of Ali's admirers, Angelo Dundee called Ali's fight "the worst of his career." All week Dundee had been trying to implant some seriousness in the champ's head. "Look, this guy's awkward," he kept telling him. "He stands and crouches. He can be a nuisance." Dundee even put a sign on the elevator door on Ali's hotel floor. "Remember San Diego," it read, referring to the first Norton bout in San Diego, which Norton won.
"Maybe I'm through," Ali said later. "You never know about these things. But you can't go by this. I'm going back in the gym on Monday. I'll be 220 for the Richard Dunn fight in a few weeks and I'll kill myself for Norton. He's the onliest one I want." The next day, alone in a room with an aide, he asked:
"What some of the brothers sayin'?"
"Some of 'em sayin' you gettin' greedy. Press say you greedy, too."
"Never care 'bout money in my life. I'm too rich without money."
"They yellin' fix, too."
"People sure can be dumb when they wanna be," said Ali.
"That's what I say," said the aide. "Why a genius need a fix? A genius knows all the secrets."
All but one: a genius should know he can go too far.