In this is May of '77 and Jean Pierre Coopman, Chuck Wepner and Richard Dunn are otherwise occupied, it must be Muhammad Ali vs. Alfredo Evangelista Monday night. And the question uppermost in minds ranging from Ali's to Don King's to Abe Pollin's to that of anyone trying to scrape together $20 for the cheapest seat in Capital Centre is: can "Rocky" sell one more time?
Ali has been in what might be called the John Unitas Phase of his career for some time. Not only is he not what he used to be, he has become a rather sad-figure to many who care deeply about him. He is occasionally sharp but rarely memorable. Like so many excpetional athletes on the downside of their careers, he is watching enormous rewards begin to arrive as enormous skills begin to leave.
Ali has been the dominant figure of his athletic generation, more popular world-wide than Palmer, more candid than Mantle and Mays, more talented than Namath, wiser than Chamberlain. He is working on Pele's record for retirements and is more entertaining than anyone in sports, although still not quite at the level of Kermit The Frog.
And even Kermit would take a few pops on his lilly pad for $2.7 million. In truth, though, anyone who pays to witness Ali vs. Evangelista is not doing so with a possible fight for the ages in mind. History, perhaps, because at 35 Ali is vulnerable. To lose, Ali must be knocked senseless, recent experience has shown, and that would bring no joy here.
Justice does seem to have been served in one respect. Having inspired "Rocky" with his both against Wepner. Ali is now reaping the benefits of the film's success, a spinoff of sorts. The ragsto-arms-reach-of-a-championship theme is an inspiring one, but how many reruns can Ali offer?
"People love to be tricked," Ali was saying the other day. "They love to be mystified, to see ghosts. We spent $2 billion to get one rock off the moon, and now we won't be satisfied 'fil we get to Mars. Ans then somebody'll say: "I wonder what's on Jupiter?'
"That's why I'm so good. With my gimmicks, my predictions, I get 'em riled up to buy tickets. But boxing is only my introduction to the world. My real work is religion, the ministry. But if you don't have fame and prestige no one will listen to you. Right now I have the whole world waiting for me."
For free, they were waiting for him to descend from his 10-floor suite the other day, lined two and three deep in a wall of humanity and Instamatics that stretched the 50 yards from an elevator to the room where he would endure a "closed" workout overflowing with spectators.
As the elevator arrived to take him to mingle again with his public, an aide embarrassed some passengers to leave a floor so early so "the champ" could get on with his mission. Ali immediately ordered the flustered folks back into the elevator and waited his turn.
"Ain't no free passes at the gates of Heaven," he said later.
In the cruel-humor atmosphere of the workout, though, Ali was verbally upstated. When someone mentioned the Ken Norton punch that caught Duane Bobick in the throat earlier in the week, a spectator yelled: "That wasn't his throat that got hit.That was his heart trying to leave through his mouth."
Ali is the most accessible of athletes, believing, he insists, that "I don't care if what they (reporters) write is bad or good because two days later it ain't news anymore."
That also seems to hold for King. Last week assorted media people got a "dear friend" note that began, "Despite a vicious campaign of slander, villification and deceit that is seeking to tarnish my reputation, I am still persisting and need your support."
It went on. ". . . I stake my trust in the great American tradition of justice and fair play. I am counting on your belief in the same tradition and your willingness to extend it to a fellow American when truth and right are on his side. Truth will not make us rich, but it will set us free. . . .
"Tickets for the gala boxing show are $150, $100, $75, $50 and $20 . . ."
If Ali always has his promotional hook out, it usually is a pleasant one to swallow. Why are there not many boxers in the United States these days? a reporter from Uruguay wanted to know.
"Too many welfare checks coming out," he said.
While Ali was holding court for anyone who would listen and spread his gospel, the challenger, Spanish Rocky, was holding a workout closed to reporters. Whether he was trying to hide a secret weapon or keep whatever has allowed him almost world-wide anonimity will be answered Monday night.
But Ali was going on and on. And on.
At on point, his South American questioner even said: "Why didn't you throw us out a half-hour ago."
"Beacuse," said Ali, "service to others is the rent I pay for my room here on earth."