Suggestions of Muhammed Ali are everywhere. Ali is broke, said a man who ought to know. Ali is 37, soon to be 38, but until we see him with white hair and a cane, he will be forever young, forever able. Even if he isn't broke in the conventional sense, a big spender used to paydays of $5 million has come onto hard times when reduced to $20,000 for saying bad things about roaches.
"I'll fight Ali," said Larry Holmes, "and the first thing I'll do is say my prayers: 'Lord don't let me hurt him and don't let him hurt me, but let me come out on top.'"
The survivor of a test in brutality with Earnie Shavers Friday night, Holmes four times has defended the heavyweight championship.
At a press conference this morning Holmes said he had no fights planned because he wanted to take time off. Among potential opponents, he said, are Shavers again, Ken Norton, the winner of the John Tate-Gerrie Coetzee fight in South Africa next month -- and yes, Ali.
"They say he'll come back," Holmes said, "because his living expenses are very high and his money is very low. I don't know."
As much as anything, the Holmes-Shavers fight may encourage Ali to try again. Come October, a contract with his business manager, Herbert Muhammad, expires and Ali will be free of a one-third obligation to Muhammad.
That remaining contractual obligation, more than old age, is why Ali is not fighting now. Come October, he will be free to make his own deal and what happened here Friday night might convince the old man these kids hold no danger for him.
Holmes could not knock out Shavers. By the seventh round of a scheduled 15, both fighters were as exhausted as George Foreman the night the invincible one swooned at Ali's feet in Zaire. Against a moving Ali working with a jab beautiful in its efficiency, neither Holmes nor Shavers could have lasted 15 rounds. It was a fight thrilling in brutality only, utterly devoid of the art and craft Ali can muster yet.
"This fight," said a man who has seen heavyweight championship fights for 40 years, "will bring Ali back."
Beloved readers of long memories know that several hundred words filled this space less than a year ago with an impassioned message to Ali telling him it was time to quit, that Larry Holmes was too good, too strong, that Larry Holmes was capable of the ultimate humiliation of Ali. Hang 'em up, Ali. Be the champ forever.
But even in the passion of the moment, the typist worked against what he believed. He believed Ali needs the attention as much as he needs the money. Out of the ring, Ali is an actor without a play. Ali can talk forever about Allah and peace in the world and helping starving nations, but without the heavyweight championship, he is an out-of-work actor mouthing hollow words.
He knows it. It is no accident he called Larry Holmes this week to remind Holmes who the real champ is. Ali is keeping a hand in. He is building the gate for the time he and Holmes meet. Ali even called Holmes and told the new champion to give a job to Ali's old clown jester, Drew (Bundini) Brown. Holmes did it.
As long as Ali is physically able to fight, he will. It is his world, that square ring. Only there is he honest and complete.He needs the satisfaction that comes from his work there. He can talk about ambassadorships and missionaries and ministries, but Ali from age 12 has been a fighter creating his own world in the ring and without that world he is a man at loose ends. All he needs, even now, even in official retirement, is the hint that he can still do it.
Holmes has given Ali that assurance. With successive mediocre performances against unknown Mike Weaver and then Shavers, Holmes has demonstrated a vulnerability unsuspected 18 months ago when he dominated Shavers and a year ago when he destroyed Cavaldo Ocasto.
Look for Ali back. He will orchestrate the number himself. He will say he is answering the public's demand for his return. One more fight, he will say, because he wants to be the first fighter ever to win the championship three times, retire and win it a fourth time. Ali's ego is insatiable, and for 20 years he has fed it daily. He won't quit until they carry him out of a ring.
"I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pa.," Holmes said today. "and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I wanted that black eye. I was proud of that black eye. I love Ali."
As long as eight years ago, Holmes, then 21, sparred with Ali in the champion's preparations for title fights. He was paid $500 a week and a bonus if Ali won. "Truthfully, not bragging, I felt back then I could beat him," Holmes said. "Every sparring partner believes that. But if we put on the little gloves and took off the head gear, it might have been different."
At his peak, Ali would have sliced off Larry Holmes' ears. No other heavyweight ever could do what Ali did. But now, Ali is a shell of the athlete he once was. Out of training for a year, it might take him another year to be fit for 15 rounds with a Holmes. It is saddening to imagine him coming back, but the thought must be made because it could become real. Ali against Holmes.
That is for the future. Right now, Holmes said he wants to end the division of the heavyweight championship. He is the World Boxing Council champion. In South Africa, Oct. 20, Tate meets Coetzee for the World Boxing Association championship. The WBA is the lesser organization, largely a toy of New York promoter Bob Arum, who by taking American blacks to fight in South Africa has demonstrated that greed travels well with apartheid.
Holmes' latest fights have been promoted by Don King, Arum's chief rival.
"I'd like to clear up the championship picture and I'd like to shut up one guy, Bob Arum, who would like to promote me," Holmes said. "Arum said I had the courage of a mouse."
Whatever happens, be it Ali or Tate, Holmes said he will never fight in South Africa.
"South Africa is not my cup of tea. I don't respect the things they do there. They give a man a few things while he's there (an apparent reference to trips made by Leon Spinks and Tate), but what do they do when he leaves? . . . They judge you by whether you're black or brown or yellow. They say, 'Be in by 6. You can tell time, can't you?' If you're not in, they cut off your arm or break your leg . . . It took us a million years to get where we're at, and Tate's going back."