He had nothing. Muhammad Ali had nothing. No jab, no right hand, no dancing, no nothing. He asked the crowd to chant "Ali . . . Ali," and the sound came back barely more than a whisper. He touched a glove to his ear, meaning he wanted to hear it louder. Nothing came then. This was a minute before the fight. It was over. Ali must have known from the silence. So began the longest night for Ali. "A horrible night," Angelo Dundee called it.
Always a warrior, brave and strong, Ali came to battle Thursday night with no weapons. He would have gone on. He was angry when Angelo Dundee stopped the fight. He is proud. Warriors suffer. Warriors go out on their shields. Sonny Liston quit 16 years ago.Liston quit on his stool. He gave away the heavyweight championship. Gave it away. Sat on his stool, robbed of his will to go on. Robbed by the young Cassius Clay.
Now it comes full circle. Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, sat on his stool Thursday night. He lost to a younger man. Not to say he quit. He didn't quit. No, Ali wouldn't quit. "I'll hit you in the mouth," he screamed at Dundee, his trainer who said he was stopping the fight. But 16 years after Liston sat on his stool to make Ali the champion, Ali stayed on his stool rather than come out for the 11th round. And Larry Holmes kept the title.
Ali says he will fight again.
He says he will fight Mike Weaver.
He says he lost too much weight too fast getting ready for Holmes. He went from 260, he says, to as low as 216. So he had no strength, no energy. It will be different the next time. He'll stay trim now and build up his strength and he will fight Mike Weaver.
This is the warrior talking. Even as he was driven by car from ringside to his hotel last night, even 10 minutes after being knocked out for the first time, even with night's sweat sparkling against the angry blue-purple-black bruises at his eyes -- even when he was less a fighter than Liston on that night 16 years ago, a night when Liston hit Ali with shots that would have brought down the walls of cities, a night when the young Clay ripped the old man's face with snake-like jabs and combinations coming so fast as to be blurs of destruction -- even when Holmes had won every round on every judge's scorecard, still Muhammad Alisaid he would fight again.
It was awful. Ali was a pug Thursday night. A prelim fighter. Somebody named Ruffhouse Walker lost last night, too. He was in the casino this morning, a toothpick in his mouth, a bandage on his brow. His face was the color and texture of raw sirloin. Ali, to make a TV appearance, wore sunglasses to hide the kind of damage shared by Ruffhouse Walker -- RuffhouseWalker, a living punching bag. And Ali his cousin in futility.
Ali's only plan last night was to throw a long right hand over Holmes' jab.
He had seen Earnie Shavers knock down Holmes with that punch. One punch could do it. So Ali hinted at a first-round knockout. This is a the warrior who once came to battle with weapons shared by no one. But now he believed he had only one chance to win.A one-punch knockout. He no longer was Muhammad Ali. He was good Lord, Rocky Balboa, a bum hoping to get lucky.
Ali came full of bluster. At the end of the second round, he shouted to Holmes, "You about ready? You ready?" A round later: "You're through." It was bravado, nothing else. Ali hadn't landed a punch, hadn't stopped a Holmes punch. Late in the fourth round, there in the parking lot of a gambling casino, there with Ali's glittery crowd of Gary Grants and Frank Sinatras, there with $8 million all his and the world watching on closed-circuit televesion -- there with all the glamor and drama Ali craves so much -- late in the fourth round there was, for what seemed an eternity, total silence.
Silence. The dead silence given to sorry pugs. Twenty-five thousand people were silent. They had been silent for Ruffhouse Walker and now they watched Muhammad Ali in silence. At the end of the sixth round, they booed Ali. By the eighth round, Ali walked to his stool in dejection, his head hanging, his arms limp.
The crowd now tried to lift him. "Ali . . . Ali," the customers chanted in the ninth round even as Holmes crashed a three-punch combination off Ali's ears, bop-bop-BOP, rattling the old man's brain back and forth. The chant died quickly, and by now Angelo Dundee knew what had to be done.
Dundee is a fight trainer, Ali's trainer for 20 years, the trainer of seven fighters who have been world champions. The night Liston quit in 1964, it was Clay, the kid, who wanted to quit first. "Dirty work," Clay screamed at Dundee. Something had blinded him. Something in his eyes. "Cut the gloves off," Clay screamed, but Dundee washed out Clay's eyes instead, saying to the kid, "This is for the title, get your ass out there."
It was Liston, the maneater, the knight of the baleful countenance, who quit that night in Miami Beach. He quit in complete frustration three rounds after Clay had wanted the gloves cut off. Liston's best shots didn't stop the kid and in return came the blur of jabs and combinations that revealed the champion as an old man. It wasn't worth it to go on. So Liston sat on his stool. He didn't come out for the eighth round.
By slitting Ali's glove and stopping the fight for repairs, Dundee may have saved Ali's title when Henry Cooper knocked him down. "It was the nearest thing to dyin" Ali said of his third fight with Joe Frazier, a fight in which Dundee had to lift Ali off the stool and throw him toward Frazier for the 11th round. Ali knocked out Frazier three rounds later. When it came time last night to do what had to be done. Dundee had saved him against Liston and Cooper and Frazier. Now he had to save Muhammad Ali from himself. He had to stop the fight. He knew it early, he said. He told Ali after the eighth round, "I'm gonna stop it."
"Muhammad said, 'No, don't do that," Dundee said this morning. "I did it because I thought maybe the threat would get him going.
A round later, after the ninth, Ali's friend and masseur, the silent, grizzled old Cuban named Luis Sarria, spoke with his eyes only to Dundee. Stop it. Stop it now, Sarria's eyes said. It was love in his eyes, Dundee said. "I told him, 'Don't worry, Sarria, the next round."
Dundee had asked the referee for one more round. Ali was helpless, a sad-eyed bull waiting for the matador's killing insertion. At the end of the 10th round, Dundee said it was over. Ali argued briefly. Pat Paterson, Ali's bodyguard, shouted to Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, "What do you want done?"
Herbert Muhammad nodded yes.
It was over.
"But as soon as we got in the car going back to the hotel, Ali said he wanted to fight Weaver," Herbert Muhammad said this morning. "I tried to talk him out of it. I told him to not even think about it right now. Wait a week at least. I don't want him to fight again, period. And my best feeling is that so many people who care about him are going to tell him not to fight that he won't fight."