The heavyweight championship was still only a faraway glimmer. The father came late to boxing, was 22 years old, a Marine Corps veteran and the father of a one-year-old before he started his pro career in 1967. He didn't love the sport, didn't even like it very much, but he was 6'3" and 210 pounds, and he saw boxing as a way to make some money and become famous. To become special. He had been a good athlete as a kid in Jacksonville, Ill., playing all the sports, moving along to play some football at Northeast Missouri State before joining the Marines. He never forgot the feeling of being a star, the feeling of being different from the pack. That was what he wanted as much as anything. Not to be ordinary.
His days were long and repetitive. He awoke, did his running and then came home to prepare breakfast for his son. The son went to school, and the father went to mind-numbing work on the production line at a Ford plant. The son went to a neighbor's house after school. The father went to the gym for sparring and workouts. He came home at seven o'clock, whipped. Some nights, if he was low on money, he would come home later, hoping that the neighbors had included his son at their dinner table.
"There were some rough times," the father says. He laughs. "I wouldn't have wanted to buy one of those Fords I was making during the day. I hope someone else was checking them down the line.
"We never really were at poverty level, but we were close to it. We ate a lot of cold hot dogs. I'd bring home a package of hot dogs and open them up, and we'd eat. Hot dogs. Bologna. Boiled eggs. That was our diet."
The break came when he fought Henry Clark on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Bob Foster fight in Stateline, Nev., in November 1972. After he knocked out Clark in the ninth round, he was signed to fight Ali, in San Diego on March 31, 1973, for $50,000. The first thing he did was buy a tract house in a better section of Los Angeles, assuming the mortgage payments of friends who had divorced. He and his son now had a real home. The second thing he did was quit the Ford plant to prepare for Ali.
The fight was supposed to be a walkover on Ali's march back to glory after his 3½-year banishment from boxing. No contest. The father didn't see it that way. He was not intimidated, as so many of Ali's opponents had been. He had sparred with Ali for three days a couple of years earlier in L.A.'s Overstreet Gym. He saw Ali as human. For the first time the father was able to train as a full-time fighter, to go away for three weeks to a camp. By the time he went into the ring in San Diego, he felt "as if I had a wrench in my back pocket." He hit Ali with the wrench in the first round, a right hand that broke Ali's jaw. The fight went the full 12 rounds. The father was the winner by a split decision.
"Life changed overnight," the father says. "Just as fast as that. I was able to do all the things I hadn't been able to do. I was able do all the things for my son that I wanted."
The father was 28 years old. The son was seven. The son had cried and cried about leaving the old neighborhood, leaving friends and classmates in elementary school. The father told the son to believe him, the new life would be better. The son now had bikes when everyone else had bikes, skateboards when everyone else had skateboards, sneakers that were clean and new. The father had the money and celebrity he wanted.
The one thing he lacked—he thinks now—was the desire to be the best; the ruthlessness, the destructiveness that boxing champions bring to the game. Though he had a succession of big fights over the next nine years, including two losses by close decisions to Ali, and though he inherited a vacant title and held it for 10 weeks before losing it to Larry Holmes in 1978, the father always thought of boxing as a sport, a game—basketball or tennis with gloves. And he still did not particularly like it.
"I didn't grow up with it, the way most fighters did," he says. "And I didn't want my son to grow up with it, either. I saw the way it happens: Kids come around the gym, and they become part of it. They can't stay away. I never brought my son with me to the gym. I had him come to camp once or twice for two or three days, but that was it. Then I sent him home."