SI Vault
Martin Kane
November 15, 1965
In the garish limelight of Las Vegas the boastful champion, Cassius Clay, and the dour ex-champion, Floyd Patterson, train amid distractions for the fight they both consider a sort of religious war
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November 15, 1965

The Greatest Meets The Grimmest

In the garish limelight of Las Vegas the boastful champion, Cassius Clay, and the dour ex-champion, Floyd Patterson, train amid distractions for the fight they both consider a sort of religious war

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All this training goes on in a curious setting, one that is a world away from the stark, austere and lonely camps that Patterson chooses for himself when he can. Clay works out in the Stardust Hotel's Continental Lounge, Patterson in the Thunderbird Hotel's Concert Theater. Both are nightclubs when in normal use, and the rings, speed bags, heavy bags and other equipment are set up on stages where chorus girls are wont to prance. The crowds who attend, and pay $1 for the privilege of watching each session, are not like the knowing ones who used to journey to Ehsan's or Greenwood Lake in the New York City area. They want entertainment. Clay supplies some, with quips and clowning, but also retains the services of the oldtime comedian, Stepin Fetchit, whose earlier days were palmier. Step's favorite assessment of himself: "You're looking at a man who made a million dollars in the movies and lost three million on the horses."

There are no paid comics in Patterson's entourage, nor does he appreciate those from the night clubs on The Strip who turn up at his workouts. He was disturbed in training one day by the appearance on his stage of such showfolk as Eddie Fisher, the singer, and Comedians Jackie Leonard and Don Rickles, all of whom are appearing in Las Vegas. Leonard was especially ebullient, in his customary style, and Patterson glowered as his concentration was disturbed by the fat comic. This was entirely out of line, in Patterson's estimation, with the requirements of the sacred rite of training. But Leonard is not easily quelled and, after a bit, Patterson was forced into a meager smile. Eventually he consented to pose for photographs while Fisher and Leonard pretended to box him.

The show-business complexion of the fight is unavoidable, since Hollywood is less than an hour's flight from Las Vegas and Las Vegas itself is clogged with stars. In the happy opinion of Harold Conrad, publicist for the match, it will be the "dressiest fight" since Georges Carpentier lured the society mob to Boyle's Thirty Acres for the French fighter's brief encounter with Jack Dempsey. Conrad has already received reservations from such as Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, and from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The promoters expect Eddie Fisher will sing The Star-Spangled Banner, though some doubt has been cast on this by Clay, who would prefer a Negro singer named Roy Hamilton.

"You want Fisher because he's white," Cassius protested to SportsVision's harried Brooks. " Fisher has had all the breaks he needs, because he's white. You say Fisher is a bigger name than Hamilton? I say he isn't." The matter rested there, Clay having again made his point of racial discrimination, and preparations moved forward for Fisher to do the singing. Incidentally, Patterson's favorite singer and a constant member of his entourage is Mickey Allan, who is white. (It is awkward to bring up such matters, but they are part of the scene.)

On his first full day in Las Vegas, where he arrived with a fanfare of predictions that he would "punish" Patterson for the latter's statements about him and the Black Muslims in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (Oct. 11), Clay and four members of his party made a point of visiting the city's Negro section. There he complimented himself on his gesture. "You ever heard of a champion coming out here to meet the people like this?" he demanded. "With those other champs you'd have to make an appointment and wear a tie to get to see them." He went to a Negro barbershop, where all five got haircuts and attracted a small crowd. "Come down in a group," he told them, "and I'll get you into my workouts free."

Perhaps because it will be seen in Europe on home television, though only on theater TV in the U.S., the fight has attracted an extraordinary number of applications for ringside seats from the foreign press. From Sweden, where Patterson is a national hero, there have been no fewer than 32 applications, and there have been 15 from British newspapers. There have even been three from Tokyo, which has hitherto not been noticeably interested in heavyweight prizefighting.

At the weekend the going Las Vegas odds favored Clay at 14 to 5 in the equivalent of man-to-man betting. The spread might have been even wider but for a certain amount of sentimental wagering on Floyd as a personable and modest fellow when he held the title. And it may also take into account Clay's crusading for Black Muslimism. Neither consideration will be of much value when the two men enter the ring.

There is nothing in Clay's manner to indicate he has given any thought to the possibility of losing to Patterson on November 22, and when he looks beyond that date he is equally contemptuous of the man whom the World Boxing Association now proclaims as holder of its version of the world heavyweight championship, Ernie Terrell.

Ernie retains his title at the other scene of heavyweight prizefight action last week, Toronto, where he scored a unanimous 15-round decision over George Chuvalo, the Croatian Canuck, who protested afterward, with tears and sobs, that his defeat was all the fault of his manager, Irving Ungerman. Chuvalo explained that he could not, for some reason or other, expect to enjoy the benefit of impartial officiating in Toronto, which is his home town. The accused Ungerman, who in real life is a poultryman, all but copped a plea. He, too, ranted against the officials. It made a fascinating, if inharmonious, duet.

But the officials were right. Terrell thoroughly beat Chuvalo with a single weapon, his left jab, which is a very sound piece technically, and vastly enhanced by a reach of 82 inches—five inches longer than Chuvalo's—and a long thumb, which is yet to be listed in his official measurements. The jab found Chuvalo's head with monotonous insistence, and the thumb found Chuvalo's eye with equal artistry. In the eighth round Referee Sammy Luftspring halted the proceedings briefly to explain to the contestants that they really ought to fight like gentlemen. Chuvalo had been responding to the thumb by stomping on Terrell's feet and by trying, with indifferent effect, to spit in his eye. (George should not be blamed too much for missing. It is very difficult to spit accurately through a mouthpiece.) He also butted on those rare occasions when he was close enough to do so. As for Terrell, "His thumb got longer and longer as the fight went along," Luftspring said, and when he clinched with Chuvalo he scraped the Canadian's back with his wrist tape, leaving two vertical red welts, one of them a foot and a half long. It was a fine brawl, but not an edifying spectacle for the young. The oldsters in the crowd loved it.

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