Both of the principals were finally on the scene last week in the garish, befuddling, time-is-out-of-whack oasis that is Las Vegas, and if Cassius Clay was riding horseback at dawn out at Thunderbird Downs and Floyd Patterson was gloomily walking The Strip at dusk, it meant only that each was concentrating on the November 22 heavyweight championship fight in his own predictable fashion.
Clay had hardly arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday when it became obvious that his fashion is still mercurial. He is training for Patterson with a seriousness that he cannot maintain for more than a round or two. Then he must pause to clown or quip. He will somberly protest against the use of his "slave name," Cassius Clay, in prefight publicity and demand that it be expunged from a sign outside the Stardust Hotel. The sign reads: MUHAMMAD ALI ( CASSIUS CLAY) TRAINING HERE DAILY AFTER 1 P.M. He told Fred Brooks, president of SportsVision, which will telecast the fight to Europe by Early Bird satellite, that the sign would have to be corrected or he would refuse to fight.
But the sign remained unchanged. After all, it is hard to live a good name down. And Muhammad Ali (accent on the last syllable, as in The Rose of Tralee), having made his point, did not raise the question again. He seems to make such demands essentially for the record and for their propaganda effect, and always in the presence of his Black Muslim companions. Moments after such a resounding declaration he can be found ribbing his idol, Joe Louis, with impertinent questions.
"Joe," he asked at dinner one night, "do you think I could have beaten you in your prime?"
"If you even dreamed it," Louis replied, not entirely appreciating the insolent humor, "you should apologize."
As for Patterson, he is at the opposite extreme. He is grim almost to the point of surliness, except in public appearances on radio or television. At those he answers questions with polite aplomb. To Patterson this fight must be the most important of his life, more important even than the exhilarating battle against Archie Moore in which he won the heavyweight championship of the world. Defeat is a sorry business for all prizefighters, but in the introverted, introspective Patterson it causes an agony of shame. He knew and cherished glory, quietly, and when he thought he lost it he felt that he had lost everything, even though the history books of boxing record that he was not only the youngest heavyweight champion, he was the only one to regain his title after defeat. History is important to Patterson, but not so important as the moment.
Almost everything happening in Las Vegas now emphasizes the fact that these opponents are two entirely different men, in boxing style and in temperament. Clay has been concentrating on defensive maneuvers that can only be described as masterly and, at the same time, perhaps ill-conceived. He treats sparring partners with gentle regard. Even his jabs, as his trainer, Angelo Dundee, pointed out at one sparring session, "are delivered at half speed."
Patterson, on the other hand, has been thumping his men without mercy. He is concentrating on offense, and even more on what is known in the sport as "viciousness," though that is a misnomer. One might as well say that Mickey Mantle hits a baseball viciously. Not since the second fight with Ingemar Johansson has Patterson trained so fiercely. One day he downed a hefty sparring partner with a straight left—something that does not happen often. The punch was so effective that many thought it a hook, but it was, in fact, the rarely seen "slip jab," delivered after moving half a step to the right.
Clay's concern with defense is nothing new. The day after he won his gold medal at the Rome Olympics of 1960 an impressed spectator, wondering if he could take a punch, asked him if he ever had been hit hard. "Man," he said, "I don't ever want to be hit ever." Well, he has sometimes been hit hard, and he has risen to each such occasion, but these tests have been few. Offense is less important to him, because he hits instinctively, seeing opportunity and responding to it reflexively the instant it appears. In sparring sessions last week he was performing marvels of blocking or otherwise avoiding punches, deliberately letting himself be cornered against the ropes, leaning backward over them with chin exposed and hands down. He was even displaying the rarely seen feat of slipping punches with his body, turning it away from a blow to render the punch less effective when it lands. There is also Clay's footwork, so graceful and so effective as to be astonishing in a heavyweight, and each day he was working on it, round after round, backing up, turning and twisting—maneuvers that have frustrated every professional fighter he has met, with the possible exception of Doug Jones.
His defensive training is not merely evasive, however. Each day, for at least one round, Clay lets his brother, Rahman Ali, the erstwhile Rudolph Valentino Clay, pound his belly with such force as to make one marvel that Cassius can tolerate it for three minutes. Dundee holds that the medicine ball is less effective than the human fist in toughening the belly muscles and, since Dundee once had five champions in his care at the same time, what Dundee holds is worth trying to grasp. "It took me months to do it," Dundee said, "but, thank God, I got him off the medicine ball." Patterson, though, sticks to the big ball.