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Clay climbed wearily back into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. "Personally, I don't know him that good," he said, softly. He was starting his peroration. "I'm not mad at him. After the fight, it's over. As an individual, I have a degree of admiration for him. It's all an act. I've got to live the legend I am." He closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
Up the Strip, in his pied-�-terre at the Thunderbird Hotel, is Patterson, the antihero. This is a guy with a screwy image. He speaks softly, so they say he's humble. He's got as much self-esteem as the next person, but he is preoccupied with the idea that people will get the wrong impression, so he prefaces his remarks with "I'm not boasting, but..." and "I'm not bragging, but...." He wants to explain what he has found out, what he feels—which he can do with rare honesty and insight, but he is afraid it will sound like he's alibiing. He is, therefore, often reticent or oblique. He is also suspicious, possessed by imaginary slights, opinionated. His anxieties are frequently excessive or motiveless. For instance, he is convinced people do not like him when he loses. He thinks his current popularity is not because of any affection for himself but because he is the only one around with a chance of beating Clay. When he comes off it, he happens to be an extraordinarily worthwhile guy—funny, sharp, gracious and thoughtful. And it's 3 to 1 he will take this paragraph as a rap. As has been written of Saul Bellow's protagonists, he is burdened by a speculative quest. If he were a Jewish intellectual, what would there be to say?
"He's an intricate man," says Angelo Dundee. "He's a drowning man."
Patterson pretends to live at the Thunderbird, but it is obvious he sleeps elsewhere, secretly. Many of his workouts are held in camera, too, but even in the public sessions he cannot avoid things that he considers embarrassing—two weeks before the fight Mel Turnbow, a sparring partner, knocks him down with a right hand and earns $1,000. All Patterson's sparring partners have this offer. If they can floor the boss, they get $1,000. Says Buster Watson, who has succeeded the late Dan Florio as Patterson's trainer: "That'll teach him to hack around. He's got to concentrate. It's expensive, but it has to be." Buster is one of the few realists in Patterson's camp and as such is an asset.
On the other hand, Clay's workouts at the Stardust are always open. At the end of each session he punches the light bag on the stage elevator. In the Stardust's Lido show the elevator supports a great glass flight of stairs upon which are arrayed a ton or so of nudes and a chariot drawn by a real horse galloping on a treadmill. Now, bathed in magenta spots, Clay ascends, punching without gloves, like General Booth going to heaven. Then he leaps off the elevator, clearing a table, crying, "I'm superman. Get a good look at him. I'm the king of the world." He lands, stumbling slightly, out of sight.
"It's better to make friends than build gates," Patterson has said.
In the room with Patterson one morning are Buster Watson; Floyd's pilot and P.R. man, Ted Hansen; Jerome, the second-youngest of the Patterson brothers; Ed Bunyon, who was a sparring partner for the first Johansson fight until he got hit in the eye and became a "walking partner"; Mickey Allan, who sang The Star-Spangled Banner when Patterson was champ; and Ernie Fowler, who has risen from chauffeur to assistant trainer. The last two are sleeping. "Sometimes when we talk," Patterson says, "we talk to hear ourselves. My confidence is within me. I'm sorry to say, but Clay impresses me as being rather young. It is difficult to take someone like that seriously. He's young and spoiled and going in every direction. In fact, he doesn't know what direction he's going in. Nobody knows who is going to win this fight. Clay couldn't convince me in a million years that he knows. There's always a degree of doubt. In all my professional fights and at all the weigh-ins I've never looked one of my opponents in the eye. I always look at their chests. But I've looked at Clay eye-to-eye for a second or two. It was just accidental. I never looked at him long. Such accidents are sometimes inevitable. But each time I looked I detected a weakness, a front. He really doesn't believe what he's saying.
"I'm going to go into the ring with every intention of walking out the winner. I know how I'm going to enter the ring. How I'm going to leave the ring, I don't know. I'm going to win because I'm better, if I'm better. If I am beaten it will be because I am in with a better man than I am. I'm not bragging, I've always been good, but these last five fights [counting from the time he last lost to Liston, Patterson has won five in a row] have restored my confidence. I don't know if I'm the same fighter I was. I know I notice more nowadays. I haven't stopped to find out if I've gotten older, if I can't do the things I once did. If I did I wouldn't accept it. A fighter never admits to age.
"When the bell rings, my No. 1 drive will be to partially repay a debt I owe to boxing. Who is to say what I would actually be if it wasn't for boxing. A laborer? A truck driver? A bum? Surely, I had convict tendencies. My No. 2 drive is to achieve a degree of vindication, although when I look at my record, the ridicule I receive is ridiculous. My No. 3 drive is to win the championship back for America.
"When the bell rang for the first Liston fight, I was, as I have explained in the past, already knocked out. When the bell rang for the second Liston fight, I had to prove to myself that I was just as strong as he was. Why should I back up? He showed me why. I don't know what I'll do against Clay. You can go after a man and get him. You can go after a man and he gets you. I do know that everything I do will be more reflex and instinct than thought out. Sit at ringside. When the bell rings, I'll yell it down to you."