He was seeking to humiliate Floyd Patterson, but Cassius Clay, known to his fellow Black Muslims as Muhammad Ali, only succeeded in ennobling him. While a great, improbable rain poured on the desert and upon the dome of the Las Vegas Convention Center last Monday night, Patterson, indisputably beaten and horribly bent by back pains so that he had to clump about like man in the days before he was able to stand fully erect, gamely pursued Clay, lashing out from time to time with largely ineffectual hooks. As Floyd hobbled to his corner, one of his handlers would grab him about the waist, lift him and squeeze him, desperately trying to alleviate the pain and make him whole again.
In the 12th round, when it had long been clear that Patterson had no hope at all of landing a blow with enough force to knock Clay out, and Clay, standing at a distance, was freely hitting Floyd with innumerable punches, Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, full of pity and disgust, cried from the corner, " Ali, knock him out, for Christ's sake!" Coincidentally, Referee Harry Krause compassionately signaled that the fight was over. Krause, in fact, wanted to stop it in the 11th because, "It was hurting me to watch, but he is such a good boy and has such a great heart, and I just couldn't do it."
Patterson protested when the fight was stopped, and it was a gesture that deserved applause, if not Krause's concurrence. Floyd said later, "In my honest opinion, if I was watching the fight at home on TV, I would have wanted it stopped, but I preferred to be counted out."
In losing, however, Floyd Patterson brought something back to boxing that has seemed to be missing of late, particularly in the heavyweight division: a sense of high valor that characterized it in the past and made it such a grand and eminent spectacle.
In winning, the incomparable Clay, that child of scorn, showed that he will possibly be champion as long as he wants, that he has everything going for him except a true knockout punch and, perhaps—for who can divine the strange things that move this man—he has that, too, but for peculiar reasons did not try to throw it early enough. It might have been cruelty, but it might also have been sympathy, for he had said a day or two before the fight, "Animals are vicious. Humans shouldn't be vicious. I'm just an aggressive, classy, creative fighter. I may be the last heavyweight champion. If there's fighting after I'm gone, it'll just be a dull old thing. No more poems, no predictions, no more hollering. Ooh, I'm the popularest thing."
As for Patterson, who could never really get untracked against the elusive Clay, he said the day before the fight, "I was a champion. I was a good champion, and I know I am nearing the end." He also said that he was a sore loser, but if this fight was indeed his valedictory he could not have made a more fitting one. He had little chance of winning, he could not get inside Clay or even catch up to him, and when he did Clay tied him up. His only hopes were his vain leaps, mostly serving to launch left hooks, mostly short of the mark. Yet even when in pain he never stopped essaying them, doggedly advancing after Clay, standing up under an infinite variety of quick blows, his face showing the hopelessness of the task he had undertaken but his will driving his arms nonetheless. In a very real sense, he was once more the fighter who stormed through the mid-'50s in that he regained the single-mindedness and purity and ferocity of motive he once had. Alas, he was not the better man. "A fight is a fight," Patterson had said. "And the better man usually wins."
To be accurate, the better fighter usually wins.
Patterson entered the ring first, so early that the crowd, diminished by the rain ($100 seats were reportedly being unloaded for $25), was unprepared for his appearance. He looked almost absurdly grand in a red-velvet robe with Hotel Thunderbird written across the back. Clay, much booed, wore an ordinary, even tacky, white terry cloth bathrobe. It would have been more appropriate to their respective natures if the robes had been reversed. Eddie Fisher, who was a 9-to-5 shot to forget the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, sang it uncommonly well. During the anthem Clay jigged in the corner, occasionally spitting, which provoked one patriot at ringside to yell: "Stand at attention, you bum."
In the first round Clay showed Patterson a lot of nothing. With his hands down he drifted insolently about the ring, inviting Patterson to do what he would, or could. Floyd tried a few left hands, jabs and hooks, but with a notable lack of success, and when he tried to get inside Clay easily tied him up. From time to time Clay had something to say to Patterson, but to little effect. "I didn't know what he was saying," Patterson said later, "but I was disgusted that I couldn't do anything about it." What Clay actually said was, "Come on American, come on white American."
It was an eerie scene, as though Clay were enacting a role in a play to which Patterson had not been shown the script. Undoubtedly, it was part of his juvenile scheme to embarrass Patterson. In part, he succeeded for Floyd became acutely aware of Clay's speed and, as a consequence, was somewhat embarrassed to punch—he knew he would be hitting only air. Though this may have given Clay private satisfaction, it was uncomfortable to watch. The spectators were as embarrassed as Patterson.