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For a few moments on the night of February 6 in the garish surroundings of the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali may seem to teeter on the edge of defeat by Ernie Terrell, the WBA champion of the boxing world who is challenging him for the real world-heavyweight title. But Terrell's dream of an undenied championship will be short-lived. Between perhaps the seventh and ninth rounds of the fight, Muhammad will knock him out.
Physically, Terrell is the most formidable opponent Ali has met since his knockout of Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Me. on May 25, 1965. Though taller than most heavyweights, he is a solid man equipped with the tools needed to fashion a victory: confidence, a long, jolting left hand, the ability to fight well and destructively inside and the capability of accepting a hard punch to the head without coming apart. So much for the credit side. Unfortunately, Terrell, like so many of his predecessors, cannot hope to equal Ali in hitting speed or speed afoot. Unfortunately, too, he is a high-strung, nervous man.
"He's the scariest heavyweight I ever saw," a fight manager said not long ago. "I don't mean he's afraid. But he's so tense before a fight that when he walks down the aisle to the ring he's used up so much energy it's about the same as if he had gone six rounds already. So he runs out of gas after maybe seven rounds. Then he can't keep that long left hand up or out, and he can be hit over it. That can be a disaster against Clay."
Curiously enough, Terrell may be more confident against Clay than he has been against less formidable foes. His confidence stems from a previous experience in the ring with the champion. Back in 1962 Terrell was a sparring partner for Clay when the latter was preparing for a bout with another heavyweight—Don Warner. Jimmy Jacobs, the world four-wall handball champion, who has possibly the most comprehensive collection of fight pictures in the world, filmed a few rounds of the two fighters working together in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, and the film shows that Terrell bullied Clay. Much bigger and stronger, he hit Clay often with his left and sometimes crowded Clay into a corner, where he ripped him with damaging punches to the belly.
"Eighty-six," said Angelo Dundee, his manager. "You were pretty green. You weren't the same fighter. But the pictures don't show everything. You remember you bombed him later."
Whether Angelo's version of what happened is accurate or not, Clay did not keep Terrell around for long.
"They cut him off," says Sam Solomon, who trains Terrell. "He called me in Chicago from Miami Beach and said they cut off his hotel money and wouldn't pay him eating money, and he needed something to get home. I guess that shows how they felt about him."
Terrell has his own interpretation of his relationship to Clay—then and now. It is a good box-office interpretation, and Terrell may even believe it. "I wasn't the same fighter then," he says. "I didn't have the left hand I have now. I couldn't hurt people with it. He was a punk then, and he's a punk now. He wasn't a complete fighter then, and he's not a complete fighter now. He's where he is because of management. They made sure he never fought a tough fighter.
"Sure, he's fought the same names I've fought, but he didn't fight the same bodies. Liston was a good fighter once, but he had to be 45 when Clay beat him. Patterson was far past his prime. Clay specializes in has-beens, old men and nothings. I fought all the tough guys when they were still tough, and every fight was life or death for me. I don't want to take anything away from him. I'm not saying all his fights were setups, but they were smart picks by his managers. No tough fights.