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Never have so many owed so much to the absence of one. When the intransigent Muhammad Ali lost a decision to the law of the land and was stripped of his heavyweight championship, he transformed a baker's dozen of potential victims into credible heavyweight contenders. In counting himself out he may have done even more to revive interest in boxing than he did in the three years during which he held the heavyweight championship. At the end of the lively era of his tenure the heavyweight division had degenerated into a modern version of the bum-of-the-month club Joe Louis presided over during the dog days of his distinguished career. No one honestly believed that a Joe Frazier or a Jerry Quarry could give Ali a fight. The only question was how long they could remain standing. Ali towered over the field, and boxing might have perished in the shadow of his excellence.
Now, suddenly, the fight is on again. Among all the pretenders to Ali's throne, no one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The lowliest is capable of giving the best an argument, and the opening skirmish in the battle for control of the heavyweight division was a portent of things to come. In this encounter a young contender knocked a veteran cold as a mackerel. The fight did not take place in the ring. It was a paper battle fought with contracts, and Sports Action, Inc., the youngster with American Broadcasting Company television money in its corner, disposed of the venerable, crafty Madison Square Garden with a knockout punch revealing the strength of what Ernie Terrell calls green power.
Green power, of course, is the power of money. Sports Action, Inc., headed by Mike Malitz, corralled most of the top contenders for Ali's crown by the simple expedient of offering them more money to fight than Madison Square Garden would. Malitz' group could make this offer because ABC will carry the matches in the elimination tournament on the Wide World of Sports, the first two on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 5, from the Astrodome in Houston. The purses for the four fighters in this doubleheader range from $23,000 to $50,000, and to all of them this represents riches. The Garden would not match these guarantees, and no private promoter would, either. They are part of a nut of some $300,000, an unimaginable sum without the contribution of television.
For the man in the living room, Sports Action's victory is a pleasant thing. He will be able to see the whole tournament without forsaking his cold beer and icebox lunch. He may quarrel a bit about some of the people in the tournament, because a few of the likely candidates to replace Ali are not among those present. Sonny Liston, who has lost only three fights in his life and two of those to Ali, will be playing solitaire in Las Vegas, a 220-pound black Hamlet wondering whether he is to be considered as a genuine challenger when the tournament ends. Why he is missing from the eliminations is known only to the promoters. Joe Frazier, the young lion of boxing who has assumed the mantle Ali once wore as a former Olympic champion on his way up, is aligned with the Garden, where he will fight George Chuvalo on July 19. If he survives this test, Frazier, too, will be available to fight the winner of the tournament. Chuvalo, who may very well whip Frazier, was left out of the tournament because he dropped to 10th in rank after losing to Oscar Bonavena, who is in the tournament. Zora Folley, who fought one of the craftiest and most courageous fights against Ali, is absent because he, too, dropped out of sight in the spurious rankings of the World Boxing Association.
As it stands now, eight fighters will be allowed to decide the championship among them. They are, in alphabetical order: Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Ellis, Leotis Martin, Karl Mildenberger, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Thad Spencer and Ernie Terrell. Waiting hopefully in the wings, in addition to Liston, Frazier, Chuvalo and Folley, are a trio of long shots—Eduardo Corletti of Argentina, Manuel Ramos of Mexico and Buster Mathis, erstwhile prot�g� of Cus D'Amato.
The matches made so far are between Terrell and Spencer and Ellis and Martin in the Astrodome, and between Mildenberger and Bonavena in Offenbach, Germany. Patterson, who fought a draw with Quarry in Los Angeles not long ago, will probably fight him again on Oct. 21 or 28, again in Los Angeles. The semifinal matches between the winners are planned for the Astrodome on Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 and the championship at the same location in late January or early February. The Aug. 5 doubleheader is scheduled to begin in the late afternoon in Houston, which will surely be the first time in boxing's modern era that a fight goes on at tea time.
The tournament represents the final takeover by TV of a major sports field. Football, basketball and baseball all dance to the merry ring of television dollars, but this is an all-TV show and, despite the contrary views of many sportsmen, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Practically speaking, more fight fans will be given an opportunity to watch the action of this tournament than would have if the fights had been promoted individually and sold to theater television. With the wide exposure of national television, interest is likely to build. When the survivors meet for the title in January or February that fight may attract the biggest TV audience in sports history.
This is the creation of an organization made up of the remnants of Main Bout, Inc., which handled the theater television of most of Ali's fights. It includes Malitz, who has been in boxing all his life; Attorney Robert Arum; Former Cleveland Brown Fullback Jim Brown; Fred Hofheinz, son of Judge Roy Hofheinz of the Astrodome; plus the ABC bankroll. It represents, as Harry Markson and Teddy Brenner of Madison Square Garden discovered, an almost unbeatable combination. Hofheinz has the best arena in the world in which to present a boxing program, and he demonstrated in the Cleveland Williams-Ali and the Terrell-Ali matches considerable skill at producing and showcasing fights. The Astrodome itself is a big plus. A visiting English writer, after watching a soccer game in the Astrodome that was attended by some 20,000 fans, said, "You could put on a shin-kicking contest in this remarkable place and draw 20,000 people." And with ABC as a partner, money is no problem.
"Without ABC, we could not go through with the tournament," Malitz says frankly. ABC's participation, in effect, locked out the Garden, which might have come in for a fight or two had it not been for its tie-up with RKO General in a special sports network. "We wanted the Garden to join us," says Malitz. "We were willing to accommodate them. We offered to sit down and work out a deal. But we could not dance to their tune, and they could not dance to ours. It was that simple."
Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, put the problem another way. "They wanted us to hold Saturday afternoon fights in July for the Wide World of Sports" he says. "With that kind of date we wouldn't draw enough to pay for opening the doors. Meanwhile they have given fighters contracts guaranteeing them up to $50,000 apiece. Many of these fighters have never received $20,000 for a fight. That's the worst kind of inflation. We couldn't make money on that deal even if we got $75,000 of the TV revenue."