The cars moved through town, the car lights from across the other lane passing over the fighter's face. Quickly they reached the hospital. "Four or five stitches, Jimmy," said Angelo Dundee. Inside, the doctor worked, his hands moving beautifully. Dundee watched. "You can't have a butcher," he whispered. "The stitching has to be delicate so the cut is tight. You got to watch some doctors. I can't take any chances with this guy now." He nodded toward Jimmy Ellis, who was not a sparring partner anymore or just a fighter you never watched when he was taking five above the eye. Jimmy Ellis, who had just beaten Leotis Martin, was a property now.
"He is the best banger around in the division," said Dundee. "He proved that today and he will prove it throughout the tournament. He and this tournament can't miss."
Maybe so. There certainly was no question that the first round of the WBA heavyweight championship elimination tournament held in the Houston Astrodome last weekend did whack the roar out of its critics—and out of all the promoting competitors who had tried to submerge the tournament with the innuendo, delicate conspiracy and evil arts that are good business in boxing.
Before the fights it seemed that the tournament, shrouded by the gigantic shadow of Muhammad Ali and the brilliance of Joe Frazier, who refused to participate, was off to a smashing failure. The mysterious uncertainty of the packagers, Sports Action Inc., the sleight-of-hand moves by Madison Square Garden, Ali's unsuccessful passport plea in Houston and the absence of Frazier—peripheral things all—gave the promotion a massive inferiority complex. But the fighters, cruel, valorous, a blend of beauty and brutal awkwardness, rescued the afternoon in Houston and the world of boxing from what was figured to be another era of greed. They made a start toward an interesting aftermath to the age of Ali, an age Ali dominated by sweeping exhibitions and ring ballets rather than by conventional fighting.
Thirteen thousand nine hundred and forty-six people paid $92,560 to see the fights—Ellis vs. Martin, Ernie Terrell vs. Thad Spencer—in an atmosphere that was as cozy as a group of people sitting in the middle of a frozen lake. It was as if the fights had not been produced by natural forces but by the great god, Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was the promoter and sort of distributor for the packagers and had decreed: "Let there be a fight." Fortunately, the fights were not as repelling.
All four of the boxers, Ellis, Martin, Terrell and Spencer, came to Houston on the lam, looking for a slice of the moon. Ellis was trying to crack out of a strange, engulfing area of boxing. He had been Ali's sparring partner for so long a time that he became a sort of object that you expected to find in a training camp, like the light bag or a damp headgear. Martin, out of the violent, devouring pits of Philadelphia, had been ducked by everyone, including Frazier, who would not fight him with a shotgun. Spencer, with his bad feet, his lack of motivation, his tendency toward corpulence and his eager shuffle toward neon, sticky bars and sweet-scented foxes, was just ridiculous. Terrell? He had copped a plea against Ali, and he has always been poison at the gate.
In terms of effort expended to sign each fighter, you can measure each one monetarily: they got Martin for $1.75, Terrell for $17.50, Ellis for $80.00 and Spencer for $600. Willie Ketchum, Spencer's manager, wanted to be coaxed. All received $50,000 for their fights, except Martin. He was offered $22,560, but he paid heavily for his end. His fight with Ellis, in the argot of the business, was life and death. Ellis did a vicious job, and few will forget the way Martin's mouth looked as he lay in his dressing room. His eyes never moved from the ceiling, this anonymous kid who sometimes seemed like a solemn friar reading from a breviary or at times like an Edgar Bergen dummy; he is, because of a speech impediment, quite withdrawn, Nobody talked to him while he was there on the table. Finally his eyes looked around. He seemed like a frightened deer in the middle of a stream. The trainer every now and then moved the gauze away from his battered lip.
"Never," said Joe Polino, one of the master cut men in boxing, "never in my whole life have I seen a cut like this."
"He's gonna need plastic surgery," someone said. "Forget stitches."
"He never did a damn thing," roared Pinney Schaefer, his manager. He is called Pinney because he has a pinhead. "Didn't do one thing we planned."