SI Vault
Mark Kram
October 26, 1970
In short, Muhammad resembles the Ali of old, which means Jerry Quarry should expect to have a hard night of it in Atlanta
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October 26, 1970

He Moves Like Silk, Hits Like A Ton

In short, Muhammad resembles the Ali of old, which means Jerry Quarry should expect to have a hard night of it in Atlanta

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"That's when I was at my top condition," Ali says, looking at it, then measuring his sides with his hands, pinching the small amount of extra flesh on his stomach and checking his jowls. "See how narrow and trim I was. Maybe I'll never look like that again. My weight's not much different, but everything else is broader, fuller, my face, my arms, my legs. How do I look? Am I trim?" He is, he says, ready for what he calls his day of judgment. "I run harder, sacrifice more. There'll be no mistakes preparin' for this fight.

"I'm crazy with loneliness, though," he says. "Durin' all the years I was away, I was never lonely. Oh, I had a ball, drivin' to the colleges and stayin' at the inns and meetin' students, the black power groups, the white hippies, and we'd all have sessions on what we was gonna talk about and dinner was then planned in the hall, and we'd go to the student union buildin' and have the meetin' and they'd ask me questions, all the boys and girls, black and white. Like what should we do, or what do you think is gonna happen here, you know—just like I was one of those sleepy-lookin' Senators up in the capital. Now I'm just all by myself. Up at 5, to bed by 10 at night. No lunch, no breakfast, my stomach burnin' with hunger, fightin' temptation, women of all races callin' me on the phone, and the only thing keepin' me from goin' out that window there is thinkin' of that short walk to the ring, and all those faces there, lookin' at me and sayin': 'Why it's a miracle! He looks sooooo beautiful.'

"They're all waitin' for me. Fans call me up, write me letters, telling me they worry about me, like will I or won't I be able to beat Jerry Quarry. The great Joe Louis got beat when they brought him out of retirement to fight Ezzard Charles and Jim Jeffries got whupped by Jack Johnson. People tell me it can't be done. You can't come back. I git letters from black brothers beggin' me to be careful. Like Quarry's too tough, he's been active and Ali you've been away too long. Take another fight first, they say. All that just makes me more stubborn, and I know I've got to do it. And all those people who say I was overrated before, and that Jerry Quarry will prove it now. All this leaves no time for poems, jokes and gimmicks. Nobody has to tell me this is serious business.

"I'm not just fightin' one man, I'm fightin' a lot of men, showin' a lot of 'em here is one man they couldn't defeat, couldn't conquer, one they didn't see get big and fat and flat on his back. Lose this one and Quarry'll be a movie star. By beatin' me, he'll be so valuable. He'll be in big cinemas, probably playin' in a top Western, the man who defeated Muhammad Ali. Like the man who shot Liberty Valance. He'll be a great man. It won't be just a loss to me. So many people'll be rejoicin' and jumpin' up and down and hollerin' and just rollin' under beds and chairs. Then again, so many millions of faces throughout the world will be sad, so sad they'll feel like they've been defeated. All of this, just over a bout. If I lose I'll be in jail for the rest of my life. If I lose I will not be free. I'll have to listen to all this about how I was a bum, I was fat, I joined the wrong movement, they misled me. So I'm fightin' for my freedom.

"I don't anger toward the commissioners, or the American Legion, or the Foreign Legion, or all those arena owners. They did what they thought was right according to their beliefs. I don't resent them. If a man is a real athlete he don't get mad because another man wins. He had his chance and lost. I've always felt like that. Nobody ever heard me protest over losin' in anything. I don't regret the past, never been disappointed. I wasn't dependin' on plays [he was in Buck White] or that computer fight with Marciano, or boxin', or court decisions to determine my life. It's Allah, it's God, and what he wants. Whatever Allah wills is gonna happen, and I just try to please Allah, even if it means this man's law is broken, or this man's gonna put me on the firin' squad. That's all right, just so I'm right with Allah and the Islamic law."

[Ali says his most serious mistake was displeasing Elijah Muhammad, which quickly drew censure from Elijah, "because he showed more love for the ring of sport than he has for the circle of Islam, which he had been preaching as a minister. I had told him that Allah said he would give us money, good homes, friendships and all good things. Well, Muhammad Ali disbelieved Him. I will allow him to return when his morals change!"]

It is difficult, even more so than ever before, to extract what really is on Ali's mind as he begins to write another page in his history that far transcends the dimensions of a ring. The suspension by Elijah seems to have jolted him into extreme caution; a need and desire for money so that he can ensure the future of his family seems to have made him conscious of the practical aspects of the world. Where he was once one of the indefatigable consumers anywhere, a one-man war against recession, he now behaves like a careful prince of commerce. Even his camp, once so virulent with contempt for others, is of a different character. Cap'n Sam, Ali's bodyguard and inspired white hater, is gone, and Ali's craftily obedient brother is obviously absent. Only Bundini, his phrasemaker and "witch doctor," remains.

"All I think about now," says Ali, "is providing for my family so they won't have it as difficult as I did. So my three little darling girls can git a good education and learn from the beginning how to read and spell. Not like me."

That quote, it seems, would never have come from the man who was, many believed, the first symptom of a national nervous breakdown, a man who was swept by a movement out of the boxing arena and carried along as a symbol of black nationalism and antiwar sentiment. The swift pace of events and currents of thought have certainly altered that picture of Ali. For one thing, by the present climate of black radicalism, Ali is a moderate, and the Muslims are hardly revolutionary. Muhammad avoids discussion of the politics of his past, or the sometimes gross character he brought to his fights. Like the clever dramatist he is, Ali is creating a new theme for his fight with Quarry, totally parallel to the onetime hysterical brashness versus malevolence (Sonny Liston); the holy wars (Terrell and Patterson); and finally, the black prince on the lam (Mildenberger, Cooper and London). Nostalgically, he says, "The artist returns, like, say, what ya call him...yeah, Rimbrindt back from exile."

For all the impossible contradictions that he is, considering his penchant for saying what he does not think, one guess is that some change has occurred within Ali. Yet it is of a strain that is hard to grasp, and it is unlikely that even he himself can define it. Who knows what his innate gift for bombast and drama will visit upon us next? Only this seems clear—his impatience for the hunt again. Perhaps the lines of Saint-Exupéry relate to what is on his mind. Quoting a gardener, Saint-Exupéry wrote "You know, I used to sweat sometimes when I was digging. My rheumatism would pull at my leg, and I would damn myself for a slave. And now, do you know, I'd like to spade and spade. It's beautiful work. A man is free when he is using a spade."

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