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Watching the Man in the Mirror
George Plimpton
November 23, 1970
Though millions saw Muhammad Ali return to the ring after years of exile, none had a closer view than this old friend. An eloquent diary of the day in Atlanta—and how it all added up to more than a mere exchange of punches
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November 23, 1970

Watching The Man In The Mirror

Though millions saw Muhammad Ali return to the ring after years of exile, none had a closer view than this old friend. An eloquent diary of the day in Atlanta—and how it all added up to more than a mere exchange of punches

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Dundee opened Rahaman's suitcase and produced his protector, a black model marked "Standard." Ali looked at it warily. He turned to the mirrors and began some light shadowboxing, exhaling sharply with each punch thrown—a hard, distinctive, explosive snuffle. He does this in the ring as well, a habit common to many fighters and one which Ali has practiced from his earliest days. He compares it to the sharp exhalation that karate fighters make as they chop at their opponents.

Bundini was asked if Sugar Ray Robinson, always Ali's great idol, had the same habit. Bundini was out of sorts. He was angry about the protector and worried that Ali would refuse to wear his brother's. "Nah," he said, "he didn't make no noise like that. He made faces. Every punch, he made a face."

Ali, still exercising very easily, stopped and left the dressing room for the lavatory. There were 40 minutes to go.

On the way back he passed his opponent's dressing room, just a step down the corridor from his own. It had a hand-lettered notice—QUARRY—tacked to the door. Ali could not resist the temptation. He pushed the door open and peered in. Quarry was sitting facing him, his knees jiggling, and he looked up.

"Fellow," Ali said in a sepulchral voice, "you best be in good shape, because if you whup me, you've whupped the greatest fighter in the whole wide world."

He clicked the door shut before Quarry could come up with a reply, and back in his own dressing room he described what he had done with impish pleasure. It had been a ploy of a type that delights him—the unexpected materialization. On one occasion last year, driving through Queens with a reporter, he had stopped the car and tiptoed up behind a truck driver changing a tire. "I hear you're talking around town that you can whup me," Ali said. "Well, here I is."

The truck driver's ears had turned a quick red, and he spun on his haunches to stand up. Then, seeing Ali and recognizing him, his jaw dropped and he froze in a curious half stoop, the tire iron clattering from his hand. Ali grinned at him and stepped back to his car. It was the speculation of what happened afterward that caught Ali's fancy, how the truck driver would come home that evening and look across the kitchen table at his wife and say, "Hey, Martha, I was changing a tire today.... I know you're not going to believe this, but I was changing this tire...."

At five minutes of 10, with 35 minutes to go, Ali was lying on the table getting a rubdown from Luis Sarria, a melancholy Cuban who has been in Dundee's employ for 10 years and does not speak a word of English. "Tell him to rub harder," Ali told Angelo.

With a half hour to go a representative from Quarry's camp—Willie Ketchum—turned up in the dressing room to oversee the taping of Ali's hands. Ketchum had a towel over one shoulder of his Quarry jacket, and his jaws worked evenly on a piece of gum. Ali's eyes sparkled. "Well, look who's here," he said. "You all in trouble tonight."

"Who's in trouble?" Ketchum said. He knew he was in for some badgering.

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