For a brief period he looked like a bad student trying to remember a lesson. Muhammad Ali leaned away from Jimmy Ellis' punches, sometimes not quite far enough, so that the left hook or the hard swinging right brushed a face which had been inviolate during the great days of his career.
The left hand flicked out nervously and quickly but, as often as not, Ellis, who must have seen that left reach for him a million times in the thousand-plus rounds he has been in the ring with Ali as a sparring partner, retaliated with a right hand almost as quick. "It wasn't the left hand that beat me," Ellis said later, after he had been rendered helpless in the 12th round by a vicious left uppercut that opened the way for a combination by Ali. "It was a right hand in the fourth round hurt me so bad I couldn't really fight my best after that," Ellis went on. "I knew about that right hand. After all, I been seein' that right hand a long time. When it came, it sneaked up on me and it ruined me." Ali's fourth-round right hand hit Ellis flush on the side of the jaw and turned his knees into jelly. For the next few seconds he wobbled around the ring, fending off a left hook and two more right hands with his gloves and living on instinct. The bell saved him.
For the first three rounds, Ellis had fought an intelligent, courageous fight, moving in on Ali and controlling the exchanges with the knowledge he had gained in all those rounds in the gym. He also had advice from Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali in all his previous fights. "You can beat Muhammad with a defensive fight," Dundee said afterward. "You have to make him fight your fight. That's what we wanted Jimmy to do this time, and that's just what he did until he got hit with the right hand."
The right hand may have had much to do with the outcome, but Ali's ability to stay on his toes and move around the ring for almost the whole 12 rounds was really decisive. Against Joe Frazier, Ali often had looked lethargic, shuffling aimlessly and depending on the speed of his hands to contain the continuing charge of his opponent. Against Ellis he was, in ballet terms, on point, moving from side to side on his toes and changing direction quickly and easily. At the end of the fight he was moving more gracefully than at the beginning. "He wanted to prove he could go 12 rounds on his toes and he did," said Dundee. "Ain't many men who could do that, not at his age."
Ali, himself, was more critical. "I know I looked a little pulpy," he said, sweating profusely in his dressing room, his face as unmarked as it had been before the fight. "I ain't in as good shape as I can be, but I'm gonna be in that kind of shape for Frazier. This time I was moving, sticking, working, not letting down, and doing it for 12 rounds. And you got to know—next to me, Jimmy Ellis is the best heavyweight boxer in the world." He drank a bottle of orange soda at a gulp, wiped his face with a towel and said, "I could've knocked him out in the 12th round."
Indeed he could have. He hit Ellis with a savage left uppercut, a second after Chris Dundee, the boxing promoter from Miami who is Angelo's brother, had leaned over and said to a sports-writer at ringside, "Hell take Ellis out with the left-hand uppercut." The punch straightened Ellis up and left him groggy. Ali then threw a combination that rang bells in Ellis' head—and in the minds of all those who had seen Ali in his prime. The series of blows left Ellis sagging on the ropes, unable to defend himself. Ali did not hit him again, but the referee stopped the fight. "Why didn't you take him out?" someone asked later in the dressing room. "All you had to do was hit him a couple more shots."
"I could see in his eyes he was really hurt bad," Ali said. "Ain't no reason for me to kill nobody in the ring, and if I hit him a couple of more shots, I might kill him. I was just waitin' for someone to say stop it. I ain't in there to kill people."
"Because he is your friend?"
"No," Ali said. "Because he a man, like me."
It would be easy to say, after this fight, that Ali has come back all the way. Possibly he has. Certainly, for the last three rounds he fought with extraordinary speed and the same old ability to string together a sequence of damaging punches. "I was better than I was against Frazier," he said. "Against a man who move faster than Frazier. Next time I fight Joe, it going to be a different story."