It was billed as the party to end all parties—a 90-hour, nonstop blast that would get under way four full days before the Ali-Chuvalo fight in Vancouver, British Columbia, pick up speed and momentum as it spun through daylight and dark, gathering fresh merrymakers along the way, and stagger finally to its red-eyed finish at the opening bell. Like all good parties, it would resemble a hurricane, building slowly but inexorably toward a climactic expenditure of energy, its course and its side effects equally incalculable. There would be drink and damsels without surfeit—huzzah!—madder music and stronger wine—ah yes indeed!—and certainly, somewhere, an orgy or a poker game. Or maybe both—oh yeah!
Half the glamour of any party lies in its setting and, on that score at least, Vancouver was a natural. Canada's third-largest city is a heady blend of frontier exuberance and high-rise sophistication: McCabe and Mrs. Miller country updated but gone a bit soft, perhaps, with electric blankets and leather-walled cocktail lounges. The abrupt mountains surrounding the city keep their pine-tufted heads in the mist, while salmon circulate between their toes. There is rain, yes, but that damp fact only ensures good skiing on the nearby mountains well into June. On the brassy waters of Georgia Strait, sport-fishing craft and day sailers mingle with trawlers, tugboats and vast rafts of timber—a challenging scene for the boat freak. Within the city limits of Vancouver itself, a thousand acres of Stanley Park offer something for nearly every sportsman: tennis courts and golf links, redwood trees and bird life, trails for biking and hiking, beachcombing and girl watching. As the nonstop party progressed, certainly some of the merrymakers would be moved to indulge in these extracurricular activities.
The other half of a party's glamour—perhaps the dominant half—lies in the nature of the guest list. That was in the hands of Murray Pezim, the 51-year-old Canadian mining magnate and stock speculator who was producing both the fight and the party. "Yes, indeed, we'll have some glamour here," said Pezim as he glad-handed his way through the luggage in the lobby of the Hotel Georgia on the eve of the party. "We got, let's see, Samantha Eggar coming, and the great Joanne Pettet, and Yvonne Craig—you know Yvonne, she was Batgirl on TV?—and, of course, Edy Williams." Whodat? "Edy Williams," quoth Murray with a twitch of his long, sallow nose, "was the sex-symbol star of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Yes, of course, how could anyone forget....
But the real grabber was the fact that Pezim had sent an invitation to Howard Hughes, sent it direct to Howard himself up there in his two-story aerie atop Vancouver's esteemed Bayshore Inn. As they primped and powdered and gulped their various pills in preparation for the Big Blast, the partygoers could talk of little else. "He's just eccentric enough to do it, you know? I read how he used to show up places dressed just like an ordinary dude, and then if some waiter or captain gave him some lip, he'd buy the place and lire the guy.... Yeah, he'll probably come in disguise, like in a wheelchair, or wearing a fake nose.... Maybe he'll come in blackface. That'd be something—Muhammad Ali is standing there with the party squirreling around him, Dapping his lip like he always does, and this tall, skinny, old black man comes shuffling up in a tatty cotton suit and Ali tells him to get lost and the next day Hughes buys all the other boxers in the world and refuses to let any of them light Ali...."
So it went, with the imaginations of the would-be revelers growing more levered by the minute as party time approached. But reality can never match the lurid projections of the human mind, and Pezim's party was no exception. Indeed, for most of its duration and on most of the levels by which parties are commonly judged, the Big Blast came across as a feeble snort, a muffled burp, a cautiously concealed yawn.
Most of its failure could be traced to a pinchpenny lack of inspiration on Pezim's part. Early in the week preceding the party, it became painfully evident that the fight was not selling as well as Pezim had hoped. At the prices he had scaled for the live action—$100 at ringside, ranging through $50, $30 and $20 to $10 for a perch in the upper altitudes of Vancouver's now 17,000-seat Pacific Coliseum—there was no way Pezim could have sold out the house. For one thing, Vancouver was in the grip of a construction strike and a province-wide lockout that had put many of its workingmen on their uppers—and it was precisely this group, the traditional fight crowd, that Pezim had counted on to pay off the bulk of his $400,000 investment. For another thing, Ali had fought an exhibition in Vancouver only last Jan. 28 on a card that included George Chuvalo successfully defending his Canadian heavyweight title against one Charlie Chase. Thus the town's appetite for heavyweight boxing—not too ravenous to begin with—and its curiosity regarding Ali had already been sated, and at far lower prices. Faced with a bath of Niagara proportions, Pezim decided to skimp on his party, if only to keep from drowning altogether.
He shifted the affair's locale from a ballroom in the elegant Bayshore to a pair of adjoining but ill-ventilated warrens on the third floor of the Hotel Georgia. "This is where the action is," Pezim explained with a sideways glance around the lobby. Two old ladies in Salvation Army uniforms were sneering at a cigar butt near the elevators. "Fight headquarters—here we'll get the real atmosphere of a heavyweight fight. The hard little guys from New York with their wisecracks and their broads wrapped in ermine and mystery, the smoke-filled rooms, the trainers and cut-men getting nervous as the big moment nears...that kinda thing."
There was indeed one great advantage to the Georgia location: the presence of Ali. No major sports figure in the world, with the exception of Jackie Stewart, is as articulate and accessible as Ali. Each morning, after his three-mile run in Stanley Park, Ali took his ease in the lobby, signing autographs, posing for joke pictures (he rolled his eyes for the camera when one of the Salvation Army ladies planted an uppercut on his chin) and otherwise doing his charismatic best to enliven a deadly dull scene. One evening he appeared on a radio talk show emanating from the hotel in what was billed as the "Battle of the Windbags." His opponent was Gene Kiniski, a Vancouver wrestler whose cauliflower ears and zigzag nose belied his quick wit and quicker tongue. After an hour and a quarter of outrageous hyperbole from both contestants, the show's host, a jolly Scot named Jack Webster, declared himself the winner. Ali smiled and shook his head. "Kiniski," he said, "if only there was a white heavyweight boxer like you from Alabama or Mississippi, we could make us a skillion dollars."
Right after the great debate between Ali and Kiniski, the Big Blast began. Ali himself refused to attend—" Herbert Muhammad would get verrrry angry if I showed up, even to preach against such alcoholic evil." But George Chuvalo was there, sipping a ginger ale and trying to smile through his scar tissue. His right eye, which Joe Frazier had punched deep into Chuvalo's skull, was back up front where it belonged, and the shattered cheekbones, which had had to be mended with wire mesh, were bulging like alternative-noses. The Canadian Chopping Block, indeed. Chuvalo's manager, the Toronto Poultry Prince, Irving Unger-man, was also in evidence, a brisk, flat-bellied and wide-shouldered little man who taught Chuvalo to box when George was a little boy (his parents plucked chickens for Ungerman) and who has led him to his present eminence as the world's largest, toughest, most mobile piece of walking callus.
"How are you, George?" the revelers asked.