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JUST CALL HIM SHUBERT ALI
Mark Kram
October 02, 1972
Bobbing out of reach or reaching out for Frazier, it was Broadway show biz for Muhammad
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October 02, 1972

Just Call Him Shubert Ali

Bobbing out of reach or reaching out for Frazier, it was Broadway show biz for Muhammad

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He was a strange one all right, The Deaf Uh, better known as Deaf Burke, a man whose face was as mean as freshly torn skin. As for his hearing, it was widely thought that he could hear a guinea drop to the ground amid any sort of din; Deaf Burke was only deaf to advice. The champion of England, he would smoke big Havana cigars in the ring, make funny faces at opponents and comport himself in a manner uncommon to a gentleman—which he was not. Near the end of his career he came to America and went on stage, exhibiting a dozen classical poses (each with the appropriate change of figure, attitude and expression) that concluded with the agonized posturing of the celebrated Dying Gaul.

Thoughts of old Burke were hard to escape last week in Madison Square Garden as Muhammad Ali brought his one-act play of infinite variations to center-front and Floyd Patterson once more flew into the teeth of geriatric evidence. The result: a crowd of 17,378—many of whom were stars from stage, screen, television and Wall Street—paid $512,361 to see Floyd (with only slight changes of figure, attitude and expression) die humbly and profitably for still another time, and Ali, minus a cigar but with his footman Bundini Brown as a prop, use sly promotion and his own rendition of comic outrage to lay claim to serious consideration as a Broadway impresario of lofty rank.

Other than that, Ali did what even the most sentimental of Floyd's mob thought he would do to an aging soldier who began his run from obscurity 20 dim years ago. Under the sorcerer Cus D'Amato, Patterson moved across many of those years like a man walking in and out of shadows while extracting a myriad of reactions from those who pondered him: sympathy, disgust, boredom, heavy analysis and, at 37, almost irrevocable veneration. Twice he won the heavyweight title, often he slipped out of public focus and now, after last week, he emerges as the most crafty and richest "professional opponent" in the history of the ring.

A shoebox with legs, The Loser in perfect detail, a fellow who carried introspection to exquisite ploy, all of this has been said of Patterson and much more, but once again he was smack in the middle of the money and satisfying the odd public interest in viewing the death rattle of his career. It was an old routine for Patterson, this business: Ali humiliating him in Las Vegas; elimination from the WBA tournament; his gallant bid for Jimmy Ellis' title on a raw-cold, funereal night in Stockholm, the outcome of which drove him into hermitage to contemplate his muse. Few ever thought he would surface again.

So there they were: in one corner, in all of his monkish splendor, Patterson, proving once more the pull of his vulnerability and Ahabian obsession at the box office; in the other corner, Ali, the consummate gate-builder who had produced his show as deftly as a David Merrick. He had allowed no prefight rancor or nasty exhibitionism to stain the significance of this contest. Patterson, he said, had always been his idol. Then he opened up his new training camp to him, and he complained that no one appreciated what Floyd had done for boxing. If the press did not see him as the Nemean Lion, that was their problem.

Ali began the evening with some theatrics that threatened the nobility of Patterson's presence, if not entirely the solemnity of Floyd's latest march to oblivion. Introduced as the only man to defeat Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier entered the ring, thus providing the foil for Mack Sennett chaos in Ali's corner. Gesturing, making faces and using his spear carrier Bundini to the hilt, Ali tried to go after Frazier. "Bundini, stop holdin' me back, let me at him!" he cried. It was not a sight for purists, or those mirthless keepers of ring etiquette.

Nor did the bout itself offer up anything worthy of historical note. But for the immediate moment it did produce certain strong views. The most popular opinion—and easiest—says that Ali was much like a drama coach with Patterson, easing another subject, as he has done so often in the past, through an act; it says that Ali simply can do whatever he wants to do in a ring and always achieve his end. The other view holds that Ali came prepared for a limited exercise, and then found himself suddenly in a "test," that he felt an itch of anxiety, a tiny dread of embarrassment.

If it matters at all, the latter position might relate closer to the pattern of the fight, especially if one believes that Ali no longer can do whatever he wants to, that he cannot reach back and always find his gifts ready for display. Of course, he alone knows what he can or cannot do, and for a man who fights as often as he does (five times in the last six months), the conservation of his resources is a vital factor to be studied carefully. "I'm no animal," he says, "I'm not a machine." The indication is that he prepared for Patterson lightly. For all of his curves to the press, reports are that he was certain of the form he had on Floyd: decrepitude, no imagination and a long history of being knocked down.

As it was, Ali found a rather sprightly old gaffer in with him, one who was in fine condition. The fight unwound from a knot of slow motion, but certain things seemed evident: Patterson was a more intelligent fighter than he had been in the past, and his coordination did not seem impaired. Floyd won the third, fourth and fifth rounds, somewhat because of Ali's frivolity, but mostly because he was reaching Ali with combinations. It was clear that Patterson was his old awkward self, which in his case is an asset, and he was not going to be that easy to tag. Ali could not ignore that Patterson was making him miss, nor could he not heed a possible nagging portent of what a combination puncher like Patterson can swiftly do; he had taken a few sharp right hands through the fifth, the best some thought since he fought Frazier.

Smartly, Ali opened up the sixth round with deadly intent: steady pursuit, blurs of uppercuts and slashing rights, one of which began a cut on Patterson's left eyelid. It was not enough as Patterson held on, and even responded with some verve himself. Ali had hurt Floyd in this round, and now it was imperative that he get him out as quickly as possible, for he did not want a messy kill, nor did he want to gamble with a hurt Patterson, who can be dangerous in his resolve to devise his own fate. Again in the seventh, with Patterson's eye closing rapidly, Ali continued the assault, directing most of his fire at the eye, which by this time looked like the slit on a coin bank. But Ali could not finish him. The bell for the eighth, and Patterson did not come out. Justifiably, the doctor advised the referee to stop the fight, and Ali rushed to the ring mike to proclaim the virtues of Floyd Patterson.

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