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"There's too much nature here. We got to do something that tops nature."
"Let's get the guy that did Phoenix."
"He don't do Western."
"What's the big deal about Western? All you got to do is put a bunch of wagon wheels out front."
So they built the towns around Lake Tahoe. On the California side there are motels, houses and souvenir shops. On the Nevada side are motels, houses, souvenir shops and gambling casinos. The Nevada side is also where they hold their 41-pound mismatches that can be seen on TV as far away as Uganda. That, in fact, is why Muhammad Ali was in the coffee shop that morning. He was working himself up for the mismatch.
All week Ali never did seem happy about what he was doing. The billboard at the hotel entrance said LIVE LIVE NOV. 21 MUHAMMAD ALI VS. BOB FOSTER NEXT ATTRACTION NOV. 23 ISAAC HAYES. When he was heavyweight champion, Ali was a lot more than just another nightclub act. Now here he was, getting ready to perform in the same theater where Steve & Eydie and Johnny Cash and the rest of them perform. No matter that Bob Foster is the light-heavyweight champion of the world and had knocked out 42 men in 54 fights, and that Ali was being paid $250,000 for the work ($125,000 for Foster). It still didn't seem right. Maybe it was the place—in a nightclub in a gambling casino in Stateline, Nev.
Not that there is anything wrong with a fight being held in Nevada. There probably have been more fights in the state than it is worthwhile to think about. But here was Ali, a Muslim minister, one of the greatest men in the world by his own admission, having to walk between slot machines and dice tables and waitresses in orange boots even to reach his room. "The champ don't care about this stuff. He just goes right through it without seeing it," said Bundini Brown, Ali's old friend and assistant trainer.
But the unseen seemed to get Ali down anyhow. His sparring sessions were conducted either in a big meeting room in the Sahara Tahoe Hotel or in the hotel nightclub itself. Waiters and waitresses moved through the crowds ($1 per head to get in) selling drinks. At the final workout, some people in a booth at ringside had a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. There is no way this could be thought of as entirely bad, of course. A boxing writer from London said, "I've waited all my life to be able to take a shower, dress, eat dinner, go see a prizefight and get drunk without ever having to step outdoors." That was him. Ali looked happy only when somebody like Bill Cosby (the big act across the street) would show up to joke with him.
One day, predictably, Cosby got into the ring with Ali and they clowned around. It was good for the crowd. In most of Ali's sparring sessions he lay against the ropes with his gloves in front of his face while Ray Anderson, Billy Daniels or Bossman Jones thumped his ample stomach. Ali looks more like a pro linebacker now than the lean and smooth man who knocked out Sonny Liston almost nine years ago. After one workout Cosby told Ali he looked fat. "I guess I'm getting old," Ali said. "Why don't you get me a role in the movies?"