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Ernest Havemann
December 24, 1973
In a watershed year for the heavies George Foreman insists that he can solve his legal problems and bring renewed life to the richest division
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December 24, 1973

Fighter At The Crossroads

In a watershed year for the heavies George Foreman insists that he can solve his legal problems and bring renewed life to the richest division

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Of course, it may be that Frazier was done in by a single lucky punch landed near the start of the fight. Whatever, he took a terrible beating as Foreman swarmed all over him. Frazier has now been badly hurt twice—in this fight and in his winning bout against Ali, although the extent of the injuries in the latter probably has been blown far out of proportion by—who else—Ali. His return bout with Ali on Jan. 28 will help tell the story.

For Ali, this year was twilight. He still packed crowds into the arenas and the closed-circuit TV theaters (except in the Orient, where his exhibition tour had to be called off for lack of cash customers, or customers with cash). His legion of fans may have been more vociferous than ever. Yet it was obvious, in his two fights with Norton, that he had seen his better days; the Ali of '73 could hardly have lasted five rounds with the Ali of 1964.

Indeed, to those who have seen Ali fight over the years, his '73 matches were notable chiefly as a bittersweet reminder of how superb he once was. Virtually all knowledgeable boxing people rank Ali among the top fighters of all time, and many consider him the best. So after his Norton fights the memories were savored like vintage wine.

Oh, for that February night in Miami Beach in 1964 when Ali challenged Liston for the title. There was Liston, the big bear of the ring, so powerful, so intent on destruction that he scared spectators almost as much as he did his early opponents. A man undefeated for nine years and seemingly getting better all the time. Fresh from knocking out Floyd Patterson twice in the first round. And there was Ali, looking frail (at 210�) and boyish by comparison, the 8-to-1 underdog. Yet Ali picked Liston to pieces.

Though Liston was as relentless as a locomotive, Ali deftly kept switching him onto side tracks, moving around him, keeping him off balance, putting him in a spin and hitting him from the side. Ali's legs and arms operated like a cunning series of levers, multiplying his strength to a kind of irresistible infinity. A championship wrestler at ringside exclaimed in awe, "My God, this fellow has studied karate—or physics."

At his peak—in the period after he became champion and acquired a genuine inner confidence and before he quit boxing for three years during the draft dispute—Ali was a wizard. His footwork and his quick hands dazzled his opponents into bewildered frustration. He was also a marvelous defensive fighter; he had the uncanny ability, which he did not mind telling the world about, to pull away from a punch that he may not have known he had seen. For a long time the world could only guess how well Ali could take a punch, because nobody ever really hit him.

His brain worked even faster than his hands. Zora Folley, one of the forgotten fighters he met in his prime, was convinced that he could outthink Ali. Folley was a serious student of boxing who believed himself capable of designing a countermove for every move made against him. He had memorized all of Ali's fight films and he felt prepared for anything Ali could do. After being knocked out in the seventh round, the much-chastened Folley explained what had gone wrong. Ali did not do the expected. Instead he baffled and confounded Folley by starting with a new style, changing it from round to round—and sometimes even improvising new tactics two and three times within the same round.

Though Ali was only a shadow of himself in his '73 bouts—no longer able to escape everything thrown at him, no longer able to shoot that lightning left from any angle—he remains a very good fighter. He has turned 31 and his era is over, but there still remains the interesting question of how far he has gone back and how much he has left.

What about the other heavyweights?

One man to watch is Jerry Quarry; he has been beaten by the best but he has also won a lot, sometimes against the best. Always a superb counterpuncher, he showed against Lyle that he may have at last curbed his worst instinct—to put up the wrong fight against the wrong boxer. As Matchmaker Brenner says, "He's simply outlasted everybody else and he's still young."

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