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George Plimpton
December 23, 1974
Down but determined to fight his way back to the top, Muhammad Ali turned 1974 into a year of great triumph
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December 23, 1974

Return Of The Big Bopper

Down but determined to fight his way back to the top, Muhammad Ali turned 1974 into a year of great triumph

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As for George Foreman himself, he had scored 24 consecutive knockouts, and he saw himself as a sort of lordly bestower of an anesthetic. "I don't like fights," he said. "I just land the right punch and everything is over. Nobody gets hurt and nobody gets killed..." and he said this with such conviction that Ali's ripostes—things like "My African friends will put you in a pot"—seemed shrill and silly by comparison.

S: I suppose Ali was talking so hard that he never had time to listen to what they were saying about his chances.

W: It didn't make the slightest impression. Ali never doubted himself for a minute. Anyway, he always seemed to think that the title was really his, that it had been taken from him unfairly. So it was a question of getting something back that truly belonged to him. That's one of the things that he yelled at Foreman in the ring in Za�re. "You got my championship! I'm taking it back!"

S: When was it, now, he lost the championship?

W: It was lifted seven years ago in Houston. On grounds of religious convictions, Ali had refused to take a step forward to join the military. Besides, he said at the time, "I ain't got nothing against them Viet Congs," a phrase of beguiling innocence that may well be (along with "I am the greatest" and "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee") his contribution to Bartlett's Quotations. Ali was out of boxing for 3� years. Actually, he thinks back on it as an exhilarating time. He once told me why. "Every man wonders what he is going to do when he is put on the chopping block, when he's going to be tested." He didn't know what the Supreme Court would do. He didn't know if he was going to the jailhouse. He didn't know if he could fight again. Throughout all this he was sustained to a large degree by his fervent belief that Allah would see him through. It's a very important part of his makeup. He once said, "I rely on Allah, I leave it up to Allah. Just give me a pair of blue jeans and a leather jacket, a stick with a rag on the back with some food in it and put me on the railroad tracks, and I believe Allah will lead me to a gold mine. I might even find a million dollar bill right there on the tracks."

S: In that case, once he got back into boxing, how did he explain his defeats?

W: He felt that he was being chastised. And then after his Norton defeat, he began to realize that like all gods, Allah helps those who help themselves. He decided to build a secluded camp where he could train in earnest. This decision was of incalculable value in his recapturing the championship. He calls his camp Fighter's Heaven. It is a complex of cabins built on the side of a hill in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. It's the damndest place. The grounds are set about with huge boulders that Ali had trucked in, each bearing the name of a famous prizefighter. The names are all spelled correctly, but most of the signs in and around the camp display an orthographic quaintness, which turns out to be Cassius Clay Sr.'s, who is a sign painter by profession. One of his notices reads: ALI A SLEEP DO NOT DISTERV. Another, in a list of rules posted in the kitchen, reads like this: IF YOU MUST PINCHE SOMETHING IN THIS KYTCHEN PINCHE THE COOKE!

S: Doesn't your man want to correct them?

W: Well, Ali has a terrible time with his own spelling and probably doesn't know better. Reading is difficult for him. He's perfectly forthright about it. He picks up a newspaper and every word with more than two syllables stops him. He has to work over it. "What's that say?" "Appendectomy." "Oh, I never would have got by that one."

S: Go on about the camp.

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