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RETURN OF THE BIG BOPPER
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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S: I'll bet he's got his own films in there.

W: Well, sure. His own fights are the ones that give him the most pleasure. In fact, Ali often doesn't need either the screen or the projector. He re-creates the fights himself. I was sitting with him in a hotel room in Kansas City just after his return from Africa. He was in town for some exhibition bouts. He began to reenact the Za�re fight. His friends were all silting around. He asked them: "Wasn't it the best K.O. ever? Ain't it funny? Didn't I stop the world?" Everybody nodded. Then suddenly, he began imagining himself as George Foreman. "What round is it? The fourth?" He rolled his eyes. "What are we doin' in the fourth?" Is that man still standing up? He supposed to be clown. Why, I ain't fought four rounds in seven years." He began to puff heavily. "What round is it now? The sixth! What am I doing in the sixth?" He stared around like a man waking up in a strange room. "You mean I ain't knocked him out yet? You mean I'm getting myself involved in a good scuffle?" His breathing became frantic. Around the room everybody clapped and grinned.

But then an odd thing happened. Ali changed gears. In his mind he had reached that eighth round, the round in which Foreman went down, and he leaned back in his chair and told us, "There wasn't no dancing." He looked sort of petulant, staring over the edge of his armchair at the carpet. He said, "I wish Foreman could have got up in the eighth. I could have done some dancing. I wish we could have done that. That would have showed them."

Well, this produced a storm of comforting assurances. Someone yelled out, "But you showed them how you could thump. They forgot that."

It didn't seem to help. Ali began talking about the 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson- Jake La Motta fight in Chicago. That was the fight in which Robinson, bothered by a hip injury sustained in training a few days before, fought a brilliant victory off the ropes, much like Ali's style in Africa against Foreman. "The Sugarman was better," Ali said. He imitated his punches. "Whup-whup-whup, pop-pop-pop...he's faster. The Sugarman was faster."

Great consternation swept the room. One of his people cried out, "You crazy?" Ali's brother, Rachmann Ali, leaning back in his chair, brought its front legs down with a crash. "You were perfection," he kept insisting. "You can't beat perfection."

S: Sounds like a crazy scene in there.

W: Ali wanted that fight perfect. Was it Val�ry who said that a work of art is never completed, that it is abandoned? That is appropriate, though maybe Ali doesn't believe it. He suffers wonderfully from hubris—the Greek idea of excessiveness that always destroyed their tragic heroes. For example, he has this grandiose scheme to fight both Joe Frazier and George Foreman on the same evening. In Kansas City he told us about the money required—$5 million each for Frazier and Foreman, $15 million for Ali. Everyone whistled. His idea was to make the two fighters believe that he wouldn't ever fight either of them unless they did it his way. Perhaps that would get them to defy the commissions.

S: The guy's a nut...I said it once and I'll say it again.

W: Ali has made suggestions of this sort before. Some years back he wanted to fight Thad Spencer, Ernie Terrell and Jerry Quarry in one night, five rounds for each man, or even (if they insisted) 10 rounds apiece for a possible total of 30 rounds. In fact, when Angelo Dundee heard about Ali's idea for a Frazier-Foreman twin bill he said that it was a sure sign of what he called Ali's "advancing decrepitude" that he'd decided to cut down from three fights to only two. "My fellow's in trouble," he said.

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