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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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Actually, fighters have engaged in these sorts of shenanigans before. John L. Sullivan toured the vaudeville circuit at various stages of his career, offering $1,000 to anyone who would last four rounds with him. The bouts were fought under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules—three-minute rounds and a minute of rest—and it is interesting to note that if some stranger had happened to knock out Sullivan, he could have legitimately claimed the heavyweight championship. Jack Dempsey did the same thing—but he fought two-minute rounds, which protected him from possible dethronement.

Of course, in Ali's case, he can issue his dual challenge with impunity, knowing that no commission in the world will sanction such a doubleheader. One of the conditions of any official bout is that both fighters must come into the ring "fit," which, as you can imagine, would be a questionable proposition after a turn with either Frazier or Foreman. It wouldn't attract a promoter, who could very easily be stuck with only one half of his drawing card. Joe Frazier put it nicely. When asked if he would be party to such an extravaganza, he said, "I have no wish to be involved with a manslaughter charge."

S: You said Ali was in Kansas City to fight some exhibitions. Did he make special arrangements to protect his title from a chance knockout?

W: His exhibitions were so informal that any commission would have judged them as entertainment. He danced most of the time, toying with his opponents, pushing the heel of his glove against their foreheads, always clowning, especially in his first bout against a ferociously solemn fighter in his first year as a pro, a boxer named Ron Draper. Ali took a tap to the head from Draper in the final round, and he swayed and collapsed to the canvas. He rose at the count of nine to put on a fine display of a reeling fighter—slack-jawed, mouthpiece shining, up on his toes and teetering stiffly, and then with increasing speed stumbling across the ring and fetching up against the ropes, bending them back like a bow, and then catapulting past his opponent, who took a swat at him and missed, Ali pirouetting just out of reach and finally crumbling to the canvas.

All through this, his face earnest, Draper was stalking Ali, quite oblivious to the laughter rising from around the arena. Afterward I went to see Draper in the locker room. He told me that there was no way Ali could beat him. He said, "There's always someone who can beat him. I'm the one."

Draper didn't bother with a shower. He stepped out of his boxing trunks, pulled on a red sweater and stepped into a pair of red corduroy trousers. He told me, "I'm going to fight Ali for the title. My record? It's two and two. I got beat by Duane Bobick in four and Scott LaDoux in two, and I beat Jerry Williams and some other guy, I don't remember his name. Did I look all right in there? I don't get loose 'til about the third or fourth round. I'd beat Ali with speed. I hit him a good shot. He wasn't faking. I hit him solid. I seen his eyes roll back in his head."

Meanwhile, Ali went through three more exhibitions. He varied his act with each one. The last was a ferocious mock attack on Bossman Jones, who was one of Ali's sparring partners in Za�re. Jones had made the mistake of placing a substantial bet on Foreman. He was indiscreet about it. His employer had found him out. Before they started, Ali described this perfidy. He embarrassed Bossman into laughing so hard that his whole body shook as he waited in his corner; he kept reaching up to shove his mouthpiece back in with the thumb of his boxing glove.

Then, when they were done sparring, Ali came to the ropes, leaning over them with his gloves still laced on, and he got going with the spectators crowding ringside in the sort of verbal give-and-take that he relishes. He's awfully good at it. The crowd stretched up toward him. They had had a good time and they wanted more. Ali called down to them: "You expect to see me do the Ali Shuffle? You want me to knock out my sparring partners? Well, you go on outside and pay $50 and then come on in again."

There was a young heckler who kept prodding Ali about the circumstances of his knockdown in the first Frazier fight. Ali answered, "How come he dropped me? Because he hit me." He put on a sham of outrage. "How come you ask things like that?"

Dave Anderson of The New York Times once described Ali's speaking style as being part Demosthenes, part Billy Graham, part Edgar Guest and part Flip Wilson—"hardly the best of each but surely the loudest." There was a lot of Flip Wilson in Ali that night. He chided the crowd for not coming out in greater numbers. He said, "This is a shame. This is terrible. I'm not a month away from having won the world heavyweight championship before a crowd of ten thousand million...(He had to revise that. I could see him cock his head, his lips moved, and he changed his computation)...ten hundred million people around the world—and we couldn't fill up this little chicken coop. That's terrible. It's so terrible that I am going to put a curse on this one-horse town. He raised his gloves out over us. "From this day forth," he told us all, "the Kansas City Chiefs will not win another game until I okay it."

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