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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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Hank Stram, the Chiefs' coach, was in the house, and he and everyone else murmured uncomfortably at this. Ali was sensitive enough to see that he was on thin ice. A few moments later he raised his gloves again and lifted his curse. But he warned us. "You better watch out."

It was odd. The next morning the story went out over the wires that Ali had been truly bitter about the small turnout, and his castigation of the audience was described without suggesting any of its good-natured quality.

S: Why has Ali always had this bad press?

W: Much of the press never took to him from the first. Many of them thought so little of his credentials 10 years ago in Miami that they wrote he might be killed by Sonny Liston. They did not like being shown up when Ali won; nor did they suffer gladly the public castigation they received when he leaned over the ropes after the fight and jawed down at them like a Billingsgate fishwife. They hunched uncomfortably over their typewriters, their heads down. From the first they called him a loudmouth who couldn't fight, "Un-American" when he joined the Black Muslim movement and refused the draft, and "washed up" when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he was able to return to the ring. They were bored by his antics. Of course, their reaction was not universal by any means. Ali has had this great charismatic aura from the first. The prevalent reaction of most people seeing him for the first time, and being close to him, is to smile.

I remember Angelo Dundee once said something like this: "I'll never understand the resentment of his popping off. When I was young, people said Joe Louis is a great fighter, but he can't talk. Today you have a fellow who both talks and fights, and there's resentment."

And then so much of what Ali does is a game, a put-on. He and George Foreman staged a famous prefight tussle, which was called The Battle of the Waldorf-Astoria—an odd fracas in which Ali's suit coat was torn off him like tissue paper. He began throwing things—rolls, butter pats, I don't know what all—at Foreman. In the midst of all this, a lady appeared at Ali's side with a heavy candlestick from her table. She said, "Here, Cassius. Hit him with this."

Ali looked at her and said, "Oh, thank you, ma'am, but I'm just playing." And he wound up and threw a water glass that went 20 feet over Foreman's head and fetched up against a curtain.

S: Tell me one thing. Why do you think Ali's last victory was so popular, considering how controversial he is?

W: I think it was the sort of joyous reaction that comes with seeing something that suggests all things are possible: the triumph of the underdog, the comeback from hard times and exile, the victory of an outspoken nature over a sullen disposition, the prevailing of intelligence over raw power, the success of physical grace, the ascendance of age over youth, and especially the confounding of the experts. Moreover, the victory assuaged the guilt feelings of those who remembered the theft of Ali's career. It was good to watch and hear about, whichever fighter one supported. Indeed, one of the prevailing stories the morning after the fight was that never had so many large bets been handed over so cheerfully to their winners.

S: I'm not so sure about that. I didn't exactly hand over my fiver with a big smile.

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