Have you ever come up against a heavy German meal, a host who insists on playing Wagner recordings while sunlight pours brutally into the living room? Wagner, of course, can drug you all by himself, having been a genius who induces the head-in-the-hand posture, like some fights and fighters. Watching them, one's head easily falls into one's hand, perhaps to dream of a cool lake and fresh breezes. Nothing empties the mind better than a tedious fight. In an age of desperate anxiety, a bad fight is a social contribution.
Of this sort of fight, there was a classic last week in Capital Centre at Landover, Md. as Muhammad Ali, of the universe, defended his title against Jimmy Young, of Philadelphia. The fight, which was seen by a crowd of 12,500 and a national television audience, lasted 15 rounds—some of the worst and most numbing in heavyweight history. When it was over, Ali took his pick and shovel and moved his inglorious bulk on to the next gold mine. But he did not move on quietly, or with grace or dignity. He left part of the live crowd with the opinion that he had lost, the other part in disbelief at what they had seen. He left nearly all of the television audience aghast at what it viewed as an outrageous injustice to Jimmy Young, and a slack-jawed press to ponder words like avarice, dissipation and that old B-movie epithet "fix."
Indeed, Ali had come dangerously close to committing professional suicide. He flirted with the caprices of scoring. The scoring of a fight is subjective, as inexact as anything can be. It is emotional, even sentimental. Nonetheless a bout, especially a title fight, should be looked at as a stage production or a painting. It is the whole that counts.
A challenger is not given a champion's title. He must take that title, preferably with his hands, but with a ring post if necessary. Young never has been a positive fighter, and he was far from it against Ali. He is a fighter of slight craft with a few cute moves. On the attack, his jab is a trifle, his punching of no account. On defense, caution marks his every move, his eyes are always on the exit doors. As the old wheeze goes, Young is a fighter without bad intentions. He is also not a Philadelphia fighter, that primordial strain of workmen who have left a wake of blood and upsets in the ring; Philadelphia fighters know how to take titles.
For the most part, Young was a passive figure against Ali. On six occasions he ducked outside of the ropes and stayed there like a man looking out a window. It was not accidental. He was not slipping a punch. It was unconscionable behavior for a man who wants the heavyweight championship of the world. According to Maryland ring rules, Young should have been censured for this action; it is called a "stand-up knockdown." He was given a two count once. The rest of the time he was allowed to take the rarefied air of the $200 ringside. Ali eventually became so frustrated that he began leaning over the ropes to bang him on top of his head. Heroes do not do this sort of thing, and Young—though clearly wrong—won sympathy.
Ali did not behave creditably, either. Using superior weight and size, he often grabbed Young behind the head and pushed him to the floor. Lighter by 21 pounds, Young smartly went with the pulling, until there was no form to the fight at all; there was just Ali missing wildly and then holding, and then Young being totally unassertive. Ali's corner was restive from the start. It looked on vacantly at Ali's early comedies—hands by his head, doing nothing; the Mirage, they call it—and his manager, Herbert Muhammad, shifted nervously in his seat.
"Another day in the gym," Ali's brother, Rahaman, shouted.
"Turn 'em up, turn 'em up," screamed Bundini Brown.
"Shut up!" Ali yelled at Bundini at the end of the third round.
By the fifth round the crowd was booing. "I don't blame 'em," said Herbert. "I'd boo, too. I hope Young hits him on the side of his head and wakes him up." In Round 7, Ali did some wiggling, and Herbert shouted to Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, "Angelo, tell him to stop that stuff. He's embarrassin' everybody when he does that."