Just a few hours before his title defense against Ken Norton last week, Muhammad Ali sat shoeless, his feet up on a kitchen table in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, isolated from all the chiselers and half-wits who snap at his peace and concentration before a big fight, away from some of those parasites around him who call themselves aides and had hastened his recent decline. After thinking about suitable endings for his strange and incomparable career Ali suddenly turned to his host and said, "Maybe I should reach up and pull down the mike in the middle of the ring and announce...Laaaaadies and gentlemen, you have seen the last of the eighth wonderrrr of the world. Muhammad retires."
"Nah, nah," rasped Harold Conrad, an adviser to champions for decades, who had put Ali up for three days. "You did that in Manila, you did it in Malaysia. One more you said, always one more. Who would believe you?"
Three days later in exotic Istanbul, Muhammad Ali rattled the world stage for the second time in a week—the first when he was given a controversial decision over Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium, this second time as he announced with the appropriate dramatic inflection, Wallace Muhammad (head of the Muslims in America) by his side to give it an official imprint: "Mark my words, and play what I say right now fully. At the urging of my leader Wallace, I declare I am quitting fighting as of now and from now on I will join in the struggle for the Islamic cause."
The announcement was a last, fitting tremor in a bizarre week in which occurred one of the worst heavyweight title fights in history; in which a champion who had finally become too old was brutally exposed and found to be a fragile mortal like the rest of us; in which a challenger with meager gifts was robbed of his moment by his own head as well as bad advice from his corner. It was a week that saw the arrogant Madison Square Garden put on a truly shabby fight promotion; a week that saw the dark and mean streets around Junkie Stadium erupt into anarchy and savagery, leading one to contemplate the line of e. e. cummings: "What comma indeed comma is civilization?"
Quite properly, Ali's retirement was received with wide cynicism. Most observers see a grand design behind Ali's words, which seldom indicate what he really feels. They see it this way: Foreman fights Norton for the vacant title, Norton gets beaten (thus removing the stigma of Norton for Ali) and Ali "un-retires" to challenge for the championship a third time, setting up the richest title bout ever. The logic seems sound.
"It's too premature," says Bob Arum, co-promoter with Madison Square Garden, of Ali's announcement. "If the money's right, Ali will fight Foreman." Down in Texas, George Foreman remarks, "I'll only be satisfied when I knock Muhammad Ali out." Then, as an afterthought, he says, " Turkey goes right along with him. He's a turkey."
Others are certain that Ali means what he says. "I had no idea he was going to do this," says Angelo Dundee, who has trained Ali since his fight with Herb Siler back in 1960 in Miami Beach. "Nobody knows what he'll do. He's got me where I'll take anything that comes. If he makes a statement, I believe him." Says Ali's old promoter, Don King, "He's through. I'm sure of it. He may play with the rest of us, but not with the chief minister, Wallace." Stunned, Joe Frazier, who may well have taken the last bit of greatness out of Ali back on that torrid morning in Manila a year ago, could only say of Ali's quitting, "He did?"
What happened? How did Ali's decision evolve in the space of a couple of hours? Following the Norton fight, there seemed to be a sharp division in Ali's thoughts. For the first time in his life he seemed almost speechless; the words came out softly, timidly, from a man who was looking into the bared teeth of true doubt about himself, about his work, about his future. "I got $6 million tax free saved up," he said in his dressing room. "Drawin' seven per cent interest. What I gotta keep on fightin' for? Wise for me to get out now. There's nothin' else to prove. This thing is dangerous." The next day at a press conference, sitting next to Norton, he quietly explained why Norton should fight Foreman first before a rematch, then privately said, "None of them niggers want Foreman. Only this nigger, me, can take him."
A Foreman-Ali match sometime in late spring appeared certain, even after he arrived at the airport in Istanbul. He told reporters that he "will leave boxing after my upcoming bout with George Foreman." He then went to noon prayers with Wallace Muhammad in the Blue Mosque. Next, at a press conference, Wallace turned to Ali and said, "Since he has indicated that he is seriously considering retiring from boxing and taking up the battle for truth, I want to ask him right now to pledge to retire from the ring and use his power—the fist of his tongue instead of the ring—for truth. He has the inspirational power to wake up the slumbering people of this world, and I am asking him now to retire."
Said Ali: "It has been my lifetime dream to become a champion and retire from the ring and then use my influence and fame for Allah. I have many people advising me to retire, and many people advising me to fight a few more times. I do not want to lose a fight, and if I keep boxing I may lose. I may gain much money, but the love of the Moslems and the hearts of my people are more valuable than personal gain. So I am going to stop while everyone is happy and I am still winning. This [Wallace] is my leader, this is my spiritual teacher in Islam, and I want to retire anyway. Now he has advised me it will be wise. I have no confusion in my mind."