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Through the years, professional prize fights have been held in some odd places—brothels, barges, carnival grounds, open fields. So why not an aircraft carrier? "Get me the admiral!" boomed Don King, who comes off the rail like a cue ball with English on it—sometimes too much. "What admiral?" asked an aide. "You know how many admirals there are in the U.S. Navy?" Thus several weeks ago the scramble began for a stupendous venue, one to match the scope of what King calls the grand renaissance of boxing.
For a long time the fight game has been hanging by its fingernails on Muhammad Ali's presence. He keeps the sport in the public eye, but that is all. He is boxing to a point, much as Churchill was England when it fought alone in World War II. But, Ali aside, boxing is in a parlous state: no work for fighters, small purses when they do fight, empty gyms and fewer licensed fighters than ever before; only two American world champions ( Ali and featherweight Danny Lopez)—a long fall from a time when U.S. fighters held most of the world titles. It is an arid land, boxing, populated by only the most resolute, the addicted or the crazed.
The pathology of this collapse is obvious: the politics of the ring, which are based on petty feuds and revenge: the failure of Madison Square Garden to put money back into the sport that did so much to make its reputation; the lack of a commanding figure to lead the game out of the wilderness, to bring a semblance of organization and thought to it, in brief to revive public interest. Until now, no one has really ever tried, but on Jan. 16, on the aircraft carrier Lexington off Pensacola, Fla., the first of a series of positive steps will be taken.
Called the U.S. Boxing Championship and presenting 60 fighters from featherweight to heavyweight, the series will run from January to June and is designed to create American champions, to build names and continuity. It is a massive effort, backed by the power and money of ABC-TV and Roone Arledge, the authority of Ring magazine and the promotional flair of Don King. For ABC Sports it is a bold venture involving $1.5 million and about 23 hours of programming. For King it is a rare chance to back up his grandiloquent posture, his large and lyrical mouth, with hard action.
The genesis of the tournament was helped along by adversity. King had been riding high with Ali, having promoted seven of his title fights. Correctly, he had figured that the only place to be in the ring business was next to Ali. That was where the money was, as well as the recognition, which often seemed more important. He also believed that Ali was not earning as much as he should. Always a sucker for trick phrases and slogans, having invented so many himself, Ali became a believer as King hammered away: "Figger, figger, figger, everything for the white man, nothin' for the nigger." The two of them, plus Herbert Muhammad, sacked the world.
Then, suddenly. King was blown out of the Ali picture as Ali and Herbert moved to another promoter, Bob Arum, with whom King had been—and still is—locked in a bitter promotional struggle. The usually buoyant King became morose, and the winds that whipped about his aerie on the 67th floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center seemed to have a mocking whine. His office door never seemed to open anymore. He would sit at his big desk for long hours, seeing nobody, at times looking as if he were mummified, or at best deep into some transcendental problem known only to him. He even had his hair cut, which only made him look more pathetic. That bizarre hair, shooting out in all directions, appeared ridiculous at first, but it grew on you, symbolizing strength and wild imagination.
Neither was in evidence now. "Look Don," said Paddy Flood, his right-hand man, "this may be the best thing to happen to you. You've always had Ali on your mind. Now this is a great chance to build a new center of balance." Long ago, the two had talked about a tournament. Flood can ferret out a dollar in the fight game better than most, but he has always thought of boxing on a large scale rather than just as an area for personal scheming. He had been a fighter from a fighting family in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. He is still a manager. He knows the sad gauntlet that a fighter has to run—work during the day, lonely hours in the gym at night, short purses, the dead-end frustration of it all. If there are such things as character and trustworthiness in a manager, Flood has them. He got King moving. "If you're going to be remembered at all," said Flood, "you'll be remembered because of this tournament, not because of Ali."
Soon King's hair was back to all its scruffy magnificence, and so was he. With King busy on two fronts—the comeback of George Foreman and the tournament—there was no longer much evidence of Ali in King's office. The huge painting of the champ that hung behind his desk was removed and replaced by a photograph of Foreman and lightweight champion Roberto Duran, King's other major interest. By now the tournament had begun to appeal to ABC. Before the Olympics, ABC had bought the tournament from King but had moved slowly. After the enthusiasm for Olympic boxing, the network worked swiftly. The Olympics may have foreshadowed the next evolutionary cycle of the ring: nationalism in an international arena, a professional Olympiad.
First, there are American champions to be made—honestly. That last word is so important; the champions here cannot be made in the back room, they must be made in the ring. "This is no connection tournament," says Flood, who along with Al Braverman is coordinating the event. "Look at the fighter I have in the light-heavyweight quarterfinals, Bobby Cassidy. You think I'd put him with Willie Taylor? I'd rather see him up against a water buffalo. But we can't pick and choose. You take who you're given." Seeing to that last point is Johnny Ort of Ring magazine. The publication is the bible of boxing, and it brings to the tournament a substance and respect that game-playing groups like the WBC and WBA could never claim.
"It's a tremendous breakthrough," says Ort. "The first hint of any organized pattern in boxing. It's going to bring fresh air to the game."