His main trouble, says Duane Bobick, sprawled on the bed in a cluttered motel room 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, is that he was born about 100 years too late. "I'm just like those old trappers," he says. "They weren't as interested in hunting the game as they were in seeing what was ahead over the next hill. That's me."
Bobick is a heavyweight fighter who has yet to trap any big game, his most impressive victory so far being one over the often-defeated Chuck Wepner. Ah, but look what lies over the next hill: Madison Square Garden and a nationally televised fight next week against third-ranked Ken Norton, one of the two fighters who have whipped Muhammad Ali. If Bobick should beat Norton, over the next hill might be a bout with Ali himself for the heavyweight championship.
Although the smart money says the sky is more likely to fall than Bobick is to beat Norton, these are heady days for a 26-year-old who has inched upward in the ranks during the last few years by fighting no-name opponents in places often lacking bright lights. Bobick will come out of the Garden with $250,000; his biggest previous payday was $50,000 for Wepner. All that cash for a man who has said, "I'm a fair boxer, a fair puncher, but I put it together and it works."
Put that another way: a white man who says he's not great. Bobick is that rare, endangered creature, a White Hope, and thus, under certain circumstances, potentially hot box office. The boxing world got pumped up over him before the 1972 Munich Olympics. It seemed likely that Bobick would win a gold medal without breaking a sweat, then proceed to wow the professional fight game. But Cuban Teofilo Stevenson loused up that scenario in the quarterfinals at Munich, and Bobick's career went into eclipse. Now he is back from the dark side of the moon.
From last January until the end of April, Bobick spent most of his days inside the former Beaumont ( Calif.) High School, skipping rope, punching bags and bodies and in general trying to act as though it is no upset that he is going to be in the same ring with Norton, the man who broke Ali's jaw. Why should Norton fight Bobick? Norton's share of the purse—$500,000—is reason enough. But there are others. "If Bobick and his people want to fight me, I guess they don't think much of me," Norton says. "I'm insulted." Norton's trainer, Bill Slayton, says, "We sure didn't want to fight anyone who could possibly beat us. Bobick was the safest one." In the Bobick camp, Trainer Eddie Futch, who used to be Norton's trainer, insists, "Boy, has Norton got a surprise coming."
In which case Norton would have a lot of company. Many believe that Bobick, despite his 38-0 professional record and No. 5 ranking, has some marshmallow in him. Typical of his critics is Don Riley, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who offers this analysis of how Bobick has gotten so far: "By beating old ladies, roundheeled has-beens and clowns moonlighting in the Shrine Circus." A manager says, "I have nothing against Bobick at all, except that he can't fight." Bobick himself says, "All I am is a dumb country boy who learned a few tricks of the city slickers." The main trick he learned is that you don't have to fight the biggies to be a biggie yourself. Since October 1975, Bobick's victories have come over Rochell Norris, Scrap Iron Johnson, Randy Neumann, Larry Middleton, Scott LeDoux, Bunny Johnson, Chuck Wepner and Young Sanford Houpe—a group that likely hasn't signed 50 autographs altogether.
Bobick doesn't flinch when the litany of criticism is recited. "People don't take me seriously," he says. "First, because they feel like I let them down in the Olympics and, second, because I'm white and therefore can't possibly fight." But there also are Bobick defenders, most notably Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. "I know what a lot of fight people say about Duane," says Dundee. "That he's slow, he telegraphs his punches, all that. But I call him a persistent sucker. He can take a punch and he just keeps coming at you. I say Bobick has a tremendous shot."
Dundee is not totally impartial: an Ali-Bobick match could be a financial blockbuster. Ali could mouth a few chords on the white/black theme—and even in this day and at his age perhaps inflame the impressionable. (Bobick insists that Ali told him privately, "You're gonna be the heavyweight champ.") Talk of skin color amuses Bobick, whose manager ( Joe Frazier), trainer ( Futch), assistant trainer ( Murphy Griffith) and most of his sparring partners are black. "What I really am," says Bobick, "is the Great Black Hope."
Nevertheless, an Ali-Bobick battle could have strong appeal. There would be the folk hero and people's champ who has done everything, been everywhere, beat everybody and said everything, against the personable Olympic flop ("After Munich, my spirit was dead") who has shown grit in climbing back.
Bobick is a more mature person than he was in Munich; whether he is a fighter of merit must await closer inspection. He hints that, against Norton, he will alter his "persistent sucker" style when he says, "I know now there's no lost pride in backing up or running away in a fight. I just tell myself I'm doing it to get a better view of the situation." Good thinking, since a close view of Norton would put Bobick in position to receive the punishing Norton right uppercut. Dundee points out that Norton typically puts "his right foot in the bucket, which makes it hard for him to back up"—for what that's worth. And the Bobick people expect Duane to work on Norton's body because, in the timeworn phrase, "If you kill the body, the head dies."