On the night of
Jan. 29, shortly after 10:30 p.m., one millionaire climbed into the ring at
Boston's Hynes Auditorium to spar with another millionaire. The first was that
slightly bored philanthropist, Muhammad Ali, who was donating his presence. The
second millionaire, Peter Davenport Fuller, who was suffering from anything but
boredom, had bought almost $20,000 worth of tickets to distribute for the
worthy cause of the evening, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts of Roxbury.
As always, Ali
looked like an actor superbly impersonating a fighter. The handsome, unmarked
face, the years of consecrated ego building, the mystique of being champ—all
combined to create a marvelous theatrical illusion that Louisville poor boy
Cassius Clay had, in fact, been born to wealth and a special 20th-century breed
In the other
corner, Fuller, a Harvard man whose father had been governor of Massachusetts
and had left an estate of $12 million, looked like everybody's idea of a failed
club fighter, a supernumerary straight out of Rocky. As he did the obligatory
shuffle and neck-loosening head wobble, it was hard to believe that here was a
man who had belonged to the Algonquin Club; served as state chairman for the
American Cancer Society; sat on the boards of Boston College and Boston
University; and bred horses on his 200-acre farm in North Hampton, N.H.
(including the most famous last-place horse in history, Dancer's Image,
disqualified winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby). Or that he owned a Cadillac
agency that looked more like an elegant art museum, with sculptured ceilings,
chandeliers, polished mosaic floors and reproductions of a Rembrandt, a Monet,
a Renoir and a Reynolds on the walls.
At 53 years
old—outweighed by 43 pounds, outreached by eight inches, mismatched by almost
20 years—what was this broken-nosed Boston Brahmin doing, not only climbing
into the ring with The Greatest but looking as if he actually wanted to fight
him? For a moment the crowd that had come to see Ali puzzled over how to
respond to this mood of, well, war. Then Ali, the clown who leaves an audience
laughing at his straight man, turned the scene into farce with a mock battle
speech: "I've never wanted to whup a man so bad as I want to whup this
man.... Old man, if you so much as dream of laying a hand on me...."
Ali-watchers, it all added up. Here was a rich man's ego trip—a fantasy staged
by a Walter Mitty who could afford to pay for his own scenario. On the other
hand, here was Ali, not about to be upstaged.
After waltzing for
a couple of parody rounds—fiercely swishing the air, landing a tender blow now
and then—Ali talked to the people maybe four rounds' worth, which may put his
priorities these days into fairly accurate perspective. He advised the young to
enter college instead of the ring, and he seemed to mean what he said.
The hungry fighter
that night was indeed the man born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Fuller
speaks a kind of Ivy League English that keeps drifting into street talk, or
possibly the other way around. The only speech delivered afterward, in private,
went like this: "Hey baby doll, if I'd known it was going to be like that,
I'd have flown down to Florida, gotten a gorgeous tan, lifted a few weights to
bulge the muscles and just posed."
had trained for almost two months. He was up in the morning during the most
grueling of winters, doing roadwork. He ground out sit-ups on a wrestling mat
in the basement of his Georgian brick house. He boxed at Vinnie's Gym.
It has become the
custom to speak casually, drolly about the athletic escapades of middle-aged
men. One hears the poised voice of George Plimpton, masterful at
self-deprecation. But a middle-aged jock climbing into a ring to compete, not
just against a younger man but against his younger self, can play as tragedy as
well as comedy.
The story of Peter
Fuller begins with a gentleman named Jackie Martin, who was in Fuller's corner
against Ali. In the days when Hollywood was making really execrable fight
movies, Jackie would have been played by Mickey Rooney. Now 65, he is a former
featherweight, round and bouncy with irrepressible hopes, and a mouth born to
say. "You can go all the way, kid."