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What Ali intends to do is fight in flurries lasting a maximum of 30 or 40 seconds. The rest of the time Ali must rest and marshal his reconstituted body to wring another burst of 29-year-old power from muscles that have lived another decade. And all the time, fighting or resting, he must keep Holmes busy. The strategy is to keep the champ working until he tires, as he has in recent fights. Then, about the ninth or 10th round, Ali will throw that stunning right counter over a wearied jab and it will end. If it doesn't, no matter. Ali, fighting for another title at an age when a lot of cops and firemen are thinking of their pensions, can go 15 rounds. Like a wild horse, he'll keep going until he drops. But to avoid an early fall, he must not only control his own pace but dictate Holmes' as well.
" Holmes expects me to run, to grab and hold," says Ali. "The man is in for a surprise. I am going to win the first four or five rounds and then he's going to get scared and make a mistake. Holmes can't come from behind. He panics. If he panics against me, the right hand will end it. If he doesn't panic, it won't matter. I'll win the early rounds, he can have the middle rounds if he earns them, but the late rounds will be mine because he'll be too tired to do anything more than try to survive."
Panic and too much regard for the Ali mystique are what Holmes must avoid. Holmes is a superior boxer. He could do some things as a preliminary fighter that Ali never tried to do as a champion. His jab is as good as Ali's, perhaps better. That classic weapon is what Holmes' reputation is built on. But because his jab is so quick and powerful, it has tended to obscure the fact that Holmes has a repertoire of effective combinations. He can throw combinations that Ali may not have had thrown at him. And certainly Holmes' hook is far superior, if for no other reason than that Ali throws a hook about as often as Halley's Comet emblazons the sky. "I don't hook," says Ali. "It leaves me open to a right hand. I don't like getting hit by right hands."
As well he might. Holmes' right hand can be devastating. The question is: Can Holmes throw the right hand, or a hook, when it will finish a fighter? Against Shavers last year, Holmes repeatedly begged Shavers to retire honorably, on his feet. As Shavers staggered about the ring, Holmes pleaded, "Earnie, quit. I'm afraid I'm going to hurt you bad."
"Screw you," Shavers snarled back. "You're making a million dollars. Fight!"
And Holmes needed almost four rounds from the time he regained control of the bout to stop the stumbling Shavers.
With his ability as a finisher in question, it becomes all the more imperative that Holmes devise a strategy that will prevent Ali from setting the tempo of the fight. When Ali goes into his rope-a-dope to rest, which he will do frequently, Holmes must not wear himself out banging uselessly against Ali's protective shell of arms. He must take a step to either side and then unleash his potent hook to the kidneys to make Ali lower his guard. That was how Spinks won the title in his first fight with Ali.
And Holmes must have an answer to Ali's habit of grabbing an opponent behind the neck and pulling his head strongly downward. He did it 137 times in his second, victorious fight with Frazier. While to onlookers this maneuver appears to be only annoying, part of Ali's disdainful ring showmanship, in fact it tends over the course of several rounds to paralyze the vertebrae of an opponent's neck as he bucks and twists to free himself. The tactic subtly wears a man down. It's innocuous enough at first, when it causes just the neck to tighten up. But as the rounds go by, the weariness spreads from the beleaguered neck to the arms, then the legs, and eventually even a superbly conditioned body rebels against the need to maintain balance while trying to press forward.
"I hope he tries that," says Holmes, finishing off a piece of toast. "He grabs my neck and I'll kill his kidneys."