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The Terrible Table stands on shining aluminum legs that dig deep into the thick carpeting of Suite 301 of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The table, a three-by-seven-foot instrument of torture, like much of the decor in the suite, is a glaring orange, and it is on its shiny vinyl surface that Muhammad Ali, at the age of 38, will win—or lose—in his bid for an unprecedented fourth world heavyweight championship. The table is Ali's rack, his Iron Maiden. On it he has torn down and rebuilt the body that had become so bloated during the past 25 months. Whatever happens on Oct. 2, when Ali meets Larry Holmes, the undefeated WBC heavyweight champion, in the specially erected $800,000 outdoor stadium at Caesars, one irrefutable fact will stand out: Ali, grossly out of shape only a few months ago, will be in better physical condition than at any time since he fought Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975. And in better physical and mental condition than at any time since he battled George Foreman in Za�re in 1974.
Once this figured to be the fight no one would want to see: Ali, flabby and floundering, would be stung into submission by the flashing jab of a man eight years younger; he would inevitably be hammered onto the canvas by a boxer who had 27 knockouts in 35 fights. It would be no more than a grotesque replay of the 28-year-old Rocky Marciano vs. the 37-year-old Joe Louis, of the tough young fighter against the venerated but vulnerable former champion whose comeback could end in nothing but the sad tolling of nine-ten-and-out.
It won't happen that way.
It is 6:15 a.m. and Ali, after a six-mile run alone across the Dunes Golf Course that began at 3:30, sits in the drawn-curtain half-light of his bedroom and watches a videotape replay of Holmes knocking out Mike Weaver—now the WBA champion—last year at Madison Square Garden. In the kitchen Lana Shabazz yawns as she sets about preparing Ali's breakfast: scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast and two large carafes of fruit juice. In the living room, asleep on a sofa near the Terrible Table, is Luis Sarria, the silent Cuban who directs Ali's calisthenics and rubs him down.
As he watches the Holmes-Weaver fight Ali speaks, at first softly: "When I was 256 pounds of fat and all out of shape and watching this film, I was worried. I didn't know if I could do it. It was sooo strange. I asked myself: Can I do it? Can I make myself fast enough to beat this man? I was [his smile can be seen in the blue-white light of the TV set] worried. Very worried."
A few days before, Ali had shaved off the mustache that, together with a facial softening resulting from no exercise and too many sweets, had prematurely made him look middle-aged. Now his face is slim and firm. So is his body. It is as if he has turned the clock back to 1971, when he was 29.
"Look at that," Ali, now shouting, remarks as he watches the two small figures pummeling each other on the screen. " Holmes is slow and wide open." Ali's left hand snakes out, jabbing and, before the eye can focus on it, cocking and jabbing again. "There! There is where I get him. Pop! Pop!" Leaping from the bed, Ali concentrates on the screen. "Pop! Pop! Bam!" The left flicks twice, quickly followed by a streaking right.
" Holmes is down!" Ali yells as he narrates the picture he sees in his mind. " Ali goes to a neutral corner...seven, eight, nine, ten! And for the world-record-setting, never-to-be-broken fourth time, Muhammad Ali is the heavyweight champion of the world, I can see it happening. It's there. Now that I got my weight down and I'm in shape, I know I can do it. Man, I got confidence. I can see it in my mind just as if it was happening right there on the screen. Look at that: Weaver is sooo slow, and Holmes is having trouble hitting him. Right now Holmes is tired. You got to walk to Holmes, just keep walking at him and make him work. He gets tired. Sooo tired. Man, I'll eat him alive."
Pumping jabs, Ali comes perilously close to flooring the TV set as he shouts, "Pow! Pow! Pow! I see it all now: he's exhausted, it's my fight now. Bam! The right hand over the tired jab. Look, he's talking to Weaver. Well, he ain't heard no talking like I'm going to talk to him. I'll really talk to him. He's no Liston. He's no Foreman. He's no Frazier. He's only Larry Holmes, and he's nothin'. He's just the man between me and my fourth title, and I'm going to beat him so bad it's going to be a total mismatch. Look at that," he says, pointing toward the TV. "That's awful. If I didn't know Holmes, hadn't seen all that publicity, I'd ask: Who's that bum?"
In another wing of Caesars Palace, on a floor one story higher, Larry Holmes is lying face down on a light purple couch. The champion has complained of a slight soreness in his back, and Richie Giachetti, his burly trainer and co-manager, kneels as he massages ointment into Holmes' thick, distinctly defined latissimus dorsi muscles.