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"The jab," Mr. Futch told Norton. "It's Ali's best weapon, but also his flaw. When he throws it, he carries his right hand out a little way from his face, instead of right up against his cheek. Now, when everyone else fights Ali, they try to slip his jab, or to block it and counter, but Ali's so quick that by the time they do that, he's gone. You must keep your right glove pressed to your face, Ken, and with your left, jab him right in the middle of the face as he's jabbing at you: That's when he's open. Two jabs and he'll be back against the ropes. Now, when you get him there, don't go to the head with the left hook, like all the others do. He'll only lean on the ropes and stretch back. He's got that quickness. You'll miss him, and then you'll be off balance and that's when he'll flurry. No, hit him in the body with both hands, and this will make him try to protect the body, which will make him bring his head down toward you, and then go to the head with the hook."
And that's what happened. Things like that brought Mr. Futch deep satisfaction. The panicked heaving of lungs, the tempest of elbows and fists—step by step, Mr. Futch subordinated them to logic, rescued them from chaos, moved the arena from the entrails to the head.
It wasn't so different, Mike, from the way Mr. Futch packed his suitcase when he traveled: T-shirts, socks and underwear each in their own Ziploc plastic bag, everything precisely folded, 16 different vitamins, each with its own little compartment in a plastic case. The right knee that sometimes swelled and stiffened, he didn't get that in a ring. He got it extending himself across a motel bed, trying to make the bedspread hang just right. At home, he neatly aligns seven combs on his bathroom counter, one for when his hair grows longer, one for short, one for dirty hair, one for clean, three more just in case. People chuckle at his meticulousness, but they don't know what he knows, what you know, Mike: how easily a man could lose his grip, how suddenly chaos could swallow order and cadence and logic, how swiftly thump-thump, thump-thump could become thump...thump....
Arrhythmia, the doctor told him in '85, your heart misses beats, Mr. Futch; your body lacks potassium; you can't fool with this. Your blood pressure is high; take your tranquilizers.
Retire? Come to think of it, he was vaguely considering retirement in 1981, but then, within a span of seven months, Larry Holmes called, Michael Spinks called, Alexis Arguello called.
Retire? "I'll die if I retire," he told his wife.
Retire? "One day the paramedics will come," says his sister, Agnes, "and take him from the ring."
"You don't press my father on certain things," Yvonne says. "He's a complicated man. About the only time I've seen him cry was when he was going through his trunk, reading old letters his dad sent him after he left. He's a wonderful man—I'd wish my dad on anybody—but there's an old hurt there. I think, and he's made up his mind, he'll never be hurt like that again. Even with us, he holds a little back. Sometimes I've wanted to scratch through it, but you can't. He needs that space, he needs that room. I can tell when he's distancing himself—he gets more and more polite."
Four years ago, Mr. Futch was sitting ringside, working a fight in Atlantic City with middleweight James Shuler, when he sensed it coming on again, what he had felt in the middle of the night a few times before, the irregular thumps, the light head, the black dots swimming through his vision. Not now, he screamed to himself, not during a fight, I can't lose control! He sat there, gripping the chair, his mind racing against the feeling, planning how he could stay seated when the round ended and give instructions to the bucket man to relay to Shuler, planning what he wanted to tell his fighter, planning....
The world went black, he had lost control. Suddenly, he was on a gurney being rushed to an ambulance, in an ambulance being rushed to a hospital. For a week he remained there, growing fidgety, aching to be back with his boxers, while doctors decide whether to open him up and implant a pacemaker.