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Ali's early days in Louisville were those of a gifted prodigy rather than those of a ghetto kid. He was from a small family, and he lived and ate well. Work was foreign to him; he spent the summers on the baronial manor of William J. Reynolds, where he concentrated on boxing, playing and occasionally removing the leaves from the Reynolds swimming pool. He was paid $7 a day and, according to a policeman named Joe Martin who shaped his early training, "He drank a gallon of milk a day. They had this milk machine out there where you just pulled the spigot." Ali seems to have been cut off from the harshness of black life. He talked big, dreamed great scenarios, and then found a way to translate them into reality—thanks to the sizable lift given to him by the same kind of white syndicate that has helped Frazier.
What the two reflect seems lamentably lost amid ideologies, emotions and a cross section of idiocy. Out of the ring, the true character of the fight is that Frazier and Ali encompass much of the best that sometimes is, and more often should be, in all of us—white and black. First, there is the courage of Ali, his obstinacy in the face of rank injustice and rejection. One may question his early motivation (which he himself did not fully understand) and, even now, ponder the argument that is so often posed about Thomas à Becket: Is a man less a saint because he tries to be a saint? After a while it was obvious that Ali was seeking political martyrdom. He got it, and he grew steadily and genuinely with his deed. His vision came high. He lost a fortune in his exile, all for a cause that has been neutralized by the slide of events and the vise of opinion.
If Ali, as some admirers think, is a man of the future, a man whose wiring is so special that he reacts unlike any other yet seen, then Joe Frazier is a rare copy of the old, revered, indomitable man. He came north out of Beaufort, pointed himself in a direction, survived the corruptive influence of North Philadelphia and, with radar accuracy, reached his target. The country, the blacks, need an Ali, and so also is there much room for a Frazier. He feels just as deeply about his people, but he does not know the levers of political action, does not have the imagination for social combat. He understands only the right of the individual to be an individual, to survive and grow and be free of unfair pressures.
They have broken camp now, Ali in Miami, where critics blinked at his usual desultory gym work; Frazier in Philadelphia, where he was just as industrious as ever. But camps seldom reveal what will happen in a fight, and this one defies speculation. Certain points, however, may be made. Frazier must be extremely careful in the early rounds, especially in the first two, when he usually has not quite achieved the pulsating rhythm that is so vital to his style. One can expect Frazier to crowd Ali, to cut his punching radius and to deal with Ali's height by trying to beat him to the body and arms in the hope of bringing the head down to a more workable level. It is unlikely that Frazier will gamble with many right hands to the head, for this would expose him to Ali's wicked flash of a left hook. He will have to absorb some pain from Ali's jab, but he must slip it quickly or he will never be able to put his fight together.
The possibility of a Frazier decision is not as absurd as it may seem—aggressiveness means points and Joe will definitely take the fight to Ali. In the end, though, the question, which Ali alone can answer, is: How much does he have left? He gave us no real evidence in the Quarry fight. He did what he had to do, but he did not labor long enough for any studied appraisal. He did get a lot of work against Oscar Bonavena, and what was seen was hardly vintage Ali. "The Bonavena fight saved him," says his trainer, Angelo Dundee. "He needed a tough, long fight and he got it. He's never been better. He will be something to watch." Even if he is, Ali will still be in for a hard night against the stark fact of Frazier—cut off from the insulation of his fantasy world in which there is seldom any fact.
It behooves him to listen to the, wise counsel of his mother, who stopped off to kiss him goodby before leaving for the Bahamas.
"Baby," she said, "don't underestimate this Frazier. Work hard. I'm too nervous."
"Don't worry. Mom," Ali said. "I'll be in top shape. He's a bum."
"Sonny...he's no bum," she said, and then kissed him again.
Whatever the result, there is ample precedent to support the possible occurrence of the unexpected, the ludicrous, the bizarre, especially in an Ali fight. Going all the way back to Johnson-Willard, which many still believe Johnson threw, heavyweight title bouts have often been shrouded in controversy. It remained for Ali, with some help, to make the improbable familiar: the two Liston spectacles; the Chuvalo bout in which he allowed himself to be beaten to the body; the welter of claims of foul tactics when he was in with Terrell; and the night Patterson gimped about the ring because of a back injury and Ali cruelly taunted him. Critics and spectators are usually confused by these moments, and the reaction is often the growl of fix, for the most part an obsolete word in boxing today and certainly unrealistic in this fight.