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What he was not ready to do was dance 15 rounds against anyone: Shavers or Norton or Frazier, or Sister Sarah at the Saturday Night Strutters Ball. The legs no longer can handle 45 minutes of the Ali Shuffle; no more, perhaps, than a third of that. No matter. Unexcelled at buying time, Ali simply dips into his satchel of tricks and whips out the rope-a-dope, brightens it with some pantomime, clutches, makes faces at the fans, sticks a long left into his opponent's face and leaves it there while elaborately cranking up his right. Meanwhile, his 35-year-old legs can go on a coffee break.
"He goes into that rope-a-dope," said Shavers beforehand, "and it's gonna be the dullest fight in history. When he does I'll just hit him a couple of times and then go over and lean on another rope and stare at him. It will be a staring contest."
For Shavers the battle plan was patience, not to be a wild man, not to punch himself out, and in the second round it may have cost him the championship. Midway through the round he unloaded a thunderous right over an Ali jab, which caught the champion flush on the head. Hurt badly, Ali clinched and held, and over Shavers' bulky left shoulder he made faces at the crowd, belittling the damage. Shavers stepped back and hesitated, watching Ali pretend his legs were rubbery. Instinct told him he had the champion hurt, but Ali's con took the decision over common sense. If at that crucial moment Shavers had reverted to his primeval past, if he had plowed forward with both cannons roaring, the title might have changed hands right there. But Ali's recuperative powers are extraordinary; he recovers almost as quickly as you can flick a light switch twice: off, on. His act bought him more time than he needed.
The moment passed; the pace slowed. The third and fourth rounds were a seminar in defense: Ali showed Shavers the rope-a-dope; Shavers demonstrated his version of the peekaboo. At times they resembled two old bulls fighting over a young cow, horns locked, shoving and snorting, tearing up a lot of earth but not each other. In the shoving and snorting Shavers got a draw.
Then Ali conjured up yet another trick: he showed Shavers a 25-year-old Ali, the kid who had dazzled Liston, who had savaged Cooper. It was as though he had drunk from the Fountain of Youth, and for three minutes it worked. The fifth became his finest round since his last fight with Frazier in Manila; gliding gracefully and quickly, using the snake jab, the awesome combinations, floating and stinging, the butterfly and the bee. The world wanted Ali, he gave them Ali but, Lord, not for very long.
The candle flickered brightly and then went out. Dullness returned. The sixth round was nearly even. Ali's sleight-of-hand gave him the edge in the seventh; the eighth went to Shavers by default. The fans booed Ali and he waved his gloves at them, as if saying, "You are watching Frans Hals paint the Laughing Cavalier and you are angry because he is spilling paint on the carpet." But an unfinished masterpiece is no masterpiece, and so Ali fought on. With masterly fakery and occasional flurries he carried the next four rounds, building an insurmountable lead. After 12 rounds he led 8-4 on two of the official cards, 8-3-1 on the third.
Now, thanks to NBC, Dundee knew his man could not lose the decision, but he didn't tell Ali. "I've seen a lot of smart cornermen think they've got a decision locked," said Dundee, "so they tell their man to relax. And they wind up blowing the title."
By now people were watching the challenger critically, looking for the first sign of collapse. Shavers had never gone more than 10 rounds before, and the few times he had gone that far he had finished so exhausted he could hardly stand. Now he had lasted 12, but instead of wilting, the muscular challenger stepped up his attack. He had been pressing most of the night, now he went at Ali full bore. The 13th was Shavers' best round to that point, the 14th was even better. Rocked by hard right hands, Ali survived, but the legs that had carried him through 56 professional fights were beginning to fail him. At the end of the 14th round the champion had to dip into his reserve of strength just to get back to his corner. Wearily he slumped on his stool, his eyes glazed by fatigue.
When the bell for the 15th rang, Ali could barely stand. His legs quivered. Dundee and Bundini Brown gripped his arms, steadying him. "You don't look so good," Dundee said softly. "You better go out and take this round."
As he moved to meet Shavers, Ali was thinking: "Just three more minutes. Fight hard until you die. Do it now." He sucked in a deep breath, lifted himself on his toes and started to dance. Shavers came at him, the time for patience gone, finally the fearsome headhunter; but, as it turned out, too late. He missed with a big right hand, took two punches, missed with a right and a hook, then landed a right. Ali didn't have the strength to act; dazed, he flurried ineffectively and was caught by another right hand.