Muhammad Ali laughs, for in the ring he has become a clown. No, now he is Marcel Marceau entertaining us with grotesque mimes. He is mockingly disdainful of his opponent, he is a show of horror at some trivial development in the ring, he is a badly mauled fighter (ah, but is he only playacting?). And then, in a twinkling, with bold strokes and flashing brilliance, he reaches deeply into his dwindling resources and the left jab becomes a cobra, striking out again and again before melding into a two-handed volley fired with such fury it seems a red line of tracers in the night. Then that moment passes, too, so swiftly it appears but an illusion of days long past.
For Ali there are no more pitched battles, only well-spaced fire fights. Mostly he husbands his strength behind a fool's facade, playing a shrewd but dangerous role, surviving on guile and guts, a master of legerdemain covering his diminished skills with a magic show. And, as was announced at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night: the old magician is still heavyweight champion of the world.
The foil for Ali this time was Earnie Shavers, a shaven-headed 33-year-old puncher with questionable stamina, a crude workman who, for $300,000, was expected to fall down from exhaustion after six rounds or so. Shavers' trademark was a bludgeoning right thrown unceasingly until either the opponent was knocked out—52 had been, most of them with names like Rochell Norris, Elgie Walters and Young Agabab—or Shavers was, which had happened three times. Ali labeled him The Acorn because of his bare pate and publicly dismissed him. In Las Vegas the bookies considered him so far out of his class they wouldn't put up a price. People do not bet on acorns.
Ali's acorn turned out to be a warm and gracious man, one amused by the champion's usual prefight antics, who mildly offered that he thought he was a better fighter than credited; that for the first time he was in excellent physical condition and ready to go 15 rounds if needed. His smile was a little boy's smile, and when he spoke it was with a delightful touch of humor; everyone liked him, few believed in him.
"I don't know what we are going to do around here after you win the title," said Frank Luca, Shavers' trainer and one of the few believers. "After you whip Ali all those hangers-on in his entourage are going to be out of work. They'll all be over here looking for the employment office."
Delight brightened Shavers' eyes. "I already worked that out," he said. "I'm going home and put up a picket fence around the house, get some guard dogs and put my wife Laverne at the door. They may get over the fence, they might con my dogs, but they won't get past Laverne. She's in charge of entourages."
And but for a TV set that never was turned on, Shavers at this moment might be at home building his fence. The set, with no one to watch it, was in Shavers' dressing room. Ali's 22nd title fight was televised by NBC, and as an extra attraction the network had arranged to flash the official scoring on the screen after every round. Such an obvious edge was not lost on Angelo Dundee, Ali's smart little trainer, who posted Baltimore matchmaker Eddie Hrica in the champion's dressing quarters to watch the TV set there and relay the numbers after each round. And so, after 12 rounds, Dundee knew the only way Shavers could beat his man was by a knockout.
Across the ring Shavers was being given quite a different picture. Near the challenger's corner were several members of his home-state Ohio Boxing Commission, two reporters and José Sulaiman, the president of the World Boxing Council. All were scoring the fight and they all reported regularly to Luca that they had Shavers far in the lead. No sweat. Don't take any chances, Earnie. In truth, it was not an easy fight to score. Ali's fights of late seldom have been.
Ali began as he said he would: flat on his feet, circling to his left but not dancing, easily eluding the few thunderbolts Shavers unleashed. Ali won the first round, mostly by default.
"You have to dance against a man like Ken Norton," Ali had said, "and against Joe Frazier. You don't stand and slug with them. If Shavers is as slow as he looks, I ain't gonna do no dancing with him. But I'm ready. I'm ready to rope-a-dope; I'm ready to dance; I'm ready to talk; I'm ready to clown; I'm ready to be serious."