Ali-e-e-e! Ali-e-e-e! There I'll be wearing a sheet and whispering Ali-e-e-e. I'll be the ghost that haunts boxing, and people will say, "Ali is the real champ and everyone else is a fake."
SO predicted Muhammad Ali three years ago, after the World Boxing Association, in a fit of moral fervor, stripped him of his heavyweight title because he had been convicted of draft evasion. Ali's prophecy was at least half right. Never more than a scene-stealing shout away from ringside, keeping in the headlines with a flurry of lectures and boasts, the champ-in-exile did indeed haunt the sport. He was a titleholder stripped of his rights—not by the fists of another fighter but by decree of a pretentious body of boxing executives.
Ali's vacated crown was claimed by other boxers—Joe Frazier, then Frazier and Jimmy Ellis as disputing "co-champions," then finally Frazier alone. But was Joe really the champion? Could he really claim to be the best heavyweight in the world as long as Ali remained unbeaten? Not according to millions of Ali's fans. Certainly not to Ali himself. "I want Frazier," he screamed when Joe won the title. "I want Frazier now!" Now is next Monday night. In Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, Ali and Frazier will finally decide, in 15 rounds or less, who really is "the greatest," who is the "onliest champ."
Show Business Spectacular
Not surprisingly, the battle has been widely ballyhooed as "the Fight of the Century." Whether it deserves that title, of course, will depend on what actually takes place in the ring. But at a time when public interest in boxing as a sport has fallen off, the Ali-Frazier match is unquestionably the fight of this year, if not of the past ten. Certainly it has accumulated a record number of firsts and mosts. Never before have two undefeated professional heavyweight champions met: Frazier has 23 knockouts in 26 consecutive victories, Ali 25 K.O.s in 31 straight wins. Never before has the public been willing to spend so much to see two men whack away at each other in a ring. At the Garden, which expects a gross of $1,250,000, all 19,500 available tickets have been sold out for five weeks; scalpers are currently asking $700 and more for a $150 ringside seat. The total take from live and closed-circuit TV may well top $21 million.
That is only the beginning. According to Promoter Jerry Perenchio, who approached 70 possible backers before he got Los Angeles sportsman Jack Kent Cooke to put up the bulk of the purse money, 300 million spectators in more than 26 countries will see the fight. A successful theatrical agent who cheerily admits that "I really don't know the first thing about boxing," Perenchio is not missing a trick; after the bout is over, he hopes to auction off the fighters shoes, trunks, robes and gloves "If a movie studio can auction off Judy Garland's red slippers," he says, "these things ought to be worth something. You've got to throw away the book on this fight. This one transcends boxing—it's a show business spectacular." It certainly is, as far as the fighters are concerned. Each stands to make $2.5 million in cold cash.