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Ali may be strong, but so is Frazier. No amount of bluster is likely to deter Smokin' Joe, a raging, bobbing, weaving, rolling swarmer who moves in one basic direction—right at his opponent's gut. A kind of motorized Marciano, he works his short arms like pistons, pumping away with such mechanical precision that he consistently throws between 54 and 58 punches each round. He works almost exclusively inside, crouching and always moving in to slam the body. When the pummeling begins to slow his opponent, when the guard drops to protect the stomach, Frazier tosses a murderous left hook to the head. His coup de grâce is lethal. "Getting hit by Joe," says Light Heavyweight Ray Anderson, one of Frazier's sparring partners, "is like getting run over by a bus." Some of his victims, like Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster, literally have no recollection of what hit them.
None of which bothers Muhammad Ali one whit: "Humph! Bob Foster, a li'I ol' 188-pounder. Now ain't that something! I wouldn't even spar with a man that size. But the press and the bookies are shoutin' 'Who-e-e-e! Joe Frazah knocked him out, knocked him dead!' What they should have done is look what I did to Oscar and what Oscar did to Joe Frazier. All Oscar did was to knock Joe Frazier down twice in their first fight and then whip his face so bad that his eyes were swollen closed. And when it was all over, Joe Frazier fainted in his dressing room. Exhausted. Dead tired. Unable to move."
"I just let him go on talkin' to his own self," sighs Frazier. Meanwhile Joe is more concerned with hardening up his head to withstand Ali's stabbing left jabs. "Every day," he says, "I soak my head in rock salt and water. Who-e-e-e, does that make me mean! But it toughens my skin, and maybe it works on the bones. Conditioning—that's what this fight will be all about. And there's no way he's going to be in better shape than me. For him to win, he'd have to be in much better shape than me, because he has to do two things: one is move backwards, two is fight. Me, I only have to fight. It's that simple."
In that simplicity lie the great imponderables—and the ultimate fascination—of the fight. Can Ali, slowed but still the swiftest heavyweight around, dance out of destruction's way? Can he utilize his superior reach to stave off the bull-like onslaught of his attacker? Can he ever wear down the relentless machine that is Joe Frazier? Conversely, can Ali, who is able to hit sharply with either hand, outgun Frazier, who is more a one-armed fighter? Can, in short, the boxer beat the slugger?