Sport: Bull v. Butterfly: A Clash of Champions

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Other so-called fights of the century provide few clues. Frazier, for example, is not the brawling Dempsey, who, past his prime and out of shape, lost twice to Boxer Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927. Nor is Ali an Ezzard Charles, the lighter, shorter, slower stylist who was knocked out by Slugger Rocky Marciano in 1954. Comparison of common opponents is equally unrewarding. Muhammad likes to brag that he did a better job than Frazier on Bonavena and Quarry. But Frazier coldcocked Canada's tenacious George Chuvalo in the fourth round, while Ali did no better than waltz him around for 15 rounds. And Quarry, who was stopped by a cut in his bout with Muhammad, was in far better shape after three rounds with Ali than he was after seven rounds of being bludgeoned by Frazier. Says Quarry: "Clay will get his kidneys busted!" Just to even things off, though, Bonavena insists: "Frazier no win Ali." So far, the only seeming certainty is that Ali, 29, and Frazier, 27, both unscathed and both at the peak of their powers, are facing the toughest fight of their careers.

Farce in Four Acts

A tough fight is a rare thing these days. Indeed the flood of excitement about Frazier v. Ali is partly a reaction to the drought of truly great heavyweight fights in recent years. Four of the most trumpeted fights of the 1960s—the two Liston-Floyd Patterson matches and the two Liston-Ali bouts—added up to a farce in four acts. There is, in fact, a Cassandra-like ring to Ali's latest preachments: "I'm gonna close the book on boxing. I'm gonna add one more page and then they'll close it up. Ain't gonna be no boxing after me."

At least not like there was in the days when Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, made small boys in black ghettos and the Southern slums dream big dreams. "I was marked," Ali recalls. "I had a big head, and I looked like Joe Louis in my cradle. People said so." When he was old enough to know a hook from an uppercut, his daddy, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who was a sign painter, took him for a walk in their Louisville neighborhood and stopped at a sidewalk shrine. "Put your hand on that telephone pole," Daddy said. "What for?" asked his son. "One time," Daddy said, "Joe Louis was here and he leaned against that pole for five minutes, five whole minutes, and talked to the people." Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. put his hand on the pole. He's been talking to the people ever since.

Joe Frazier, too, was "marked." The second youngest of 13 children, he was raised in a four-room shack on a farm outside Beaufort, S.C. On the day he was born, his father prophesied that little Joe would be his "famous son." When Joe was old enough to tend the hogs and plant okra on the family's ten acres, he stuffed a feed bag with rags, hung it from an oak tree and began punching away. "Y'all gonna laugh," he kept telling his brothers and sisters, "but I'm gonna be the next Joe Louis."

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