Sports Illustrated asked me to cover the post fight activities – how the winner would spend the evening – which I expected would involve following Muhammad Ali around on a hectic evening of celebration.
George Plimpton had expected a party. Sports Illustrated had asked him to cover Muhammad Ali’s celebrations after his March 1971 fight against Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. Plimpton was going to describe the Ali the world knew and worshipped, the hundred miles an hour wisecracking party animal champion. Except there was to be no party. The indomitable Frazier and and his mean left hook left Plimpton describing someone the world had never seen before: Ali defeated.
I got things to do. I got a family to raise. I got money to collect. Let’s go home.
Ali would in the coming days give composed interviews full of carefully worded reflections. To understand what this night really meant to him, it’s better to hear the words that he uttered on leaving the ring, raw and untempered by thought. He didn’t speak of the defeat or grieve for his world title. Instead, Ali tried to find perspective by focusing on what he hadn’t lost. He reminded himself that in his family, he has something that he cares about more than the ring. An unsuccessful 15 rounds is still an honest night’s work and there’s dignity in a hard-earned pay packet. His wish to be at home is a rare example of him running from the spotlight; on this night at least, he wants the show to be over.
“We got whupped” he said a number of times, almost as if it were a foreign phrase he had to learn to get along in a strange country.
Back in his dressing room, the mood was one of disbelief rather than lamentation. Ali cultivated an aura of invincibility not just to intimidate opponents but to strengthen himself, knowing that it was just another weapon to take into the ring. This self-belief was so strong that defeat had to be disorientating. Strikingly, he permitted himself no period of denial but instantly started reckoning with his new imperfect world.
Bundini burst into tears and grabbed for Ali. “Don’t worry champ” he yelled over the crowd noise. “You fought like a champ. You got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Plimpton was not just interested in the king’s fall but in the chaos it unleashes amongst his courtiers. Trainer Angelo Dundee refused to accept the fairness of the result, obsessively replaying the fight over and over in his mind. Ali’s physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, was shocked by the sight of his swollen hip joints, the first time he’d seen this injury in all his years examining fighters and proof of Frazier’s power. As they drove to the hospital, Pacheco could not quieten his fears of neurological damage. But only Bundini was left in tears. In a sport that worships lone heroes, Plimpton’s moving description of Bundini dutifully undressing the far-gone Ali is testament to the truth that even the greats can’t always go it alone.
Doctors agree that he should spend the night in hospital but Ali refuses: “Make it look like Joe Frazier put me in the hospital, and that’s not true.”
Ali never stopped thinking about the image that he was projecting; lying on a hospital bed, he still had a thought for tomorrow’s headlines. Years of careful cultivation had turned Ali’s reputation into perhaps the most powerful in sport and now more than ever it needed protecting. The loss couldn’t be wiped from the record but it could be made to look like a setback rather than a vanquishment. The public, Joe Frazier and, just as importantly, Ali needed to believe that.
I stayed around. It seemed important to follow the thing to a conclusion, not as a reporter but almost as if there were a compulsion to share in Ali’s defeat.
Plimpton realised that the loss of Ali’s “0” hadn’t tainted his legend but enhanced it. Flooring Liston, outwitting Foreman and avenging his defeat against Frazier are all scenes of greatness. But so is Ali prone in that dressing room, too exhausted to dress himself but still defiantly planning to “set traps for the big game.”
Selected quotes from Shadow Box, by George Plimpton.