You can take issue with his politics, label him a braggart and a loudmouth, make an inventory of all the lucky breaks he got, and even insist that the Sonny Liston fights were fixed and that his wins over Norton, Young and Shavers were gift decisions. But what you can never do is question the competitive spirit and fighting heart of Muhammad Ali. There was only one reason for Ali to take on iron-tough Oscar Bonavena and that was to prove to the world that he was — despite the many months of inactivity and the emergence of Joe Frazier as the new heavyweight champion — still the king, still “The Greatest.”
At his peak, before he refused to be drafted into the military and was forced into exile, Ali was a heavyweight boxer of extraordinary quickness and agility, but when he returned to action in 1970, much of the quickness was gone. But his competitive instincts were not the least bit inhibited. Consider that his very first match after a layoff of more than 40 months was against Jerry Quarry, the top contender for the title, a skilled counterpuncher with a deadly left hook. Ali looked sharp in the opening round in Atlanta, but as early as the second the effects of that long absence from the ring became evident as the pace slowed and Ali’s timing lagged. Perhaps it was fortunate that Quarry sustained a cut in round three that was so deep the match was immediately halted.
Behind the scenes the ongoing struggle for Ali to fully restore his right to ply his trade continued and indeed a court order had to be secured before “The Louisville Lip” was permitted to lace up the gloves and take on Oscar Bonavena in New York’s Madison Square Garden, just six weeks after the win over Quarry. Again, there was no urgent reason for Ali to take this fight. He could have bided his time, beat up a soft touch or two to get himself back into peak condition, let the anticipation build and build for the huge showdown to come with Frazier.
But Ali was a warrior. And no one had given Frazier a tougher battle than Bonavena. And it’s important to remember that for many, Ali was still the true champion. After all, he was undefeated. Facing anything less than genuine threats, legit top contenders, would have undermined his claim of being the rightful ruler of the heavyweights. Quarry had been, at worst, the number two contender in the world. Bonavena was a few notches lower, but in December of ’68 “Ringo” had given Frazier hell in a brutal 15 round slugfest. The intent was clear: a dominant victory over Bonavena would prove Ali was still the true heavyweight king.
Easier said than done, however. The Argentinian strongman may have been crude, but he was strong, tough and powerful and completely unimpressed by the fighter he insisted on calling “Clay.” In addition to having given Frazier two tough scraps, he had gone the distance with Jimmy Ellis, beaten two past opponents of Ali in Karl Mildenberger and Zora Folley, and boasted a win over highly regarded Leotis Martin. Simply put, Bonavena was dangerous. Even so, the oddsmakers saw him as a six-to-one underdog, but the match had enough intrigue to bring a near sell-out crowd to Madison Square Garden and make the turnstiles sing at some 150 closed-circuit telecasts.
For Bonavena’s part, he wasn’t the least bit intimidated by all the hoopla and attention and when the fighters held court with the press, Ali found himself on the defensive in terms of pre-fight taunting and trash talk as the Argentinian mocked him incessantly, calling him a “chicken” for refusing to be drafted, while continually chirping, “Clay! Clay!” In fact, this kind of thing was not a stretch for Oscar, an insufferably arrogant pugilist who refused to listen to trainers and enjoyed abusing sparring partners. Clearly taken aback, Ali announced he had never before wanted so badly to punish an opponent. He predicted that “Ringo,” who had never been stopped, would succumb by round nine.
But if admirers of “The Louisville Lip” were hoping to once again see the balletic, swiftly moving Ali who had dazzled Sonny Liston and then eight consecutive title challengers before his championship was unjustly taken from him, they were no doubt dismayed. This was the new, post-exile version of Ali: markedly slower, heavier on his feet, and, at times, there to be hit. So turgid was his performance in the early going that ringside commentator Howard Cosell could not hide his disappointment.
“No sign yet of the Ali skills,” moaned a nostalgic Howard at the end of round one, adding: “the old Ali skills.”
In retrospect, no one should have been surprised this was the case. Three-and-a-half years away from serious training and competition had to of course taken a toll on Muhammad’s talent, but if it was easy to visualize the Ali of 1965 bewildering Bonavena with constant movement and blazing speed, the 1970 version allowed for plenty of action, just of a different stripe. Instead of kinetic brilliance, Ali vs Bonavena was just good, old-fashioned fisticuffs, with plenty of rough stuff and both men taking their share of punishment. It defied expectations, and it had its lulls, but it certainly was not lacking for action.
By round three a surprisingly flat-footed Ali had warmed up and was letting his hands go, while Ringo paused just long enough from attempts to nail his opponent in the groin to throw some wild right hands at Ali’s head. The pace quickened in the fourth with both getting home cleaner blows. More than once Ali was forced to cover up as his tormentor bulled forward and for the first time he took one of those looping rights flush on the chin. The cat-like reflexes and unceasing movement were nowhere to be found. That said, Bonavena had yet to win a round.
Perhaps aware that he was failing to fulfill expectations, in the fifth Ali began to dance, but the footwork of 1970 was a pale imitation of the moves he had busted in years past and not swift enough to evade all of Bonavena’s crude attacks. As if bored and looking to spice things up, Muhammad landed a series of desultory body jabs before Oscar made him pay for his nonchalance with a solid left hook to the chops just before the bell.
“Ali simply does not look good,” wailed Cosell.
In round six Ali gave the crowd more dancing, albeit in a sluggish style, but in fact it was the first stanza which Oscar unequivocally won, as he landed virtually all of the meaningful blows. Ali rebounded in the seventh as the fighters traded at close quarters, his left hand snapping Bonavena’s head back repeatedly, and the eighth was a grueling stanza as the Argentinian worked to get inside of Ali’s reach and it was everything “The Greatest” could do to keep him at bay, timely clinching his chief mode of defense, in addition to his sturdy chin.
Then came the ninth, the round Ali had promised would be the last, the crowd coming alive to see if the prediction would be fulfilled, hoping for something remarkable. It began with Ali slipping to the canvas as he threw a left hook and then the fireworks came, not from Ali, but from “Ringo,” as he landed a series of thudding shots to the head that clearly hurt “The Greatest.” A toe-to-toe slugfest ensued: Bonavena was stunned by a left uppercut that snapped his head back and Ali pursued, launching one big shot after another, before the Argentinian connected with the best punch of the match thus far, a vicious left hook that turned Ali’s legs to jelly. The former dancing master clinched and wrestled to avoid further punishment and seconds later was grateful to hear the bell.
Ali would later recall that moment to authors Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo for their 2003 book, Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years: “In that ninth round I got hit by a hook harder than Frazier could ever throw. Numb! Like I was numb all over. Shock and vibrations is all I felt, that’s how I knew I was alive. I mean, I was jarred. Even my toes felt the vibrations.”
Somewhat surprisingly then, Ali appeared the fresher man in round ten and he took the stanza handily even as Cosell orated unceasingly on his disappointment with the former champion’s performance. “Where is the old head-slipping of punches? Where is that movement … the rapier-like left jab?” No one, it seemed, was appreciating Ali’s stamina as he continued to move and set a swift pace in round eleven, nor did he receive credit for his astonishing durability as Bonavena landed some of his heaviest blows in this round and Ali immediately answered back with his own shots.
In round twelve the pace slowed but there was still no lack of action as the heavyweights stayed largely at ring centre and exchanged blows, Ali connecting with the cleaner shots. By this point it was clear Bonavena needed a knockout to win but on the rare occasions he could corner his man or get inside, Ali would clinch and bring the action to a halt. And while both men were tiring, it was in fact Ali’s punches which had more snap.
Indeed, Ali’s stamina was something to behold, as he began round 14 up on his toes and circling the ring. But now the crowd was booing the lack of excitement as the match appeared to be heading towards a lopsided and anti-climactic points win for Ali. But “The Greatest” saved the best for last as midway through round 15 he caught Bonavena coming in with a perfectly timed left hook, flush on the chin, and the Argentinian tumbled to the floor.
Oscar rose but that single blow, with all of Ali’s 212 pounds behind it, had dissolved what remained of Bonavena’s energy and resolve. No doubt aware that the three knockdown rule was in effect, Ali refused to go to a neutral corner and pounced on noodle-legged Bonavena the second he arose. Two more knockdowns followed and the match was over, Ali becoming the first, and only, man to ever defeat the incredibly tough Argentinian inside the distance.
It had been a grueling, though largely one-sided battle, and in retrospect all the criticism of Muhammad Ali’s performance was vastly unfair. Bonavena may not have been in Ali’s class in terms of skill, but he remained a dangerous fighter, powerful and tough. For Ali to withstand his challenge and fight on into the championship rounds with as much energy as he did and at a pace that puts to shame most heavyweight matches of recent vintage is tribute to his athletic gifts and fighting spirit. Indeed, taking into consideration the long layoff and Bonavena’s proven ruggedness and strength, this in fact stands as one of Ali’s most noble and impressive outings.
Indeed, it was good enough to prompt the Argentinian to briefly put aside his habitual arrogance to give credit where it was due. “I strong,” he told Ali, “but you stronger. Frazier never win you.” He then announced that his conqueror was definitely “no chicken.”
And if Ali did in fact disappoint those with visions in their head of “The Greatest” resurrecting the extraordinary athletic prowess of his younger, pre-exile self, that disappointment affected not at all the massive, worldwide anticipation for what was to follow. The stage was now set; there was no need for further preliminaries. Now it was time for nothing less than the most-watched sporting event in human history, the first clash in a legendary rivalry, that monumental battle between undefeated champions for the undisputed heavyweight crown. Time for Ali vs Frazier, Part One, “The Fight Of The Century.” — Robert Portis