When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.
— Muhammad Ali, 1967
Life had been good to Pat Patterson for so long that he’d almost forgotten what it was like to be anything but a free-riding, first-class passenger on a flight near the top of the world….
It is a long, long way from the frostbitten midnight streets around Chicago’s Clark and Division to the deep-rug hallways of the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan….But Patterson had made that trip in high style, with stops along the way in London, Paris, Manila, Kinshasa, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and almost everywhere else in the world on that circuit where the menus list no prices and you need at least three pairs of $100 sunglasses just to cope with the TV lights every time you touch down at an airport for another frenzied press conference and then a ticker-tape parade along the route to the Presidential Palace and another princely reception.
That is Muhammad Ali’s world, an orbit so high, a circuit so fast and strong and with rarefied air so thin that only “The Champ,” “The Greatest,” and a few close friends have unlimited breathing rights. Anybody who can sell his act for $5 million an hour all over the world is working a vein somewhere between magic and madness….And now, on this warm winter night in Manhattan, Pat Patterson was not entirely sure which way the balance was tipping. The main shock had come three weeks ago in Las Vegas, when he’d been forced to sit passively at ringside and watch the man whose life he would gladly have given his own to protect, under any other circumstances, take a savage and wholly unexpected beating in front of 5000 screaming banshees at the Hilton Hotel and something like 60 million stunned spectators on national/network TV. The Champ was no longer The Champ: a young brute named Leon Spinks had settled that matter, and not even Muhammad seemed to know just exactly what that awful defeat would mean — — for himself or anyone else; not even for his new wife and children, or the handful of friends and advisers who’d been working that high white vein right beside him for so long that they acted and felt like his family.
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