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1976 -- The nation and boxing celebrated 200 years of firsts
By James A. Merolla

It was a catchy year with a less-than-catchy name: The Bicentennial Celebration. America turned 200.

Muhammad Ali turned the heavyweight crown into his own personal circus, with one clown leading the parade -- him.

Knowing he couldn't possibly top his epic third war with Joe Frazier the previous October -- a fight that nearly killed him and his most determined nemesis in the brutal, airless heat of Manila -- nor not wanting to, Ali needed quick, easy cash fighting opponents with slow, easy fists.

So, his circus, as Sports Illustrated coined it, marched on. First, they found the worst opponent in the heavyweight division--perhaps the worst title opponent of all time. A glazed Danish named Jean-Pierre Coopman who somehow had managed to win the heavyweight championship of Europe -- a feat akin to being the best Domino player on earth -- if it weren't for the honor of the thing, you'd give it up.

Coopman sported right and left mutton chops on his face that made a greater impression than his right and left hands. His publicity man -- or likelier still, Ali's publicity men -- dubbed him The Lion of Flanders, a neat sobriquet not unlike a Harlequin romance.

Ali tried to hate him in order to build up the gate. He'd start his spiel of what he was going to do to the chump, how he was going to knock the mutton chops off his face, how he'd eat him like a real Danish. But he couldn't do it. Coopman smiled so much and bowed and told Ali how much he loved and admired him, even kissing him at one point, that Ali just shook his head and said, "What am I going to do with this guy?"

Coopman's corner provided the first first of 1976. They poured champagne for Coopman during the fight, not waiting to celebrate, handing him The-Just-Happy-To-Be-Here Award. Coopman-- smiling, giddy, a lethargic mass of no talent, plodded forward to eat Ali's infrequent jabs, still bowing out of respect and NEVER THROWING A SINGLE PUNCH!

At one point after the second or third round, Ali turned to the ringside press, leaned out of the ropes and said, "You'd better pray for this guy. I'm doing my best to make a show, but he's got nothin.'" In the fifth round, bloated with the bubbly, Coopman took a single right hand to the forehead and folded up like a lawn chair at sunset on the beach. "I felt a great heaviness," he said later. "Like a great weight on me." Probably the sideburns.

Coopman took his $100,000 and his Lion crest and his unopened bottles of champagne and the first plane back to Flanders, never to be heard from again. But the circus went to another town.

Landover, Maryland, to be precise.

Jimmy Young waited there -- a sleek heavyweight cutie with no muscle mass and a punch that couldn't dent a grapefruit but speed and talent and the innate ability to make bigger, stronger, harder men miss. Talents that had made a young Cassius Clay so great.

Ali weighed 230 lbs., his highest weight ever -- 15 lbs. over his best weight. He clearly hadn't trained, thinking he could just lean on Young and get him to fold up. He looked like Young's Daddy, but fought like Young's Mammy.

I can honestly say -- without fear of contradiction -- that the fight was the worst, the most boring, the most frustrating and one of the strangest, both in tactics, temperament and endings -- yet seen to that point in the history of heavyweight championship boxing. It stunk out the joint. On CBS television in prime time, no less.

Watch the tape of that fight, if you are an insomniac. It will cure you. I defy you to find even one right hand that Ali landed in the entire 15 rounds!!!! And you can count the jabs Ali lands on one hand in the entire fight!!! If he landed more than six solid punches in an hour I'm a liar. Young, for his part, landed much more often (maybe 30 punches the entire fight) and should have won the duke and the title if he hadn't adopted another first -- the only time a heavyweight challenger with the championship in his grasp leaned outside of the ropes not once, not twice, but a half-dozen times to avoid the bulky champion bending his way like a Sumo wrestler with no place to land.

Such tactics cost him rounds and the decision. But Young won it. How can a fighter win a fight if he doesn't land a punch? Another first, something only Ali could have done. The hardest blow was before the first bell when the timekeeper blew a whistle.

The circus folded up its tent and moved on in May...to Munich, Germany, where a bucket-jawed Cockney named Richard Dunn waited with that bauble again -- the European heavyweight championship and a chin bigger than his two fists.

Dunn was ancient and harmless and colorful and brave and, did I mention harmless?, and perfect for Ali at this stage of the game. Another first took place. It was the first time Munich was allowed to hold an international sporting event -- before or since, after the Olympics of 1972 where terrorists murdered seven Israeli athletics in the middle of the games. Richard Dunn (rhymes with "Kid's is done") grimaced and groaned and moved like a man stepping in and out of potholes and ate right hands until the color of his black trunks matched the rosin dust on the canvas.

He went down--and got up gamely--five times while Ali stood in center ring on NBC prime time television, whirling his right hand like a helicopter's blades, attempting to take flight perhaps from this charade of a heavyweight fight.

Dunn filled his mouth with cold water and Ali filled his wallet with money and left for rarity -- the heavyweight champion of the world would take on a pro wrestler in an exhibition as champion. Jack Johnson had taken on Andre Sproul, a French wrestler, 75 years before in an exhibition-turned-farce and Jack Dempsey had knocked Cowboy Luttrell clear out of the ring, out cold in the second round of another exhibition when Dempsey was 45 years old in 1940.

(The Cowboy-- bald and fat and no fighter-- had taken indignity to a new level when he sucker punched Dempsey two months before while Dempsey was refereeing Luttrell's wrestling match with a favored foe. Dempsey called him out and the boxing match was set (with Ring magazine editor Nat Fleischer as referee). In the first round, Luttrell looking as if he wanted to tear off his gloves and grab the Manassa Mauler by the throat, couldn't box a lick and Dempsey, still remarkably strong and trim, immediately turned the fight into Firpo II, minus any punishment thrown his own way. Luttrell was counted out amidst the typewriters in the first row).

Anyway, here was Ali, looking for more easy money in the grunt and grown circuit. He appeared at a few televised wrestling matches and aroused the masses, saying no "rassler" could beat a boxer and he would prove it. He entered the ring once and "knocked out" some chump with a series of right hands and the match was on....but somehow, along the way, a turnbuckle broke. Ali was supposed to "fight" a well-known U.S. wrestler. He would participate in the fake, get thrown around, get bloody, be near comatose, and then arise like the Phoenix to fire a lightning flurry, leaving his foe out cold for a sensational victory.

But this didn't happen. The promotion was botched. Promise after promise, change after change, and Ali found himself in another first -- a legitimate match between the current heavyweight champion of the world and a big, strong wrestler from Japan named Antonio Inoki, who didn't read the fine print and thought he was in a real fight.

The match was set for 15 rounds and the Ali corner didn't know what to do.They entered the ring, not knowing what Inoki was capable of. Ali landed six jabs over the first two rounds before Inoki fell intentionally on his back, crablike, kicking at Ali with scissor kicks like some spasmodic dervish.

Round after round, this spectacle went on. What the hell kind of match was this? Ali would climb on the ropes and open his mouth wide and shout epithets at the being he had nicknamed The Pelican. Inoki, staying away from Ali's punches, would kick from a prone position on his back and miss and kick again at Ali's legs.

Ali got $6 million for this farce from naive wrestling and boxing fans. At the end of the "fight" Ali had blood red welts all over his legs and internal damage to his circulation. Inoki shrugged and washed his back. The "decision" was a draw.

[Editor's note -- Ali's "injuries" were non-existent and fabricated by Ali's publicity flack Ferdie Pachecho. Indeed, I recently recently discovered that Ali, free of injury, fought two exhibitions on a US Military base in Seoul on June 27, one with Gerald Noble. -- Mike DeLisa]

In September, Ali faced his only real threat of the year -- the third fight with Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium. Ali was 34 now and past his best. Norton was 31 and at his peak. Norton won the fight, but lost the decision. The writers called it A Mugging in the Bronx.

On CBS in prime time, the world watched on a cool September night as Norton pressed Ali, hurt him with a solid left hook to the body in the sixth round, bopped him with looping right hands, never letting up the pressure, and looked to have taken the title by a score of approximately 9-5-1 under New York's round scoring system. Yet, with a smart 15th round of flurrying and speed, Ali stole the final round and with it, the fight, by three like judges' scores of 8-7 in rounds.

Norton was never the same. Ali was never the same. And CBS developed another first-- something not done before or since. They put together a panel of 10 experts a week later to watch the fight again on tape and dissect it round by round, scoring the fight and allowing the viewers to score it in sections at home.

Brent Musberger was the host. I remember Joe Frazier and Nat Loubet, the editor of Ring magazine, were two of the celebrity judges. Whether planned or unplanned, much like the Inoki debacle, these new judges somehow scored the fight a draw 7-7-1.

Ali would survive another year as champion. The western world would enter 1977, which had no American nickname or special celebrations. A movie called "Rocky" would incorporate the Bicentennial and Philadelphia and a lippy heavyweight champion into its plot that year.

But there would be no more firsts because the circus had limped out of town and the clown had turned first into a cash cow and then into an elephant.

And who would pay to see an elephant dance?

James A. Merolla is a boxing historian and a former writer for Ring magazine. He is currently a features writer for The Attleboro Sun-Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass.

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