In 1967 Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his powers and entering the prime of his career. At 25yrs old Ali was improving fight by fight and just a few months earlier, had put in what was arguably his finest ever performance when he dismantled Cleveland Williams in three rounds. When you think about the perfect fighting machine, the Ali against Williams was about as perfect as it could be, quick, fast, strong, powerful, Ali as a fighter against Williams had just about everything you could wish for in a boxer.
Ali’s next assignment was for the WBA title against Ernie Terrell. Terrell was a tough as nails competitor who stood 6’6in tall and had beaten some of the top contenders in the division. Amongst his scalps were those who had fallen against Ali too, George Chuvalo, Doug Jones, Cleveland Williams and also two future Ali opponents, Zora Folley (who would be Ali’s next and last opponent before his ban) and the light heavyweight great, Bob Foster. Terrell possessed a fine left hand which combined with his reach made it a difficult proposition for his opponents. Reassuring to Terrell was that he had arguably handled Chuvalo and Jones better than Ali had…
The two fighters had some history, Terrell was briefly trained by Angelo Dundee, Ali’s head trainer and the two spent time together as amateurs and had sparred together in the early 1960’s. Although Ali was just a young man at the time, the rumours were that Terrell had got the better of Ali. This experience had given Terrell a more confident feel going into the bout, the history also meant that the two were comfortable around each other, of course since those early days Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, so when Terrell, out of habit referred to Ali as Clay, Ali took it as a sign that he was not respected. Perhaps Ali was using this to promote the fight and create some extra hype, Terrell went along with Ali’s shenanigans as the pair flirted with their fists during a television interview with Howard Cosell.
Terrell was the current WBA champion having won the vacant title which had been stripped from Ali because he signed to give Liston an immediate rematch in violation of the WBA’s rule against return title bouts and this was to be Terrell’s third defence of the title. Ali entered the bout with a record of 27-0 whilst Terrell held a record of 39-4 and was riding a 15 fight winning streak spanning almost five years. The two had pretty much cleaned out the division so a fight between Ali and Terrell was the next logical decision. A fight between two heavyweight champions would normally provide enough hype in itself, but with the bad blood brewing over Terrell’s insistence upon calling Ali ‘Clay’ there was a malevolent feel to the build up, Ali’s sterner than usual demeanor was only a sign of things to come inside the ring…
The Houston Astrodome played host to the night of champions on February 6th 1967. As the fight began, Ali looked a little befuddled at Terrell’s high guard, elbows locked in tightly defence. Cautious about Terrell’s long reach and his left hand, Ali took time to find his range whilst at the same time trying to stay behind Terrell’s jab. As the rounds ticked by, Ali gradually got more and more on top of Terrell and demonstrated the gulf in class between the two. The right and left uppercuts, almost screw jab like were Ali’s most effective punches in the fight, often splitting Terrell’s guard up the middle. It became apparent that something was wrong with Terrell as he struggled to land meaningful shots on Ali and struggled to cope with Ali’s blistering hand speed. Whenever Terrell felt like he had Ali in his grasp, Ali would either slide away with his legs or slip away with his head movement.
Later Terrell would claim that Ali rubbed his eye along the top rope in the second round and poked him in the eye with his thumb causing a vein to break in his eye, the result was that Terrell was unable to clearly see Ali and was forced to changed his tactics, perhaps this was why the tight guard was used for the duration of the fight, Terrell was forced to fight for survival rather than fight for victory.
By the second half of the fight, Ali was truly having his way with his opponent, resorting to yelling at Terrell ‘What’s my name?’ and the fight would forever go down in history as showing a side to Ali that had never before been seen and was never seen again. Terrell was known for having a hard chin, he had only once previously been stopped inside the distance, that was against a prime big hitting Cleveland Williams, the man labelled by Sonny Liston as the hardest hitter he had ever faced(Terrell had twice faced Williams, losing the first fight but winning the return bout, this was a Williams before a gunshot wound severely affected his career) if Ali had any intention of knocking Terrell out, it would not be an easy task to achieve.
Ali would step up the pace and unleash a barrage of punches at Terrell before backing off and resuming again, perhaps Ali was trying to prolong the pain or perhaps Ali realised Terrell would not go down no matter what was being thrown at him.
As the 15 round fight came to an end, the scorecards proved just how one sided the fight had been, Two of the judges scored the bout 148-137 with the third scoring it 148-133, all in favor of Ali.
Just six weeks later, Ali who had retained his WBC, Ring and Lineal heavyweight titles as well as taking the WBA strap from Terrell, was in the ring again against Zora Folley, it would be the last time he stepped inside the ring to fight for three and a half years, the 25yr old Ali would be robbed of his peak years and the world would never see just how good Ali could have become, but those three fights against Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley were widely regarded as the start of a peak Ali and Ali at his finest. For Ernie Terrell, the loss was the start of a three fight skid which saw him lose to Ali, Thad Spencer and Manuel Ramos in succession to cap off a poor year. Like Ali, Terrell did not fight again until 1970, making a winning return against Sonny Moore.
*This article was first featured as part of my weekly column for the RingsideReport.com
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