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George Plimpton

(Page 5 of 7)



The prize fighter accepted the challenge and that night Plimpton flashed an "enormous innocent smile" and lifted the ropes for the Mongoose's "tanklike figure." "As you can well see I'm not a properly constituted fighter," says the writer, whose lower lip twitches ever so slightly as he recalls entering the ring with Moore. "I have a very thin, delicate nose that bleeds at the slightest touch. Not only that but I suffer from something called 'sympathetic response.' That means if you're hit, you weep.

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"The fight started and in the first round Moore made some very impressive moves indeed, lots of stiff jabs. and I had a tremendous amount of sympathetic response. I think I rather startled Archie Moore with all my weeping and so he held me up for three rounds. But I didn't want to be held up for three rounds. I wanted to go down and get it over with, 'to rest' as they say in boxing parlance. He kept whispering in my ear: 'Breathe, man! Breathe!'"

While Plimpton felt he had taken enough punishment in the ring, the media thought otherwise; the BBC asked if he would engage Muhammad Ali in a similar match in Louisville, just prior to the Kentucky Derby. "Muhammad Ali was pretty sulky about this because he didn't understand what he was supposed to do with this writer in the ring. Then all of a sudden the idea caught his fancy and I began to understand what it is like to be put in the force field of that incredible fighter when he was at his prime.

"What he does is to put you into a sort of compartment is his brain and then from time to time, three or four times a day, he takes you out and puts you down on a sort of metaphysical table and toys with you like a child fiddles around with a plaything. He would call up at 2 o'clock in the morning, I would pick up the phone and recognize his voice on the other end. He would say: 'YOU IS GOING TO FALL DURING THE RING INSTRUCTIONS!' And then he would hang up and let me think about that. . . . Happily or unhappily as the case may be, Muhammad Ali had his jaw broken in San Diego by Kenny Norton and our fight was canceled."

Plimpton's first book, "Paper Lion" (which was eventually made into a movie of the same title), was an account of his experience as the last-string quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Knowing he would make all sorts of mistakes at the Lions' summer training camp, he used the cover story that "I had played for a semiprofessional Canadian team known as the Newfoundland Newfs. If I made an appalling mistake I could say that's the way we used to do it with the Newfs."

This ex-Newf graduated from training camp and called signals in two professional football games, once for the Detroit Lions and later for the Baltimore Colts. For the Lions he lost 29 yards in four plays. When the Colts sent him in to quarterback a set of downs, the team gained 18 yards--15 of those were on roughing the passer penalty.

The sport which Plimpton thought would be a breeze was golf. He had a handicap of 18 and figured if he joined a tour of great golfers he would get a good story and at the same time pick up some free advice from the pros and whittle his handicap into single figures. As usual his interloping made for snappy copy. As for professional skills, they never seemed to rub off on George. He didn't see enough of the pros. He'd tee off with them, but they'd be putting while he was digging his ball out of the underbrush.

"For example, I was playing in this tournament in San Francisco and my partners and I came to this tremendously high elevated tee. They sent tremendous shots down the fairway and I topped my ball and it rolled down into this sort of gulch. It went about 70 feet and most of that down. My partners didn't want to hold up the tournament so they went on and I went down into this gulch to find my golf ball.

"After about 10 minutes I found it and happened to look up at the tee where we had been and there was Arnold Palmer who was in the foursome behind us. He saw my people hitting their second shots but he didn't know I was down there. It was hardly the place you would think to look, nearly straight down. So I let him know that I was still playing the hole and from out of this gulch came a sort of croaking sound and a raised club. Arnold Palmer looked over the precipice and saw me down there and across his face came the look of a businessman sitting at his desk, who has suddenly become aware that something has moved in the bottom his wastepaper basket."