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Sports About Sports - Predicting, By Participants...By Nelson Lardner

One of horse racing's oldest bromides relates to asking jockeys for tips. As in so many fields . . . unless you're on the inside of the Inside, jocks who tell, tend not to know, and vice versa.

But in all the major betting sports, it's always interesting to hear participants - and their peers - predict outcomes. It's natural, as major sports and gambling are irrevocably intertwined - no matter how much Dr. James Dobson, ex-Senator Bill Bradley, and/or Sen. Jon Kyl may prefer to pretend otherwise. The pronouncements of many seers have been spectacular . . . some are better than others . . . and more than a few are consistently wrong - either by accident, or design. You'll agree how valuable the latter can be.

An old colleague/acquaintance from my racetrack days in the early '70s used to tell me about his chatting relationship with oldtime boxing promoter Frankie Carbo. Carbo and such colleagues as Frank "Blinky" Palermo had their fingers in many of boxing's most prominent pies through the '40s and much of the '50s, an era during which the results of many of the major bouts appeared preordained, in more ways than one. Whenever a big fight was on the horizon, my colleague (who ran in some of the circles frequented by Carbo), would ask Mr. C. his opinion of the likely result.

"Frankie would give me his pick," my friend related, "and I'd thank him -- and bet the other way. And most of the time - I collected!"

Yes, it's a good idea to REALLY know your sources.

The guy who brought this news staple to an art form was Cassius Marcellus Clay, of course. All of you guys who've reached or passed the 55-year-marker saw the whole show, in all its glory. Muhammad Ali didn't just tell you the future -- he put it into rhyme.

The doggerel he rolled out prior to his first fight with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in 1964 remains classic. Asserting he'd win in eight rounds, Ali recited one of his most brilliant creations, the climax of which reads:

" . . . Now Clay swings with a right, What a beautiful swing. And the punch raises the bear, Clear out of the ring. Liston is still rising, And the ref wears a frown, For he can't start counting, Till Sonny comes down. Now Liston disappears from view. The crowd is getting frantic, But our radar stations have picked him up. He's somewhere over the Atlantic. Who would have thought When they came to the fight That they'd witness the launching Of a human satellite? Yes, the crowd did not dream When they laid down their money That they would see A total eclipse of the Sonny!"

Eight-to-one ON, in the market, Liston proved unable to cope with Clay's lightning-quick style, and failed to come out for the seventh round, ceding the title to Clay while seated on his corner stool.

Prior to his ascension, Clay was on schedule with his grand tour- de-force, armed with poems, long and short. When taking on the clever and savvy (though undersized and overmatched) Old Mongoose, Archie Moore in November of '62, Clay declared that:

"When you come to the fight, Don't block the halls And don't block the door, For y'all may go home After round four."

. . . a windfall for those speculating on the precise round of completion, for Clay's round projection proved spot-on.

Later, in '74, after Ali had been demonstrably proven mortal by Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, The Champ and the earlier, meaner version of George Foreman hooked up, which occasioned Ali's last top-drawer rhyming effort:

"You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait 'til I whup George Foreman's behind. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see. Now you see me, now you don't, George thinks he will, but I know he won't. I done wrassled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale Only last week I murdered a rock, Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick . . . I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

That recital preceded the Rumble in the Jungle, in which Ali eventually dropped Foreman to the canvas, where he stayed for the count.

Now, my Carbo acquaintance discovered the optimum way to take advantage of Frankie's basic nature. Then there are the oh-so-valuable guys who actually try to pick winners, but can't, to save their lives.

One of the most notorious of these, from an earlier era, was one-time heavyweight champ Gentleman Jim Corbett.

Errol Flynn played him in the movie, and Flynn was a FAR better handicapper than Corbett ever was. Corbett was bylined when he took money from Willie Hearst to provide his views to Hearst's Universal syndicate, but crack '20s newsman Gene Fowler did much of the actual typing.

It was a point of public amusement that Corbett had NEVER picked the winner in any championship bout prognostications appearing in the public prints. And then came the first Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight classic in Philadelphia in the fall of 1926 (you know, the one where the Philly mob demonstrated that they were stronger than Al Capone in this specific field, especially on their home turf . . . )

Anyway, as Fowler related it in "Skyline", his classic autobio review of the period, he had heard Corbett tell pals that he thought Dempsey would make short work of Tunney. Fowler agreed with that judgment . . . but looking to maintain Corbett's "perfect" public reputation, Fowler put into Corbett's mouth that "Tunney would win the decision after ten rounds of left jabs and superb footwork to offset the champion's renowned hooks and crosses."

Corbett never saw the story prior to the fight. Fowler's trumped-up projection was dead-solid perfect, and Corbett's hotel room in Philly was the final destination of dozens of congratulatory calls the following morning. Of course, what his friends eventually said to him, after Corbett had earlier told them verbally that Dempsey would be the winner, was not recorded.

Damn, we didn't even GET to the next governor of Alabama . . . Charles Barkley.

Maybe next time.

Nelson Lardner

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