Muhammed Ali vs. Joe Louis: What if
27.01.06 - By Bill Ross: - THE SETTING - Ali and Louis are at their peak abilities and bring their prime ring smarts, focus, conditioning and game plan into the fight. Both men also bring their reputations into the fight, well aware and respectful of each other's attributes. The fight is fought in Madison Square Garden and the ring is a standard size 24 foot square and gloves are red Everlast 10 oz. Ali wears white trunks, Louis wears purple. Ali weighs 212, Louis weighs 205.
Article posted on 28.01.2006
WHAT LOUIS MUST DO TO WIN
Louis must score with his jab to offset Ali's rhythm and create openings for his power shots. Jabbing to Ali's body leaves Louis vulnerable to Ali's straight right counter (Ali's second best weapon after his jab) so Louis must concentrate his jab to Ali's head.
Louis must close the distance on Ali by cutting the ring off, forcing him to the ropes and work his body, sapping his energy. Ali is most susceptible to a left hook power shot so Louis must look to land it. Joe's power punches are most effective in close so Louis must get inside Ali's reach if he is to hurt him. If Louis can hurt Ali he must throw fast combinations before Ali's recuperative powers can allow him to recover.
WHAT ALI MUST DO TO WIN
Ali must use his foot speed, lateral mobility and angles and not let Louis get set to land his power shots. Ali must use his reach advantage and jabbing accuracy to keep Louis at a distance. Ali is most comfortable moving to his left which is away from Joe's left hook which works to his advantage. Joe is susceptible to a straight right hand so Ali must look to counter Joe's jab and time him coming in which will maximize his power. Ali must stay off of the ropes, fight in mid-ring and utilize his hand speed when punching in combination at long range.
THE FIGHT - ROUNDS 1-5
Ali starts the fight fast on his feet, establishing his jab. Louis does not chase but calmly and patiently pursues Ali, attempting to lull him into a counterpunch trap. Ali lands some hard shots in combination, setting the tone and attempting to gain Joe's respect. The fighters clinch at one point with Ali attempting to manhandle Louis by pulling Joe at the back of the neck. Joe responds by hitting Ali to the body. The round ends with Ali still moving. Ali wins round one. Ali's plan is to start fast, take the lead and put rounds in the bank. Louis seems slightly befuddled with Ali's movement, combination punching and speed and appears to be trying to figure Ali out and find his own range. Joe's erect fighting posture and lack of head movement makes him vulnerable to Ali's straight punches. Although Louis does score periodically with his own jabs and counters, he does not mount any sustained, damaging attack as Ali for the most part does not present a stationary target for long. In Round 3 Ali buckles Joe's knees with a straight right but gives ground when Louis fires back. Louis wins round 4 when he is able to catch Ali on the ropes and score with strong body shots. Joe's patience costs him in these early rounds as his choice not to chase Ali results in him trailing 3-1-1 or 4-1 after 5. Joe's answer to Ali's jab is to parry and attempt to counter with his own and Ali responds by either feinting before jabbing or double jabbing, landing between Joe's gloves. Ali has the upper hand in the battle of the jabs.
Joe's peak years started at age 22 in 1936 when he had already KO'd two former world champions and lasted until age 34 in 1948 after the second Jersey Joe Walcott fight. I will compare Ali's peak years also starting at age 22 in 1964 when he first won the title until age 34 in 1976 after the third Ken Norton fight. Both fighters were shells after age 34. Both fighters were inactive for lengthy periods during these years. Louis was inactive for 4 years while serving in the army while Ali was inactive for 3 1/2 years when his boxing license was revoked.
Louis officially went 33-1 during this time. In Joe's first fight with Walcott, Judge Frank Forbes accidentally wrote on the back of his card that Louis was the winner despite scoring the fight in favor of Walcott. Without this error Walcott would have been awarded the decision against Louis. Taking this into account, a strong case could be made that Joe's record should actually read 32-2 with 29 KO's.
Ali faced better competition than Louis in their respective peak years and went 34-2 with 21 KO's. A comparison of both fighters records during this 12 year time frame shows them to be strikingly alike. During this era, Ali fought three fighters (Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman) that today are generally considered to be top ten all-time great heavyweight champions. When Ali first entered the ring to face these 3 fighters he did so as the challenger. These fighter's combined records at the time were 101-1 with 85 KO's. Ali KO'd Liston and Foreman and was decisioned by Frazier 6 months after returning from his 3 1/2 year exile. Ali avenged this loss twice by decision and KO. In Ali's 6 combined fights with these greats he went 5-1 scoring 4 KO's. Louis entered the ring as challenger against Jim Braddock whose record at the time was 45-24-4 with 26 KO's. Louis won the title with an 8th round KO. Louis never defeated a top ten all-time great heavyweight.
Louis scored 17 KO's within the first 5 rounds. If Louis were to KO Ali, Joe's statistics would point to the early rounds as being the optimum time to do it. Historically however, Ali was always at his fastest and most elusive during these early rounds and was never dropped in these rounds even against early KO artists Liston and Foreman. Against top tier opposition Ali made a point of starting fast and dictating the pace by winning and banking the early rounds. Louis would be too patient and Ali too fresh for Louis to KO Ali in these rounds.
Comparatively, during this time frame Ali scored 6 KO's in 5 rounds or less so an Ali win by KO in these rounds would also be unlikely. Louis was dropped 3 times in Round 1 (Braddock, Buddy Baer, Walcott) 2 times in round 3 (Tony Galento, Walcott) and 2 times in round 4 (Max Schmeling, Walcott) for a total of 7 knockdowns suffered in rounds 1-5. Louis was also noticeably staggered twice in the first round against Galento and Tami Muriello. If a knockdown is to be scored in the early rounds it is likely to be scored by Ali as Joe was clearly the more vulnerable fighter. Ali has the edge in these rounds.
THE MIDDLE ROUNDS 6-10
As was Ali's custom after taking a commanding early lead in an important fight (Frazier I & III, Norton II) he lets Louis back into the fight through the middle rounds. Ali comes off his toes in these rounds for two reasons: 1) With Louis not chasing, Ali no longer feels the need to move as much and 2) with a commanding lead, a confident Ali wants to test his punching power on Louis. Louis is able to score more with his jab and get inside Ali's reach with right hand counters as well as periodically back Ali up to the ropes. Once on the ropes Louis mixes his attack between body and head. Although a frequent body puncher, Louis is not a sustained body attacker hence the mixed attack. Also, realizing he is trailing in the fight, Louis seeks to catch Ali with a damaging head shot to turn the fight in his favor. Ali does not stay on the ropes for extended periods of time, clinching and returning to mid-ring when caught with a big punch. In the clinches, Ali grabs Louis behind the neck and pushes down and Joe returns the rough house tactics and attempts to break free. Ali talks to Louis and Joe ignores him. The two fighters engage in some spirited exchanges in mid-ring. Louis is the aggressor at this point and lands the harder punches, causing Ali to give ground. By pulling back from and riding Joe's power head shots, Ali is able to take some of the effect away. Louis takes the middle rounds 3-2 or 3-1-1. After 10 rounds Ali is slightly ahead.
Louis scored 8 KO's in Rounds 6-10 while Ali scored 7. Both fighters have a tendency to lose or split middle rounds to upper tier competition in close fights. Neither fighter is ever floored or badly hurt during these rounds. Historically and statistically both fighters are on even terms and are prone to lose some middle rounds.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP ROUNDS 11-15
With the fight still up for grabs Ali returns to what got him the early lead, lateral mobility and scoring at long range with jabs and combinations. Louis, believing he is trailing, slightly alters his game plan and attempts to pick up his pace and pressure Ali more than he did in the early rounds. Sensing he may need a knockout and realizing the middle rounds body attack has not significantly slowed Ali, Louis concentrates more on Ali's head. When Louis does score, Ali clinches which by now frustrates Joe. Louis now responds to Ali's clinching by banging the body with his free hand while waiting for the referee to break them. As the fighters touch gloves at the beginning of Round 15, a confident Ali is once again talking to Louis. Ali closes the show with movement but does plant and throw hard combinations as Louis looks to land a punch that will turn the fight around. Louis lands a big left hook in the final minute and Ali holds on. A desperate Louis chases Ali in the last 30 seconds but Ali having already done enough to win the round dances and stays out of harm's way. At the bell Ali returns to the corner with his hands up while Louis walks to his with his head down. Ali wins at least 3 of the championship rounds.
Louis scored 4 KO's in rounds 11-15 while Ali scored 8. The differences in the two fighter's KO histories are now clear. Joe's chances of a KO victory drops off dramatically the longer the fight lasts, steadily decreasing from 17 KO's (Rounds 1-5) to 8 KO's (Rounds 6-10) to 4 KO's (Rounds 11-15). Ali on the other hand gets slightly stronger and more effective as the fight goes into the later rounds steadily increasing from 6 KO's (Rounds 1-5) to 7 KO's (Rounds 6-10) to 8 KO's (Rounds 11-15). Ali holds the distinction as being the only heavyweight champion to score 2 KO's in the 15th round.
Ali was floored once during the championship rounds (Round 15 vs. Frazier I) while Louis was floored once and knocked out (Round 12 vs. Schmeling I). Ali was staggered in Round 11 vs. Frazier I while Louis was staggered in Round 12 vs. Billy Conn I.
Ali had a history of sweeping the championship rounds in his prime (10 - 0 vs. George Chuvalo and Ernie Terrell). In close fights late in his career, the 33 and 34 year old Ali also finished strong, winning championship rounds 4-0 vs. Frazier III and 4-1 vs. Ken Norton III. Ali scored two come from behind wins in the championship rounds, an 11th round KO vs. Ron Lyle at 33 years of age and a decision vs. Norton III again at 34 . Louis also scored two come from behind wins in these rounds, a 13th round KO vs.Conn I in his prime at 27 years of age and an 11th round KO vs. Walcott II at 34. Ali went 12-2 in decisions during this time while Louis went 4-0 or 3-1 again if the aforementioned Walcott I is to be considered a loss. Both fighters are closely matched in the late rounds. Statistically, Ali is the more experienced fighter in the championship rounds with a reputation of winning tough, close fights with late rallies. As the statistics above so vividly indicate, a Louis KO is most likely to occur early in a fight while Ali who more methodically breaks his opponents down is more likely to score a KO win late in a fight. Ali's record is 20-2 with 8 KO's during the championship rounds. Six of Ali's decision wins from 1971-74 are over 12 rounds as Muhammad was not champion at the time. Louis is 9-1 or 8-2 (once again if you consider Walcott I a loss) with 4 KO's and 1 KO loss. Ali has the proven history and experience and therefore the edge in these rounds.
Ali wins a unanimous decision with scores of 9-6, 8-6-1 and 8-5-2. The fight itself is significantly a great fight but in terms of action fails to meet expectations. A counterpunching boxer/puncher vs. a mobile boxer is not always a great match-up. In this fight Joe's patience costs him too many early rounds and he does not pressure Ali enough to score a late KO. Aware of Joe's KO reputation, Ali fights his fight and does what he needs to win.
THE FACTORS - STYLES MAKE FIGHTS
Boxing historians often point to the success of opponents Frazier and Norton as proof of Muhammad's vulnerability to Louis. An examination however of the two fighter's styles show that they bear very little resemblance to Louis. Frazier was a quick footed aggressive swarmer with non-stop bob and weave head movement which provided a moving target for Ali's punches. Frazier was also a sustained body attacker who applied constant pressure often leading with hooks. Bending at the waist, Frazier made himself a shorter target while utilizing a cross-arm defense style. Louis on the other hand was a straight-up, head-on boxer with a classic two hands high, narrow footed stance. Louis did not bend at the waist, dip at the knees or offer much head movement when coming forward which emphasized his erect posture. Louis took short steps when moving forward and looked to work off the jab but did not pressure opponents in the manner that Frazier did. Louis was a patient counterpunching boxer/puncher who looked to lure his opponent in and capitalize on openings created by their errors. Louis was not known for a sustained body attack, foot speed or cutting off the ring in the manner that Frazier effectively utilized against Ali.
Norton fought out of a wide stance and frequently dipped at the knees making him appear shorter that Ali. Norton used a cross-arm crab-like defense with his right glove left open to catch jabs. Unlike Louis, Norton looped his punches making his power shots longer and coming from further out. Because of this, Norton was not a particularly effective in-fighter. What caused Ali problems was that his optimum punching range was also Norton's optimum punching range. Again this style is very unlike Joe Louis whose best punches were ideally short, compact and delivered from inside. The similarities between Norton and Louis are only comparative in that they both used the jab and punched to the body. Norton did not pressure like Frazier but used wider steps to cut off the ring making him slightly more of a pressure style fighter than Louis was.
Much argument is often made of Joe's hand speed and combination punching and how Ali would cope. Henry Cooper who fought both Ali and Floyd Patterson stated in his autobiography that Patterson in addition to being a counter-puncher had the fastest hands of any heavyweight he ever saw including Ali. Patterson who was known as an excellent combination puncher was never able to put together combinations against a prime Ali, instead trying to land one punch at a time in their 1965 bout.
What Louis could learn from these fighter's success is that Ali can be hit with a left hook (hurt with and floored by in Frazier I) and like most fighters his rhythm can be disrupted by a jab. The body punching attack that Norton and Frazier deployed to wear Ali down was not effective in setting Muhammad up for a KO but they did help win rounds by counting as scoring punches. No fighter sufficiently wore Ali down for a knockout with a body attack. Ali received frightful body beatings on the ropes vs. Foreman and Frazier III yet came back to stop both of these opponents. Simply put, a Joe Louis body attack is not going to significantly wear Ali down as it may have other fighters. As for Ali being hit with multi-punch combinations, it never happened in his career even against Patterson who as previously mentioned had faster hands than Ali according to common opponent Henry Cooper.
Conn's fighting style is often compared to Ali and this is not entirely accurate. Ali was taller, heavier, faster, stronger, hit harder and had a better chin than Conn. An examination of Louis-Conn I shows Conn executing an offensive style not at all like Ali. Conn, shorter and lighter than Louis switched between movement without punching (outside Joe's and his own punching range) then jabbing and scoring with flurries in-close with many of his punches being arced hooks to Joe's body. This offensive style is not remotely like Ali's who did not hook to the body or look to fight in-close.
What Ali could learn from Conn's success is that when faced with a lateral moving, out of range target, Louis did not put enough pressure, cut-off the ring, close the gap and drive his opponent to the ropes. Instead, Louis followed, patiently waiting for his opponent to come to him. Ali could also learn that Louis can be reached with a jab by aiming between his gloves which were held in the classic traditional fashion. Conn lost not because Louis figured him out but because Conn changed his own strategy, planted his feet and tried for the KO. That being said Louis was in his prime at the time of the first Conn fight. Trailing on points, staggered in the 12th, and hurt in the 13th Louis KO'd the light-heavyweight champion Conn.
Schmeling is thought of as fighter who had a strong right handed knockout punch, the testimony being his KO win over Louis. Schmeling retired with a near identical win/KO record as Ali with 40 KO's in 56 wins while Ali had 37 KO's in 56 wins. What Ali could learn from Schmeling's success is that Louis could be frequently reached with a straight right hand and could be KO'd by a fighter with comparable power to his own.
Some boxing historians consider this KO loss to Schmeling as an example of the 22 year old Louis not being fully developed as a fighter or his ability to take a punch not yet developed. At the time of Schmeling I, Louis had already KO'd former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer. In the fight after Schmeling Louis KO'd former champion Jack Sharkey. Louis was so highly thought of at this time that he was a 10-1 betting favorite against Schmeling. If Joe's impressive performances against Carnera, Baer and Sharkey can be used as a gauge, Louis was very near his peak as a fighter when Schmeling landed close to 70 power right hands and KO'd him in 12 rounds. Louis was closer to his physical prime in this fight than he was at any time after his 4 year layoff. The 22 year old Ali by comparison had not fought a former champion, or former title contender prior to facing Liston. Ali was considered such a long shot to defeat Liston he was made an 8-1 betting underdog. When Ali KO'd Liston in 7 rounds he was not as respectively developed in his career as Louis was when he was KO'd by Schmeling.
Louis was floored in 1936, 1937, 1939, 1941 (inactive 1942-46) 1947 and 1948. In total Louis was floored in 6 of the 8 years he actively fought during these 12 years. This is evidence that Joe's chin neither got better or worse during the years after Schmeling KO'd him. Ali by comparison was only floored by Frazier during his peak years despite facing such power punching KO artists as Liston, Foreman and Lyle. Ali is a perfect example of a fighter whose ability to take a punch improved as he entered his peak years. Historians point out that Ali was dropped by Cooper and thus was vulnerable to being KO'd by Louis. An examination of Ali's career demonstrates that from 1964 onwards Ali remained on his feet while fighting much harder hitters and absorbing much harder punches than the left hook Cooper floored the 21 year old Ali with. Clearly this Ali was not yet at his peak physically but would blossom as a fighter the following year with his title winning effort against Liston.
COULD LOUIS DEFEAT ALI?
Any time 2 all-time great fighters meet in the ring the possibility for either fighter to emerge victorious is there and this fight is no different. What makes this match-up so intriguing and debatable is that both fighters are universally accepted as #1 and #2 on the top ten greatest heavyweight champions list. So how would Louis defeat Ali? It could only be done one of two ways, by decision or KO. A decision win for Louis would be a difficult task in that he would give away too many rounds with his patience. Louis was not a swarming pressure fighter, the ideal style to cope with a mobile boxer. Visions of Louis consistently cutting off the ring and driving Ali to the ropes is something that Louis in his prime did not to do against Conn so it is unlikely he would do it to Ali. Louis is often given credit as an adaptable fighter yet in Conn II, Louis still didn't actively pressure Billy but waited for Conn to come to him and leave an opening as he did in their first fight. The idea that Louis was an attacking swarming fighter is inaccurate as an examination of his fights clearly demonstrate. To suggest Louis would chase Ali down like Frazier did is to suggest Louis would fight a style that he didn't use his entire career.
That leaves a KO victory scenario. Boxing historians who favor Louis often repeat a scenario of Louis cutting off the ring, pressuring Ali to the ropes weakening him during the fight with body punches, dropping Ali's hands then scoring a KO with a left hook. Frazier was perhaps the best heavyweight champion ever at applying constant pressure to cut off the ring. In Frazier II Ali was able to successfully and effectively deploy lateral movement en route to winning a unanimous decision. In Frazier III Ali again successfully and effectively used lateral movement in the later rounds which lead to Muhammad scoring a stoppage. Foreman was one fighter who did effectively cut-off the ring against Ali but in their fight the ring was only 16 foot square, much smaller than the standard sized ring Ali and Louis would have fought in. Foreman was a forward moving attacking slugger and not a patient boxer/puncher like Louis. Foreman's style was designed to catch and kill and was not the style that Louis fought. Foreman also took big steps towards his opponents escape route which allowed him to trap opponents like Norton, Ali and Joe King Roman on the ropes. Louis by comparison took small shuffling steps and generally followed mobile opponents like Conn, Bob Pastor and Walcott . For these reasons I do not see Louis effectively cutting off the ring on Ali.
As stated earlier in this article, no opponent ever set Ali up for a KO with a sustained body attack. Frazier who was renowned for his focused body attack used it in all 3 fights against Ali and couldn't score a KO and lost 2 of their 3 matches. Foreman who hit harder than Louis had Ali on the ropes for the better part of 8 rounds and teed off on Ali as he would a heavy bag. Even this couldn't set Ali up for a KO who turned the tables and KO'd Foreman. While Louis did go to the body he preferred to mix his attack. He was not a sustained body puncher. To suggest Louis would strongly focus his attack on Ali's body is to again suggest Louis would fight a style that he didn't ordinarily use. I do not see a Louis body attack significantly weakening Ali to the point that he would get set up for a KO.
Ali was floored by a Frazier left hook during his peak years. This knockdown occurred in the 15th and last round of the fastest and most punishing heavyweight championship fight of all-time. Ali absorbed big left hooks throughout this fight without being floored so this knockdown likely had contributing factors such as fatigue and the culmunitive effects of Frazier's non-stop attack, factors much like those that contributed to Schmeling's KO of Louis. Even still, Ali was up immediately, clear-eyed and did not appear in serious danger of going down again in that round. As Louis did have a powerful left hook it is conceivable that he could have floored Ali with a single shot, although as history indicates, Ali was not particularly vulnerable early in a fight when Louis was at his most dangerous. A Louis knockdown would most likely have to be in the championship rounds as this was the only time Ali was floored in his peak years. Comparatively the championship rounds is when Louis scored his least amount of knockdowns. If Ali was floored by Louis he would likely get up as he did against Frazier as Muhammad had unbelievable recuperative abilities.
Louis is known for his spectacular high profile one knockdown KO's of Braddock, Conn and Walcott. While Louis did score some of these one knockdown KO's, he also faced many opponents who got up after being floored and continued fighting. Nathan Mann was floored 3 times before getting KO'd in the 3rd. Harry Thomas was floored 5 times before getting KO'd in the 5th. Schmeling was floored twice before getting KO'd in the first. John Henry Lewis was floored 3 times getting KO'd in the first. Pastor was floored 4 times in the 1st, and once in the second before being KO'd in the 11th. Johnny Paycheck was floored 3 times in the first before being KO'd in the second. Arturo Godoy was floored 2 times before being KO'd in the 8th. Abe Simon was floored 4 times before being KO'd in the 13th. Buddy Baer was floored 3 times before being disqualified in the 7th. In their rematch, Baer was floored 3 times before being KO'd in the first. That is a huge total of 38 knockdowns in 10 fights. Clearly, many of Joe's opponents were able to get up and continue fighting after being floored. This speaks volumes when suggesting Louis would KO Ali. A mandatory 8 count was not in effect during these years which means that these fighters upon getting off the deck could be immediately attacked by Louis without being given the grace of 8 seconds to clear their heads. If so many of these fighters were able to get up from multiple knockdowns and continue fighting against Louis it is likely that Ali who had the best recuperative abilities of any heavyweight champion, was never KO'd in his career and only floored once during his peak years would have risen off the deck if floored, recovered and continued to fight Louis. I do not see Louis scoring a KO over Ali.
SO WHAT WOULD THE MATCH-UP LOOK LIKE?
In reality, Louis never fought a fighter who closely resembled Ali's combined style, size and physical attributes. About the closest fighter to Ali's style that Louis fought was Walcott. Physically, Walcott was smaller, lighter and had a shorter reach than Ali. Walcott's footwork, feints and accurate jabbing could at the very least be considered similar in style to Ali. While training for Schmeling I, Walcott was hired as a Louis sparring partner but was promptly fired when he floored Louis during a session. In their first fight Walcott brought a 44-11-2 with 26 KO's record into the ring and had lost 2 fights the previous year. Walcott proceeded to drop Louis twice, was awarded more points but was accidentally deemed the loser. In the rematch Louis was once again floored and trailing on points before stopping Walcott in round 11. Was Joe's age a factor? It shouldn't be when you consider that Walcott at 33 was the same age as Louis. If Walcott was a late bloomer he entered his prime by losing his first 4 title tries before going on to a 2-6 record in 8 title fights scoring 1 KO and being 10 counted 3 times. Clearly Walcott pales in comparison to Ali.
Stylistically and size wise, the closest fighter to Louis that Ali fought was Zora Folley. Folley's height, weight, and reach are almost identical to Joe's and his stance and footwork was similar to that of Louis. Folley was also a boxer/puncher who looked to counter and exploit his opponents mistakes. In fairness Folley did not possess the power of Louis nor the handspeed when punching in combination. Folley did bring a respectable a 74-7-7 with 43 KO's record into the Ali fight and despite being past his prime at 34 years of age, he was undefeated in 4 years. In their 1967 fight Ali completely dominated Folley. With trainer Angelo Dundee predicting a 4th round KO, Ali chose not to throw a meaningful punch until the 4th and when he did he floored Folley with a single right hand. Ali did what he pleased and stopped Folley in the 7th. This was Ali at his peak. Never getting hit with a meaningful punch, Ali toyed with, connected at will and stopped an 85 fight 14 year veteran who had been undefeated in 4 years. Consider the words of Zora Folley:
"Louis wouldn't have a chance; he was too slow... There's no way to train yourself for what he does. The moves, the speed, the punches and the way he changes style every time you think you got him figured. The right hands Ali hit me with just had no business landing but they did. They came from nowhere. Many times he was in the wrong position but he hit me anyway. I've never seen anyone who could do that. The knockdown punch was so fast that I never saw it. He has lots of snap, and when the punches land they dizzy your head; they fuzz up your mind. He's smart. The trickiest fighter I've seen. He's had twenty-nine fights and acts like he's had a hundred. He could write the book on boxing, and anyone that fights him should be made to read it."
- Zora Folley
Sports Illustrated April 10, 1967
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