The Beatles were on their first American tour, and they had been taken to the Miami training camp of Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world, for a photo op. Liston took one look at the four mop-topped Brits in their matching white terry-cloth cabana jackets and refused to pose with “those little sissies.” So the photographer scrambled for second best. Stuffing the lads back into the limo, he headed for Clay’s training camp, the Fifth Street Gym.
Because The New York Times’s boxing writer didn’t think the fight between Clay and Liston was worth his time, a kid reporter had been pulled off rewrite and sent instead. Everyone knew Clay had no chance, so my instructions were stark: as soon as I arrived in Miami Beach, I was to drive my rental car between the arena where the fight would be and the nearest hospital until I knew the route cold. The Times didn’t want me wasting any deadline time getting lost on the way to the intensive-care unit.
I had the route down by the time I got to Clay’s gym. He wasn’t there yet, but these four guys my age were, and they were stomping and cursing because security guards had herded them into an empty dressing room to wait. Had I any sense of who they were (or would become), I might have been more reticent in pushing my way into the room too.
I asked for their predictions for the fight. They said that Liston would destroy the silly, over-hyped wanker who had no business fighting for the title. Then they began cursing again and banging on the walls.
Suddenly the dressing room burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much bigger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He glowed. And he was laughing.
“Hello there, Beatles,” he roared. “We oughta do some road shows together. We’ll get rich.”
The Beatles were quick studies. They followed Clay to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they’d met before to choreograph their capers. The band bounced into the ring, frolicked, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. They lined up so he could knock them all out with one punch, then they fell like dominoes. They formed a pyramid to reach Clay’s jaw so one of them could pretend to sock it.
Once the Beatles left, Clay worked out, then walked back to the dressing room for a rubdown. As he stretched out on a table, he beckoned me. We’d never spoken. “Who were those little sissies?,” he whispered.
Seven days later, Clay beat Liston to claim the title. He was 22 years old, one of the youngest heavyweight champions of all time, as well as one of the best, the most charismatic and the most controversial. With that triumph over Liston, Clay’s trajectory was set: a hero and a villain, then a principled warrior and, finally, a beatified legend, at once misinterpreted and beloved.
Twelve-year-old Cassius Clay had left his new Schwinn on a Louisville street corner while he gorged on free popcorn at the annual Home Show. When he returned, the bike was gone.
Someone told him to find a police officer. There’s one in that basement there. Clay ran down into the Columbia Gym. Boys, black and white, were slamming bags, jumping rope, sparring in front of mirrors as bells clanged and men yelled, “Time!” He was spellbound. Joe Martin, an off-duty white cop who coached young boxers, listened patiently as the boy ranted: “Somebody stole my bike … when I find him I’m gonna whup him, I’m gonna …”
“Do you know how to box?” asked Martin.
Martin would recall that Clay was skinny and “ordinary” as a fighter at first. But he quickly found, as Clay’s pro trainer Angelo Dundee would a few years later, that the youngster was impossible to discourage, “easily the hardest worker of any kid I ever taught.”
The crude but crowd-pleasing slugger soon became a neighborhood celebrity. Gang members respected him, teachers overlooked his unsatisfactory schoolwork, and, perhaps most important for his confidence, he gained recognition within his father’s large and accomplished extended family of teachers, musicians, craftspeople, and business owners. The family traced itself back to the statesman and abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who freed his slaves. One of them named a son Herman Clay, who in 1912 named a son Cassius Marcellus Clay, who in turn named his firstborn, on January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.
Years later, when I asked Muhammad Ali about his lineage, he bridled. He was a new member of the Nation of Islam then, dogmatic in his anti-white rhetoric, but mindful of his family’s pride in its heritage. Finally he said that if there was any white blood, “it came by rape and defilement.”
Ali’s father instilled in him the sense that he would have to make his way by following white-man rules, at least until he was big enough to make his own. He started making them quickly. Despite resistance from trainers and coaches, Ali evolved a style that probably ruined many other fighters who didn’t have his speed and talent. Few could get away with holding their fists at their waist as he did, or with avoiding punches by pulling back instead of “slipping” them, leaning to one side or the other so they passed harmlessly over a shoulder. His style often led people to believe he couldn’t take a punch.
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