At the beginning of his professional boxing career, Cassius Clay was primarily known for winning an Olympic gold medal and possessing a loud mouth. Most sportswriters hated him, especially the old guard, who felt he was not properly deferential. The racist treatment by boxing crowds and journalists certainly would have justified Clay throwing his Olympic medal into the Ohio River in disgust. It is one of the most memorable stories in sports history, but the truth is that Clay simply lost it.
According to biographer David Remnick, this fiction first appeared in his autobiography, The Greatest, which was a mix of fact and folklore ghostwritten by the Nation of Islam. “The story about the Olympic medal wasn’t true, but we had to take it on faith,” said James Silberman, the editor and chief of Random House. “When he was young he took everything with a wink, even the facts of his life.” This tale resonated during the Civil Rights era because it conveyed a deeper truth about the indignities that African Americans suffered in the U.S. “Tricksters tell small lies to reveal bigger ones,” cultural critic John Leland reminds us.
In early 1964, this fast-footed boxer shook up the world in spectacular fashion. Clay faced heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, a favorite of the white establishment because he didn’t rock the boat. Almost everyone believed the champ would destroy this inexperienced upstart, and bookies set the odds seven-to-one against Clay. A New York Times editor even instructed the young sports writer Robert Lipsyte to map out the quickest route from the arena to the hospital. Liston was an imposing man, but that didn’t stop Clay from publicly mocking him: “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 Sonny!”
When Liston arrived at Miami International Airport, his opponent was waiting for him on the tarmac, shouting, “Chump! Big ugly bear! I’m gonna whup you right now!” He fled the airport for a rented beach house, but Clay chased him in a car hurling more insults until a fuming Liston pulled over. “Listen, you little punk,” he screamed, “I’ll punch you in the mouth. This has gone too far!” They were separated, but the staged drama resumed in front of Liston’s rental property, where Clay held court in the yard.
At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, he became even more erratic. “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!,” Clay famously shouted, warming up his act. “Round eight to prove I’m great!” No one had ever seen this kind of behavior in the world of boxing, where anything less than stoicism gave off a whiff of panic and fear. Liston stood on the scales as his bug-eyed opponent kept flinging abuse. “Hey, sucker! You’re a chump! You been tricked, chump!”
Clay ignored warning after warning until he was fined $2,500. “I suspected that there was a plan in his public clowning,” Clay’s friend Malcolm X later said. “I suspected, and he confirmed to me, that he was doing everything possible to con and to ‘psyche’ Sonny Liston into coming into the ring angry, poorly trained, and overconfident, expecting another of his vaunted one-round knockouts.” The psychological warfare was effective. Clay’s corner man, Ferdie Pacheco said, “It convinced Liston to the end of his life that Ali was crazy.”
The moment the first round bell rang, Clay launched himself into the ring and began circling—bouncing from foot to foot, twitching his head from side to side. Liston lunged with a left jab, missed by two feet, and things went downhill from there. After six rounds, an exhausted Liston refused to fight anymore and forfeited the match. Cassius Clay jumped on the ropes, leaned into the sportswriters sitting nearby and taunted them. “Eat your words! Eat your words! … I am the greatest!,” he shouted. “I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” He also threw in a line that most people missed in the heat of the moment. “I talk to God every day,” he said, “the real God!”
Malcolm X, who laid low before the bout to avoid controversy, had now returned to his friend’s side. The next day Clay announced that he joined the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Elijah Muhammad, soon gave him a new name: Muhammad Ali. He respected Martin Luther King, Jr., but was more compelled by Malcolm X’s fiery rhetoric and messages of self-reliance. Not surprisingly, this lost the boxer a large chunk of his white fans. They could tolerate Clay’s clownish behavior, but not Ali’s association with an imposing and inscrutable black nationalist group.
Muhammad Ali straddled the center and margins—remaking America’s social landscape in the process. He became even more politically outspoken after converting to Islam, and was openly defiant when drafted into the military in 1966. If Ali served, he almost certainly wouldn’t have seen conflict and instead would have been allowed to continue boxing as a representative of the U.S. Army. But Ali stuck with his principles and was exiled from the ring at the height of his career, while in his physical prime.
During this time he uttered what became one of his most famous lines: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” The antiwar and civil rights movements quickly turned it into the more dramatic, “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.” The phrase was later appropriated by the Viet Cong themselves, who dropped propaganda leaflets stating, “BLACK SOLDIERS: NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED YOU NIGGER.” This game of telephone underscores how much Muhammad Ali had become an influential global figure by the end of the 1960s. It also shows how a single provocative statement can powerfully re-frame a debate, like a sucker punch straight to the brain.
Kembrew McLeod will spend the month of Roctober making sure that he is keepin’ it surreal. Also, David Remnick’s biography of Ali, King of the World, was invaluable in writing this column.