By the time he died, in 1990—of a heart attack, in his car, in a Louisville parking lot—Cassius Sr. had embroidered a long police rap sheet with his troubled history, most of it fueled by alcohol. Thomas Hauser, the author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, an oral history of the fighter, says that an FBI investigation into Ali—initiated in 1966, the year before he refused induction into the armed forces—revealed that the elder Clay had been arrested nine times on charges that included reckless driving, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery. According to the file, Odessa thrice summoned the police seeking protection from her husband. The last file on him, obtained from the Louisville police department, showed he was arrested five times for drunken driving since 1975. Ali declines to talk about violence in the Clay household, but Hauser says he could imagine, in something that Ali once told him, a young Clay fleeing the early-morning chaos at home.
"I don't know what it was," Hauser recalls Ali saying, "but I always felt I was born to do something for my people. Eight years old, 10 years old; I'd walk out of my house at two in the morning, and look at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do. I never got an answer. I'd look at the stars and wait for a voice, but I never heard nothing."
The bars in Louisville closed at 2 a.m. Regardless of what things that go bump in the night drove the boy from his home at two in the morning, he would soon find his calling outside the thin walls of the bungalow on Grand Avenue. And when he did, predictably, he created another world for himself, floated through it, escaped into it until, at last, he used it to express himself like no other man of his time.
Clay was six pounds, seven ounces at birth, but by age three he had grown as big as a calf. One day, when he was still an infant, he jarred loose one of Odessa's front teeth. "We were lying in bed," she says, "and he stretched his arm out and hit me in the mouth. He just loosened the tooth. They couldn't straighten it. Finally it had to come out."
Cassius and his brother, Rudy, 18 months younger, would visit their uncle William Clay, and neighbors would bolt the doors. "One day they broke the birdbath in Mrs. Wheatley's yard," says William. "We called them the Wrecking Crew."
The sea change in his life occurred when, at age 12, he was attending a fair downtown and a rascal stole his new bike. Told a cop was downstairs in the Columbia Gym, Cassius went there to complain. In tears, he told his tale to the policeman, Joe Martin, who was training an amateur boxing team. "I'm gonna whip him if I can find him," said Cassius of the thief.
Martin remembers asking the boy if he could fight. "You better learn to fight before you start fightin'," Martin said.
Cassius looked around the gym at all the wondrous activity—the snap of the punching bags and the skipping of rope and the sparring in the ring. Finally, he said, "I didn't know this was here. Can I come?"
He was back the next day. "He didn't know a left hook from a kick in the ass," says Martin. "But he developed quite rapidly. I'd tell him what to do—how to stand, how to keep his arms and hands, how to punch. He'd be hitting the heavy bag, and I'd tell him, 'Cassius, there's a fly on that bag. I want you to hit him, but I don't want you to kill him. You got to turn the hand over. Snap punches. Phew! Phew!' "
Cassius loved to fire and turn the jab. Even at 12, when he was an 89-pound novice, he had a beguiling cocksureness that played well with the older amateurs in Louisville. George King first met Cassius during an intracity tournament at the Columbia Gym. Cassius was boxing for Martin's team, but he drifted over to Fred Stoner's team in the locker room and stood next to King, who was 21 years old and already married with a child. "I'm taller than you," Cassius said. "Do you think you could beat me?"