Soft laughter lifted among the older Stoner fighters. King smiled.
"Think you could stop this jab?" Cassius asked, throwing out two quickies. King pushed a jab toward Clay.
"My jab's quicker than yours," the boy said.
Rudell Stitch, then age 21, turned a thumb down. Fixing Stitch with a smirk, Cassius said, "Come on, I'll give you some of it, too."
All these years later, King's voice lilts at the memory. "We were down there, grown men, and he didn't give a damn," says King. "That's just the way he was. He'd pick at you, mess with your head, tease you to death. I kind of liked him. He was a neat lookin' kid, and he had all that personality. Everybody just took to him."
Over the next six years Cassius grew into a surpassing amateur boxer: 100 victories in 108 bouts; two consecutive national AAU championships, in 1959 and '60, both times as a light heavyweight; two straight national Golden Gloves titles, in '59 as a light heavy and the next year as a heavyweight; and, of course, an Olympic gold medal. "His secret was his unusual eye speed," says Martin. "It was blinding. The only other athlete I ever saw who had that kind of eye speed was Ted Williams. When he started fighting, Cassius was so fast with his eyes that you could give a guy a screen door and he wouldn't hit Cassius 15 times with it in 15 rounds. He was different. Quick as lightning for a big man, the quickest I ever saw."
He was born with phenomenal physical gifts, but unlike so many others, he nurtured them and squandered nothing. Indeed it was as if, in Martin's gym, Cassius had found the message in the silence of the stars. In high school he lived as ascetic an existence as possible for a teenager. Yates Thomas remembers Cassius showing up at school in the morning after buying two raw eggs and a quart of milk.
"He would break the eggs into the milk, shake it up and drink it," says Thomas. "He'd say, 'Now I'm ready to go to school. I'm the baaaaddest man in Looville!' All he thought of was fight-fight-fight. We used to go to a teenage place at night, and he'd stay till 10 o' clock, even on a Saturday night, and then he'd say, 'I'll see ya. I'm goin' home to bed.' He didn't smoke. He'd say, 'Ain't gonna put that stuff in my lungs.' "
At some point in his senior year Clay began to eschew pork, and for the same reason that he reeked of garlic. "Pork's not good for you," he warned Davis. "It raises your blood pressure." When Junior Pal offered him a grape soda early one morning as Clay was working out, Cassius waved him away. "The sugar and acid ain't good for you," he said.
Despite what was happening at home—or, more likely, because of it—he shunned alcohol. It was as if he were studying, high on his own Himalayan peak, the evanescent secrets of the butterfly. "He didn't chase women," Martin says. "And I never heard him say a curse word in my life. We used to go to a lot of towns, and he used to sit down and read a few pages of the Bible before he went to bed."