Clay's dalliances with women had far less to do with romance than with fantasy—his flirtations had the fizz life of a soft drink—and, according to Indra Brown, he was a virgin when he graduated from high school. "I know that for a fact, because he confided in me on things like that," she says. "He used to say to me, 'I will always have money. I'm not going to be a Joe Louis. Women are not going to drag me down. They are not going to be my downfall!' "
Late in his junior year he began doing experiments in the technique of kissing, and on his first try he nearly blew up the lab. Areatha Swint had first met Clay after a high school variety show, when she needed someone to walk her home. They dated for three weeks before he got around to asking her for a kiss goodnight. "On the night he did, it was late," Swint would recall in a newspaper memoir. "It must have been around 12:30 or one. We were being quiet because my mother had said there was no company after 12, and he didn't have any business being up that late because he was in training.
"I was the first girl he had ever kissed, and he didn't know how. So, I had to leach him.... When I did, he fainted. Really, he just did. He was always joking, so I thought he was playing, but he fell so hard. I ran upstairs to get a cold cloth. Well, when you live in the projects, a lot of times mother would wash and lay the towels on the radiator to dry. So I looked for one and got some cold water on it and ran back down the stairs."
She doused him with it. When he finally came to, Swint asked, "Are you O.K.?"
"I'm fine, but nobody will ever believe this," he said.
His shyness was such that at times the mere presence of girls struck him dumb. In 1959, recalls Wilbert (Skeeter) McClure, who was another young boxer, he and Clay were in Chicago for the Golden Gloves when Cassius began pestering him and a few other fighters to don their Golden Gloves jackets and head over to Marshall High, a largely black school, to meet some girls. McClure was in college and had no interest in high school girls, but Clay kept bugging him to go. McClure finally agreed, and so they visited the school for lunch. Girls were all over the place, eyeing this team of young gladiators with the new jackets. After Clay got his tray of food, he sat down, said nothing and never looked up.
McClure turned the needle. "You wanted to get us here," he said to Clay. "Come on. Do your thing."
Cassius sat frozen. Recalls McClure: "He was silent, staring at his plate and eating his food."
By this time, Clay was a minor celebrity back home. He had often been featured on Tomorrow's Champions, a local Saturday afternoon television program featuring young boxers, and his name had begun appearing in the Louisville Courier-Journal as far back as 1957, when he was 15 and he stopped a tough named Donnie Hall. The headline read: CLAY SCORES T.K.O. OVER HALL IN 4TH.
When Jimmy Ellis, a 17-year-old untutored roughneck from Louisville, saw that bout on Tomorrow's Champions, he went to the Columbia Gym to learn how to box. Says Ellis, "Hall was a friend of mine, and I figured, I can beat that other guy." So Ellis started fighting. History would soon be up to its old tricks, for it was Ellis, 11 years later, who would win the vacant heavyweight championship after Ali was stripped of it for having refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. Ellis traveled frequently with Clay in their amateur years, and what he remembers most vividly about Clay was his almost boundless capacity for work in the gym.