house at 3302 Grand Avenue, Louisville is a commonplace dwelling one story high
and four rooms deep. The ornamental frame of the front screen door was
curlicued by hand with a scroll saw, and the concrete steps to the gray front
porch are painted in stripes, red, white and blue.
bother your head about that house," says Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 19
going on 20, the lyrical young man, lyrically named, who grew up there.
"One of these days they're liable to make it a national shrine. Only by
that time I'll be long gone, man, living it up on the top of a hill in a house
that cost me $100,000. You'll find me out by the swimming pool, and I'll be
talking to a bunch of little boys sitting in a circle around my feet. 'Boys,'
I'll say to them, 'I was just a poor boxer once, as I reckon you already know.
Only I was a very fine boxer, out of the finest that ever lived. And right
there's how come I could move out of that little house down there on Grand
Avenue and build this big one up here on the hill.' "
For the present,
of course, Cassius Clay is still just a boxer, still just an unsophisticated
Olympic gold medalist (he won the light heavyweight championship in the Olympic
Games a year ago) who has turned professional and hasn't run out of luck. How
very fine a fighter he is remains to be seen, but for Cassius, munificently
backed as he is by 11 influential businessmen, it is merely a matter of months
before he fulfills the prophecy fluorescently and unconventionally spelled out
in a sign in a tavern he leases in Louisville's east end. Cassius himself
composed it with stick-on letters, and it reads:
What the sign
refrains from concluding, Cassius is glad to supply: when the epic fight is
over, proud Floyd Patterson the Champion will skulk from the ring as poor Floyd
Patterson the Ex. Cassius Clay will thereupon settle the world heavyweight
boxing crown on his own handsome head, and from that day forward will wear it
for all it is worth—which, for him, is everything.
Sunday," said Cassius, the unashamed, unequivocating materialist, not long
ago. "Some cats I know said, 'Cassius, Cassius, come on now and let's go to
church; otherwise you won't get to Heaven.' 'Hold on a minute,' I said to them,
'and let me tell you something else. When I've got me a $100,000 house, another
quarter million stuck in the bank and the world title latched onto my name,
then I'll be in Heaven. Walking around making $25 a week, with four children
crying at home 'cause they're hungry, that's my idea of Hell. I ain't studying
about either one of them catching up with me in the graveyard.' "
Thus freed from
the ordinary man's care for life's hereafter, bachelor Cassius Clay is a free
spirit swinging through the here and now with an ebullient, epigrammatic
personality. When held to the light, the colors dance off that personality as
from the imprisoned patterns of a millefiori glass paperweight. "Everything
in this life is made to suit the women," says Cassius the social
philosopher. "If the women come, the men got to follow, ain't that so? So
to get a good gate, I wear these pretty white shoes and these shiny white
trunks, and the women says, 'Land, ain't he nice and neat.' The women don't
like the sight of blood either, so I make sure they never see none of mine by
not getting hit." Cassius the phrasemaker may say: "It's either get
rich in three hours or get poor in eight." He means by this that training
to be a boxer may be tedious and inconvenient but it beats working. Cassius the
humorist sometimes discusses his ring strategy this way: "I like to hit a
guy with two fast left jabs, a right cross and then a big left hook. If he's
still standing after that—and if it ain't the referee that's holding him up—I
runs." But the most typical Cassius is the boy with the big innocent brown
eyes and the monumental, rodomontade conceit. Says this one: "I got the
height, the reach, the weight, the physique, the speed, the courage, the
stamina and the natural ability that's going to make me great. Putting it
another way, to beat me you got to be greater than great."
Putting it that
way, it figures that such heavyweight favorites as Patterson and Sonny Liston
could easily establish themselves as greater than great against Clay, for
Cassius is not the awesomely proficient fighter he says he is. (No one really
believes he believes all he says.) But if the overenthusiastic
self-appreciation he expresses sounds somewhat precocious at this stage of his
career, it must be recognized that he is still physically and mentally
immature. He has been boxing (and marveling at his talent) since he was 12
years old, or for a third of his lifetime, but he is still a boy with some
growing up to do and still a boxer with some learning to do. Says a friend of
his named Archie Moore: "Cassius has quite a bit of hard-knock studying
ahead of him."
Cassius has, in
fact, fought only eight times professionally, and in every case his opponents
were chosen not because they would draw a big crowd but because it could be
reasonably concluded in advance that they would either keel over or succumb to
the blind staggers after a few fast rounds with the boy wonder. So far the
has-beens or never-weres he has fought have accommodated Clay's matchmakers.
But the ninth, Alex Miteff, who will fight Clay October 7 on national
television in Louisville, may fail to acquit himself the same way.
"Frankly," says Cassius, whose most creditable victory to date was that
Olympic triumph over a bamboozled left-handed Pole, "there ain't one of
these professionals has been a real match for me yet and old Miteff don't scare
me either. But let's face another fact, I couldn't last one round with any of
them if I was fighting like I did as an amateur. That shows I'm learning, and
Cassius is learning now, he and his parents, aided by hindsight, tend to
embroider the theme that he was marked for heavyweight supremacy from the day
he was born, Jan. 18, 1942. "He came into this world with a good body and a
big head that was the image of Joe Louis," says his father, Cassius
Marcellus Clay Sr. (The Cassius Clays inherited their name from forebears who
were the slaves of C. M. Clay, a Kentucky politician and a kinsman of Henry
Clay.) "That made me real proud. I loved Joe Louis. When he was fighting,
all the world stood still to listen to the radio, you dig? It ain't like that