Clay is handsome, articulate and seemingly intelligent. He showed a good sense of public relations before the Liston fight. He had the ability to make the gate with his mouth, which is something I admire because I know I don't have it. He could have become the most popular champion since Joe Louis and made the heavyweight title respected again, because all the people—white and black—want to respect the man who holds the title.
One way I learned about how the people feel was in the thousands and thousands of letters I got while I was the champion. They came from all over the world, from whites as well as Negroes, from the North as well as the South. One letter I'll always remember, because it showed me how evil can be turned into good and misunderstanding into understanding by living properly. It was from a man who owned a restaurant in the South. He wrote me that he never liked Negroes, but after reading about the way I conducted myself as the champion he had changed his mind. He said I could come into his restaurant with anybody I chose to and sit down for a cup of coffee and he would sit down with us. From that point, he said, he would serve any person. Sure, it's a small thing, and it may sound condescending on his part, but I think it's important.
I don't think he wrote that letter to me as an individual, but more as the symbol of what the championship means. It's the way they look up to the title-holder. Would this man write to Clay as a member of the Black Muslims? I don't think so. There's only one man in the world who carries the title, and the way he carries it is more important than the man himself.
For this reason, as much as any other, before Clay signed to fight Liston again, I made the following offer, and it wasn't made lightly. Just to get the title away from the Black Muslims I said I'd fight Clay for nothing. I'd contribute my entire share of the purse to the N.A.A.C.P. I'd even sign papers before the fight that, if I won, I'd turn the title over to whoever was the No. 1 contender at the time and renounce all claims to the championship. That's how strongly I feel about it. That's one of the reasons why I continue to train, continue to fight and hope against hope that I will get another chance.
It isn't the only reason, of course, but I do feel partially responsible for the title having fallen into the wrong hands because of my own mistakes. I want to redeem myself in my own eyes and in the mind of the public. I owe so much to boxing—everything I have, the security of my family, my ability to express myself, the places I've been, the people I've met. A man has got to pay his debts or he can't live with himself comfortably.
Consequently—and paradoxically—I'm rooting for Clay to beat Liston again. If Clay wins, he must fight me. I'm the only opponent with whom he can make money. If Liston won, I'd never get the opportunity. I wouldn't deserve it; I was so terrible against him. Nobody would pay a penny to see me against him a third time unless I proved myself first against Clay. I'm realistic enough to know that. The way things are now I wouldn't pay a penny to see Liston fight me. But if I beat Clay, things would be so different. Maybe the Black Muslims would repudiate him. It would be my small contribution to civil rights.
After I beat Eddie Machen last July in Sweden, Clay was quoted as saying I was a nothing and he doesn't fight nobodies. But he also said that if he fought me, he'd beat me, and after he beat me he would convert me. In Clay's eyes I may be nothing but a molehill, rather than a mountain, but here's one molehill willing to come to Muhammad any place and any time. I would come with more determination, more desire, more enthusiasm and more enjoyment than I would against any other opponent except Liston, and I believe I would beat him.
Why? Because I would box him. Cassius is a boxer, but I feel I box a little better. He's fast, but I'm faster. He thinks quickly, but I think quicker. He hits hard, but I hit harder and I have more experience and sincerely believe that I profited from the mistakes of which I was guilty against Liston.
I should not have fought Liston. I should have boxed him. I should never have tried to match my strength and weight against his. He was so much bigger and stronger than I was, and Clay actually taught me how wrong I was when he stayed away from Liston where I had come into him.
Maybe Liston took Clay lightly. The way Sonny came out in that first round and threw a wild right hand, you had to feel that he took Cassius for granted and felt he could take him out quickly. When Clay moved away from Liston and hit him with those jabs, something happened to Sonny. Maybe he suddenly became an old man. Maybe he suddenly realized it wouldn't be so easy, but after training for an easy fight there was no way for him to change his style.