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When Sonny Liston gave up his world heavyweight title to Cassius Clay while sitting on his stool, I couldn't believe it. A champion doesn't quit. I found myself making excuses in my own mind for the man who twice had knocked me out in one round.
"What must I be?" I kept thinking to myself. Soon afterward I learned that Clay, too, tried to quit earlier in the fight. At first I wouldn't believe that either. I thought it was just part of his play-acting, but I eventually became convinced that it was true. He had to be pushed out of his corner into the middle of the ring for the start of the fifth round by his trainer, Angelo Dundee.
"How can he wear the crown proudly?" I wondered. "What will people think of boxing now?"
Clay and Liston will be fighting again on November 16 in Boston for the title I twice held and was so proud of. People keep asking me who I think will win, and the only, answer I can think to give is another question:
"Who's going to quit first?"
This is a terrible thing, because the heavyweight title is the most important championship in all sports in every part of the world. It's bigger than the man who holds it. It means more than all the money it represents. There's a tremendous responsibility on the champion that Clay and Liston obviously don't understand—to themselves, to the sport and to the public, especially in these times of such great social changes in our country and in the way the people all over the world look at us.
It seems so ironic to me now when I remember how some people reacted when I agreed to meet Liston in 1962. He had a criminal background. Certainly, his past associations were not the best. Dr. Ralph Bunche and some officials of the N.A.A.C.P., of which I am a life member, thought that Liston should not have been given the chance to fight for the title. They felt that if he became the champion he could bring discredit to the Negroes' position. My feeling was that the title brings out the best in a man, and so many people in the Negro community had never been given the chance to rise above the surroundings into which they had been pushed.
So now we have Clay, and he's practically turned the title over to the Black Muslims. Because of that I can't respect him as a champion or as a man. He has a right to believe what he believes, but harm has been done to the Negroes' cause and the way the rest of the world regards it by the one who calls himself Muhammad Ali. I don't deny him his rights. By the same token, I have mine.
I am a Negro and I'm proud to be one, but I'm also an American. I'm not so stupid that I don't know that Negroes don't have all the rights and privileges that all Americans should have. I know that someday we will get them. God made us all, and whatever He made is good. All people—white, black and yellow—are brothers and sisters. That will be acknowledged. It will just take time, but it will never come if we think the way the Black Muslims think.
They preach hate and separation instead of love and integration. They preach mistrust when there must be understanding. Clay is so young and has been so misled by the wrong people that he doesn't appreciate how far we have come and how much harm he has done by joining the Black Muslims. He might just as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan. One undemocratic organization is as bad as another. Put these two groups on a desert island and force them to live together and after a while you wouldn't be able to tell a Black Muslim from a white bed sheet.