The idea of
Cassius Clay's going to jail for draft-dodging would have brought a loud
horselaugh not many years ago. "I am going to be a clean and sparkling
champion." the young man from Louisville had said, and he was. No smoking.
No drinking. No messing around (well, not much messing around). He was hailed
as "the new while hope," of boxing by at least one enthusiastic writer.
His cheerful pronouncements ('if Cassius say a mosquito can pull a plow, don't
argue. Hitch him up!") brought laughs from people who had had no previous
interest in boxing, and attendance climbed. Boxing had hit bottom in 1950, with
total receipts down to less than $4 million. With Cassius carrying on, the
sport took in $7.8 million in 1963, $18.1 million in 1964, another $8.9 million
benefited every division, and if he was a little wide in the mouth, who cared?
It was all in a spirit of good humor; the public knew the kid was just building
gates, and wasn't he good to his mother and father? His Buddha-shaped nun her,
Odessa Grady Clay, the very prototype of the sweet, kindly southern Negro
mammy, raved about him to the press: "He used to say, 'When I become champ
I'm gonna buy you this and buy you that.' And he'd sit and talk for hours at a
time when he was 12 years old. He was gonna get me a house and furniture and a
car and travel. And he have done all those things."
Even allowing for
the ex post facto mythmaking that grows up around champions, Clay seems to have
called the shot on an impressive number of achievements, including his Golden
Gloves championship, his Olympic gold medal and his heavyweight championship of
the world. His knockout predictions ("Powell must fall in three" were
usually about stiffs, but it is not easy to flatten even a stiff in an
appointed round, and the forecasts added zest to his appearances.
But as he got
bigger and bigger, Clay began losing his sense of proportion. He seemed to
skate right to the edge of mama in his prefight scenes. He lost track of the
difference between buffoonery and nastiness, and the public began to sour on
him. People close to him tried to make explanations and apologies. "I'll
never understand the resentment of his popping off." said Angelo Dundee,
the best trainer in the fight business. "I remember when I was younger,
hearing the people talk about, 'Gee, Joe Louis is a great fighter, but he can't
talk,' and today, you have a fellow who talks and fights, and there's
resentment. There's no figuring the public. The public is a tough customer to
So were the
writers, especially after Clay began openly espousing the principles of Elijah
Muhammad. "Clay is likely to hurt the sport badly by his ideologization of
it." William F. Buckley wrote. "One can only hope that, to put it
ineptly, someone will succeed in knocking some sense into Clay's head before he
is done damaging the sport and the country, which, however much he now disdains
it. gave him the opportunity to hate it from a throne." George Sullivan
wrote: "There was fun and amiability in Cassius Clay when he began his rise
to national prominence. He was a popular good-looking youngster—precisely what
the stricken fight industry needed. Clay was regarded as the potential savior
of the sport, but some people feel he has been more of a hangman."
When Sonny Liston
remained affixed to his stool at the beginning of the seventh round in Miami
Beach two years ago, Cassius Clay automatically became the best-known sports
figure in the world. Europeans may never have heard of America's Koufax, and
North Americans may know little about Brazil's Pel�, and neither Americans nor
Europeans know about Red China's Chuang Tse-lung, but who doesn't know who the
heavyweight champion is?
Clay mounted his
pedestal and used all his power and glamour to become the most hated figure in
sport. Long before his unfortunate remarks about "them Viet Congs,"
domestic and foreign reporters alike (whose accuracy and sophistication were
erratic) were lambasting him—for his lack of sportsmanship, for his tasteless
braggadocio, for his cruelty and his contempt of others. The "clean and
sparkling champion" was now being portrayed as a clean and sparkling bum,
and more than a few people were taking nervous second glances at a remark made
by Clay to Louisville Sportswriter Dean Eagle. Full of himself and his glory,
Cassius had said, "I am the champion who will end all boxing."
Like most matters
concerning Clay, the quote was paradoxical. His life is a symphony of
paradoxes, and the biggest of all is that hundreds of thousands of words have
been written about him, and yet his essential character, his attitudes, the
fears and forces that drive him, remain unknown. The major public relations
victory of Cassius Clay's career may lie in what he has kept hidden.