"And Cassius Jr., who sometimes shows great maturity, called us over to one side and said, 'She's afraid of him. If we go on without him there might be trouble.' This was our first inkling of the situation at home."
The situation at home was volatile. Cassius Sr., a signpainter with minor artistic talents and a major taste for gin, engaged in periodic scuffles with his drinking companions, his wife and even his sons. "He couldn't fight a lick," a friend described the senior Clay, "but as soon as he'd have too many drinks he'd take on anybody. And when he wasn't drinking there wasn't a nicer guy in Louisville. Tip his hat and everything!"
More than once Odessa Clay had her husband brought into court for roughing her up. Cassius Sr. was also picked up for reckless driving, disorderly conduct, assault and battery, always after he had been drinking. As another old friend put it, "The father isn't a criminal or even an evil man. He's just a frustrated little guy who can't drink. He never served any time and he never will. Usually they put him under a security bond to keep the peace. If he'd lay off the gin, the police'd never hear from him again!"
Whatever fine distinctions can be made about the elder Clay's peccadilloes, Cassius Jr. and Rudolph Arnett Clay grew up in an atmosphere of impending explosion (although each swears, with hot Clay pride, that his childhood was happy and peaceful). Cassius Jr. was not unmarked by the tension around him. A Louisville policeman remembers a call at the Clays' frame house on Grand Street:
"We got a report of either a cutting or a fight or something like that. We got there, and Cassius had a cut on his thigh. His father wasn't there. Mrs. Clay was raising—you know how women are. Cassius spoke up and said, 'My name is Cassius Clay and I'm a boxer under Joe Martin.' I stuck my neck out. I should have turned a report into police headquarters, but I failed to do it, due to the fact I said to myself, 'Well, there ain't gonna be no prosecution anyway.' So I said to the mother, 'Now look, take him to your own doctor or take him to the hospital, and if you want to, go up and take out a malicious cutting warrant.' "
For the next three or four days Patrolman Joe Martin, who disgorged coins from parking meters during the day and trained amateur boxers at night, wondered why his star pupil, Cassius Clay, failed to show at the gym. "He was usually the first one to get there and the last to leave," Martin said. "Finally he came in, and he was all patched up where he'd been cut. I asked him how he hurt himself, and he said he fell on a milk bottle."
Before he stumbled on boxing, young Cassius appears to have spent some time running with street gangs. His father said, "Whatever neighborhood I'd move into, he would take up with the wrong gang. I had a hard time keeping him away from them gangs."
"Oh, yes," Cassius, the champion, said later in his usual wild hyperbole. "I had the baddest street gang in Louisville. We carried pistols and shotguns and raced hot rod cars, and we drinked and we got drunk and we went out having gang wars, shooting machine guns...."
In fact, the gang period was not so dramatic as that, nor did it last long. One night, when Cassius was a skinny 12-year-old, his new bicycle was stolen, and someone directed him to Patrolman Joe Martin and, inadvertently, to boxing. That was the end of "the baddest street gang in Louisville."
From then on young Clay went on a training regimen so intense and so rigid that it baffled the adults around him: Up at 5 a.m. for roadwork, followed by a day of school, followed by an evening of boxing in the gym. On Saturday nights he boxed on a local television show run by Patrolman Martin. There was no time for gangs, and little time for home.