"From the age of 12 he just lived at that gym," says his Aunt Coretta. Says another relative: "Cassius was looking for a refuge, and he found it in boxing." The champion's own version of his mad dash into boxing is as follows:
"Well, it's all I could really do. I saw there was no future in getting a high school education or even a college education. There was no future 'cause I knew too many that had 'em and were laying around on the corners. A boxer has something to do every day. Go to the gym, put on my gloves and box.... There wasn't nothing to do in the streets. The kids'd throw rocks and stand under the street lights all night, running in and out of juke joints and smoking and slipping off and drinking, nothing to do. I tried it a little bit, used to try, wasn't nothing else to do till the boxing."
Prizefighting also gave Cassius more promising ingredients for his dreams. "Lunch hours and times like that I'd imagine I could hear my name announced as the champion of the world. One night I heard Rocky Marciano fighting on the radio, and all the excitement! 'The heavyweight champion of the world!' ' Marciano hit him with a left!' ' Marciano connects with a right!' 'Now the champion of the world comes out!' And it sounded so big and powerful and exciting. Here I was, a little Louisville boy riding around on a bicycle, no money, half hungry, hearing about this great man, Marciano.
"And boxing made me feel like somebody different. The kids used to make fun of me: 'He thinks he's gonna be a fighter. He ain't never gonna be nothing.' But I always liked attention and publicity, and I used to race the school bus and beat it in 28 blocks. Attracting attention, showmanship, I liked that the most. And pretty soon I was the popularest kid in high school. The other boys used to walk around with the school jackets on, and I'd walk with my jacket on, NATIONAL GOLDEN GLOVES CHAMPION. That was a big thing, U.S. champion, and then I had WORLD OLYMPIC CHAMPION. I used to sit in school before I won the Golden Gloves and just draw the back of a jacket and write NATIONAL GOLDEN GLOVES CHAMP on it, and then I would write WORLD OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER on it, and then I would sign my autograph—' Cassius Clay, World Heavyweight Champion.' I used to do all that, just wishing one day that I could do it for real."
No one will ever know the exact extent to which young Clay's home situation steered him toward the world championship. The immediate family is not talking. The official version of the childhood of Cassius and his brother Rudolph is that all was joy, and most of the other relatives are like Aunt Coretta, who intones faithfully: "People don't understand him, but we do, because we lived with him. His image to us is different from the public's. If they knew him, they'd let up on him. They think he's arrogant and insubordinate. But he's a very nice boy."
Aunt Mary Clay Turner, pugnacious, blunt and unpretentious, discussed the subject one evening at her small home on the outskirts of Louisville, her stockings rolled to just below the knee, drinking Yellowstone bourbon from a half-pint bottle wrapped in paper, sitting alongside a stack of books on set-point topology and geometric function theory ("I'm taking a course in that mess right now," she explained). In a bedroom, one son was practicing guitar and another was finishing an oil painting. Out on the front sidewalk young Roger, "my scientist," examined the craters of the moon through a 60-mm. 240-power refracting telescope, while the remaining three children were loudly involved in television, to their mother's annoyance.
"Here," she said, offering glasses and bourbon all around. "Pour yo' own trouble. I have it every Friday night to relax after teaching school all week." She talked about Cassius in admiring terms. "He said he was gonna do all these different things and he did them. That's why we were so proud of him." What had happened to turn him into such a sour public figure? Aunt Mary hesitated.
"There are certain things.... A story stops someplace, you know? If I told the whole story they'd all give me the bad eye when I go to school. But I know why he acts the way he does. I don't blame him. I'm just speaking of a number of events, not just one thing. Numerous events. Our family has it figured, what happened to him. The papa has it figured, too. He knows. But the papa never would say anything...."
Aunt Mary made it clear that she was not excusing anybody or setting up any cheap alibis. "All kids are affected by what happens with their parents," she said. "But some children try to rise above it. I work with those kind of kids whose parents knock each other down, drag each other out. The kid comes to school with a big old knot on his arm or he comes with a big welt on his head, and he makes up his mind he's gonna overcome it. And that means you have to be strong. If you're weak, stay home!
"I remember the day I told my mother I wanted to go to college. 'Well, if you go, you'll go over my dead body, 'cause Everett went and he didn't do nothing with the education." I said, 'Well, just give me $10 and I'll get the rest.' I put an ad in the paper asking for work and I worked clear through school. You have to be strong in your own way." Aunt Mary paused. "Here," she said. "You want to cut it with water?"