Will he or won't he? That was the question last week as Muhammad Ali, perhaps for the first time, began to accept as fact the only two choices open to the heavyweight champion of the world: induction into the armed forces of the U.S., or jail. Just days before, few people had actually believed the time would come when Cassius Marcellus Clay—as he is known to his draft board—would ever really have to make the decision. For one thing, it had looked as though the induction would be delayed for a long time. When Ali's selective service records were transferred from Louisville to Houston, the old April 11 induction date had been called off. But then Wednesday morning the Houston board announced that Ali would be inducted April 28, and a few hours later a federal district judge in Louisville threw out the plea of Ali's lawyer that he was the victim of discrimination.
Suddenly it became clear that Muhammad Ali, one of the most bizarre figures in the history of sport, might shortly leave the scene. So Ali himself flew into Chicago to consult with Herbert Muhammad, his manager and Muslim spiritual adviser, and while the headlines screamed about the draft, the two began scrambling around for one last opponent. They found him—Floyd Patterson, who is apparently ready to meet the champ April 25 in Las Vegas. That fight may well mark Muhammad Ali's final appearance in the ring. After that it could be the pen.
"We have one more fight, make me $100,000 and bank it for the future," Muhammad Ali said as he drove from the airport to the South Side to meet with Herbert. "I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah, God. I'd rather die a Muslim. Six hundred million Muslims are with me to see if I am punished in this land of religious freedom. [Officials in Cairo appealed to President Johnson to stop the induction.] I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my own beliefs. I'll go down in history. So we've been in jail for 400 years. I'm a 1,000% religious man. If I thought goin' to war would bring freedom, justice and equality to 22 million Negroes, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I'm paying $1,500 a month for 10 years in alimony just for my beliefs. I divorced a beautiful Negro woman. I want to be in good standing with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I'm not a slave. I'm free! I've heard the truth!"
Muhammad Ali seemed resigned to jail. He still played it cozy, claiming he had not yet revealed his decision on what to do when D-day finally comes, and both he and Herbert insist that the champ will make his decision on his own. But as a Muslim minister anxious to remain in the good graces of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—who himself did three years in a federal prison during World War II for failing to register for the draft—the martyr's role is Ali's. In recent months black voices, both Muslim and infidel, have grown more bitter about the draft and the war in Vietnam. Last Wednesday in Louisville, Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, once considered improbable bedfellows, publicly embraced as King prepared to declare his own opposition to the U.S.'s "morally unjust" involvement in Vietnam. Among his people, Muhammad Ali appeared to be threatening even Adam Clayton Powell as a symbol of defiance to the "white power structure."
"Man, he is a beautiful cat," said Chuck Walker, an O'Hare Airport porter who came to tote Ali's bags. "He gives you the nitty-gritty," meaning that Ali gives you "the bottom, man, the essence. He tells you as it is." Dick Gregory, who was running as a write-in candidate for mayor of Chicago, was at the airport, too, and he was quick to close with the champion. He had forsaken entertainment, Gregory said, "to fool around with the social system."
It is fashionable to write off the Muslims, and Herbert Muhammad in particular, as fools as well as knaves. Herbert is often portrayed as a pudgy little black man who is in over his head in boxing, but the truth is that Herbert is a very astute cat, and he knows just what is doing in boxing all the time. The Muslims may have a racket, but their officials are not dumb. "Herbert's wise, wise, wise, one of the wisest men on earth," says Muhammad Ali with emphatic nods of his head. "If it weren't for Herbert, I'd be in a lot of trouble sayin' the wrong things." A white man in boxing, who has done business with Herbert, says, "When I met him, I stopped worrying about the Muslims. With Herbert you can make a deal."
This is not to imply that Herbert is as soft as his appearance. After becoming Ali's manager, he chose to exert a firm, calming, even civilizing influence on the brash young champion.
Far from the fire-breathing thug people imagine a Muslim to be, Herbert presents himself as an affable sort whose favorite hobby is portrait photography. When in Chicago he can usually be found in his storefront studio or a few doors up on East 79th Street at the office of
Muhammad Speaks, the Muslim paper with a circulation of 250,000 a week. One of six sons of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, soi-disant Messenger of Allah and Leader and Teacher to the American So-called Negro, Herbert started the paper for his father and runs the operation today.
It was not until after he had won the title from Sonny Liston that Muhammad Ali met Herbert Muhammad. Herbert had photographed James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Kwame Nkrumah, Prince Faisal, Nasser, Jomo Kenyatta and other celebrities, and Muhammad Ali came into the studio on 79th Street to have his portrait done. "He was going on a trip to Egypt," Herbert recalls, "and he needed someone to guide him. I had been there four or five times, and I had been to Mecca with my father and younger brother, Akbar. I had contact with orthodox Muslims." Herbert and Ali became friends on the trip, and when the contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group—for which, incidentally, Herbert has high praise—lapsed, Muhammad Ali asked Herbert to become his manager.
"I had to fight with him and beg him to be my manager," Muhammad Ali says. Herbert was wary. "I'm not a sports figure," he says. He consulted with his father, who warned him of the pitfalls in boxing, but Herbert finally gave in to Muhammad Ali's pleas.