As he looked at himself in the mirror behind the coffee-shop counter at the Hotel America in Houston early last Friday, on perhaps his final morning as heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali was wondering how history would reflect upon him. The idea that he is an historical figure, a leader of his people, a Muslim Davy Crockett, had become an obsession and a consolation to Ali as the time approached for him to refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States.
Three days earlier, at lunch in another hotel, he had said, "I've left the sports pages. I've gone onto the front pages. I want to know what is right, what'll look good in history. I'm being tested by Allah. I'm giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious belief. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever. I've got no jails, no power, no government, but 600 million Muslims are giving me strength. Will they make me the leader of a country? Will they give me gold? Will the Supreme Being knock down the jails with an earthquake, like He could if He want? Am I a fool to give up my wealth and my title and go lay in prison? Am I a fool to give up good steaks? Do you think I'm serious? If I am, then why can't I worship as I want to in America? All I want is justice. Will I have to get that from history?"
Now, as he poked a fork at four soft-boiled eggs and drank a tall glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee, Muhammad Ali—or Cassius M. Clay Jr., as it says on the legal documents that his lawyers carry into court in two cardboard boxes—was being moved by the clock toward his most fateful encounter since the night in 1964 when he knocked out Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. That one got him the heavyweight championship, and this one could lose it for him. "But not in the eyes of the people," he said. "The people know the only way I can lose my title is in the ring. My title goes where I go. But if they won't let me fight, it could cost me $10 million in earnings. Does that sound like I'm serious about my religion?"
"Come on, Champ, come on," said his New York attorney, Hayden Covington. "We've got 25 minutes."
"If we're one minute late, they're liable to shove you behind bars," his Houston attorney, Quinnan Hodges, said.
"All right, man, all right," said Ali. "If you want to go, let's go."
They went out onto the street and packed the entourage into two taxicabs for the ride to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station on the third floor of the U.S. Custom House at 701 San Jacinto Street in Houston. The morning was cool and gray, elephant-colored, with a touch of mist coming down. Earlier Ali had said he would walk to the induction center from the Hotel America, a distance of about a mile, or from his apartment in South Houston, six miles out into a Negro district. But "the champ don't feel up to it, anyhow," said Bundini Brown, Ali's sometime assistant trainer. The night before Ali and Brown had been up until nearly 2 a.m., talking. Ali was working off his vast energy.
"It was like the night before a fight," Bundini said. "The champ has got to talk and talk until he can fall asleep without tossing and turning."
Ali was still in the shower when Covington and Hodges went up to fetch him at 6:30 a.m. He dressed quickly, putting on a tailored blue suit, reassuring his lawyers he would not be late. "He was a lot cooler than we were," Hodges said.
At the induction center there was a crowd of reporters and photographers but only a few curious spectators standing on the steps and on the broad walk that led into the building. Ali got out of his cab shortly before 8 a.m. When the lights of the television cameras went on, Ali shoved Bundini away from him. Although he is largely in sympathy with the Muslims, Bundini is not a convert and they did not want his face appearing at the champion's shoulder. Ali pushed through the crowd, paused on the steps to smile for the cameras and entered an elevator in the lobby. There was such a crush of people that many of the 26 pre-induction examinees who were reporting that morning for Houston's Board No. 61 could not get on the elevator, causing the examination schedule to begin 15 minutes late. One of the PIEs, John McCulloch, 22, of Sam Houston State College, was forced back against the wall by the wake of the champion's following. Clutching his canvas overnight bag—an item Ali did not bother to bring, since he knew he would not be leaving on the 6 p.m. bus for Fort Polk, La.—McCulloch said, "I feel kind of sorry for the old guy. He can't get away from all this mess."