Cassius Clay has
always had a genius for creating excitement before his fights, but I doubt that
even he will ever be able to match the uproar he brought about before the first
championship fight with Sonny Liston in Miami Beach.
Not many people
gave him a chance against Liston. Sonny had demolished Floyd Patterson twice
and was generally regarded as a superman. Some columnists even said that the
fight should be canceled, warning that Liston might do permanent injury to poor
little Cassius. None of this had any effect on Clay. He was the same fighter in
the gym he had always been, and he was as confident of beating Liston as he had
been of beating any of the fighters he had met during the three years I trained
him before the championship match.
He took the
psychological play away from Liston early, with the help and encouragement of
Drew Brown. I don't know how much effect all their antics had on Sonny, but
they did one thing—they began to destroy the image of the superman that Liston
had used to psych most of his opponents. Liston had a thing going for him. He
always tried to look bigger and meaner than life. I mean, he would come into
the ring for a workout wearing a hood and a robe with a couple of towels under
the shoulders, so that he looked even bigger than he was. In training he'd go
through the routine with the medicine ball, letting Willie Reddish pound him in
the stomach with it, and if you didn't know better you had to believe he really
was superhuman. Any fighter in good condition can take a medicine ball in the
belly. It's so big it distributes the impact. A fist in a glove, thrown as
hard, is a different thing.
Aside from the
antics Clay went through to bug Liston, he created additional excitement by
admitting—or proclaiming—for the first time that he was a Muslim. The first I
heard about it was when Bill McDonald, the promoter, came to the gym in a sweat
one afternoon. "There are rumors around town that Clay is a Black
Muslim," he told me, very excited. "This can kill the gate! You have to
get him to deny it, Angie. Tell him what he's doing to me."
I told him to
talk to Clay himself, and he and Cassius went off together for about half an
hour. Then McDonald left, very unhappy. I asked Clay what happened.
"He say if I
am a Muslim he may have to call the fight off," Clay said. He wasn't
disturbed. "Look like they may not be a fight, Angie."
I don't know if
his announcing his membership in the Muslims hurt the gate or not, but I knew
Clay well enough to know that once he had made his mind up no one would change
it. Funny thing is that I should have suspected it earlier. There were some
Muslims hanging around the gym before the fight, but I didn't recognize them.
Once Malcolm X came in, and McDonald wanted to get him out of the gym right
away, before any reporters saw him. He left quietly.
After Clay told
the reporters that he had joined the Muslims, I used to sit in the gym next to
a big guy named Sam Saxon and tell him it was a shame what was happening to
Clay and how much I hoped that he would give up the Muslim idea. I thought he
was just off on a kick and that he would get over it, and I told Saxon that.
Saxon would nod and smile a little and not say anything. Then one day while I
was talking to him another man came up to him and called him Captain Sam, and
that was the first I knew that he was a Muslim.
It was at this
time, too, that Cassius decided he would be called Muhammad Ali. That was all
right with me. My name was Mirena before I had it changed legally to Dundee.
Joe Louis' real name is Barrow. I could give you a dozen or more instances of
fighters who have changed their names.
I did suggest to
Muhammad that he keep Cassius Clay as a ring name and use Muhammad Ali in
private life. I pointed out that he had built up a big reputation as Cassius
Clay and it would be foolish to change, but he said that Elijah Muhammad had
given him the name of Muhammad Ali and that he was going to use it. I didn't
try to argue with him about it.