Hank Stram, the
Chiefs' coach, was in the house, and he and everyone else murmured
uncomfortably at this. Ali was sensitive enough to see that he was on thin ice.
A few moments later he raised his gloves again and lifted his curse. But he
warned us. "You better watch out."
It was odd. The
next morning the story went out over the wires that Ali had been truly bitter
about the small turnout, and his castigation of the audience was described
without suggesting any of its good-natured quality.
S: Why has Ali
always had this bad press?
W: Much of the
press never took to him from the first. Many of them thought so little of his
credentials 10 years ago in Miami that they wrote he might be killed by Sonny
Liston. They did not like being shown up when Ali won; nor did they suffer
gladly the public castigation they received when he leaned over the ropes after
the fight and jawed down at them like a Billingsgate fishwife. They hunched
uncomfortably over their typewriters, their heads down. From the first they
called him a loudmouth who couldn't fight, "Un-American" when he joined
the Black Muslim movement and refused the draft, and "washed up" when
the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he was able to return to the ring.
They were bored by his antics. Of course, their reaction was not universal by
any means. Ali has had this great charismatic aura from the first. The
prevalent reaction of most people seeing him for the first time, and being
close to him, is to smile.
I remember Angelo
Dundee once said something like this: "I'll never understand the resentment
of his popping off. When I was young, people said Joe Louis is a great fighter,
but he can't talk. Today you have a fellow who both talks and fights, and
And then so much
of what Ali does is a game, a put-on. He and George Foreman staged a famous
prefight tussle, which was called The Battle of the Waldorf-Astoria—an odd
fracas in which Ali's suit coat was torn off him like tissue paper. He began
throwing things—rolls, butter pats, I don't know what all—at Foreman. In the
midst of all this, a lady appeared at Ali's side with a heavy candlestick from
her table. She said, "Here, Cassius. Hit him with this."
Ali looked at her
and said, "Oh, thank you, ma'am, but I'm just playing." And he wound up
and threw a water glass that went 20 feet over Foreman's head and fetched up
against a curtain.
S: Tell me one
thing. Why do you think Ali's last victory was so popular, considering how
controversial he is?
W: I think it was
the sort of joyous reaction that comes with seeing something that suggests all
things are possible: the triumph of the underdog, the comeback from hard times
and exile, the victory of an outspoken nature over a sullen disposition, the
prevailing of intelligence over raw power, the success of physical grace, the
ascendance of age over youth, and especially the confounding of the experts.
Moreover, the victory assuaged the guilt feelings of those who remembered the
theft of Ali's career. It was good to watch and hear about, whichever fighter
one supported. Indeed, one of the prevailing stories the morning after the
fight was that never had so many large bets been handed over so cheerfully to
S: I'm not so
sure about that. I didn't exactly hand over my fiver with a big smile.