Two words are always used to describe Herbert: ruthless and fair. "I've never seen a fairer man," says Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the physician in Ali's corner. "Before the Tokyo fight, there were the old gripes, the blacks in the corner complaining about the whites in the corner. I went to Herbert and said, 'Herbert, we're not going to go through this old routine again.' And Herbert said, 'Tell me who's starting this stuff, and I'll straighten him out.' " Mickey Duff remembers: "I once got Ali an advertising spot in Germany years ago. I wasn't making much money then, and I asked the key man in Ali's camp for my commission, about $250. He didn't want to pay me, but Herbert was standing right there and said, 'Look, give him the money, he earned it.' " The consensus is that "if Herbert owes you money, you get it"—without begging; he is aware of the dignity of those who work for him.
The dispute with King underlines a major concern of Herbert's. He wants his role with Ali clarified, to be put into perspective. He did not like Ali's autobiographical book, and bucked the writer, Richard Durham, all the way. "For one thing," Herbert says, "I don't think it's a good book. Secondly, it doesn't really explain my role. A book lasts a long time. It's on a shelf forever. I want my children to know what I did for my one third of Ali's money." He opposes the script of the forthcoming movie of Ali's life—The Greatest—on the same grounds. "The role for Herbert can be made bigger," says a man from Columbia Pictures. "But what do you do with a guy who has been so antipublicity? No television interviews, no press interviews, no pictures, nothing. What do you have to go on? He can't be both anonymous and public." Yet, like the Muslims themselves, Herbert is trying to become more visible, trying hard to alter his image as the secret man of the secret people.
The Muslims, too, do not appear to be as guarded, as sinister as they once were. Since Wallace D. Muhammad has become the leader of the Muslims, they seem nearly ecumenical as they search for the American mainstream. They no longer like being called Black Muslims—just Muslims. They have opened their religion to whites. They have declared sports and boxing permissible, defining them as a luxury. The once terrifying Fruit of Islam has been dismantled, so they say, and the trend is toward the spiritual rather than the material. "My father believed in materialism as bait for our people," says Herbert. "He wanted to show them that they, too, could acquire things through hard work and enterprise." He might also add that the once-profitable bakeries and fish stores are no longer prosperous, leaving the Muslims in financial trouble.
It is unlikely that Herbert himself will ever be in need of money. With much nerve and the hottest property in the world—created by the slide of political events and the growing voice of the Third World that so idolizes Ali—Herbert has become rich. In the end, what can be said of him and his work? The silence around him is a roar. He is ruthless, not an uncommon trait among men of success. He is fair, and he does not appear greedy. He only does what any manager should and must do: protect his fighter.
A man like Herbert—off his record, the smartest manager who ever lived—creates enemies, and it is doubtful that he could ever do anything to dispel the animus swirling about him, or those old speculations that never will die: (1) Ali has been raped financially by the Muslims; (2) Ali is held by the Muslims through terror. Both seem grossly incorrect, but only Ali knows the truth.
Who is Herbert Muhammad? The question nags, making one feel like the eminently deductive Dr. Bell when he was called upon by his students to relate a story of his genius.
Visiting a bedridden patient, Dr. Bell said, he had asked the man, "Aren't you a bandsman?"
"Aye," the man had said.
"You see, gentlemen, I am right," Dr. Bell had said, recounting how he had turned to his class with confidence. "It is quite simple. This man had a paralysis of the cheek muscles, the result of too much blowing at wind instruments. We need only to confirm. What instrument do you play, my man?"
The man had got up on his elbows and said, "The big drum, Doctor!"