Glance at a man, and you find his nationality written on his face, his means of livelihood on his hands, and the rest of his story in his gait, his mannerisms, shoelaces and in the lint adhering to his clothes. So insisted Dr. Joseph Bell, the Edinburgh surgeon who taught Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and was the real-life model for Sherlock Holmes. "The trouble with most people is that they see, but do not observe," the doctor used to say, while lecturing doggedly on the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of trifles. He himself could detect from a man's hat that his wife did not love him, from a man's cane that he feared being murdered. Nothing much got by Dr. Bell, but it would be long odds that he could unravel Herbert Muhammad.
If you had not seen him before, not known what he does, what would observation tell of Herbert as he sits in his apartment overlooking New York's Central Park? His handshake is limp, his hand is soft. He is black—a smooth, sort of bloodless black. There is no hair, except for his mustache and neatly barbered sideburns. There is no joy in his eyes—or sorrow—nor is there anything sinister in them, either. When he gets up, his gait is slow and weary, that of a man who is not physical, or at least of a man who does not like to walk. His tie is quiet, his suit plain and slightly baggy. You can tell he must be a prodigious eater, for he is a very round man—the kind of roundness that bears witness to long and determined dining. No shoelaces. No lint. What to make of him, Dr. Bell? Who is Herbert Muhammad, and why are people saying such awful things about him?
A good question, one that a lot of people have been asking for more than a decade now. "Herbert is the invisible man," says an old friend. "Has been for years. Sometimes you think you see something, but look back and all you have is a three-piece suit and a hat, brim up, pushed down over a pair of eyes." Others think of him as a grown-up member of Our Gang, or maybe a King Farouk. The more erudite liken him to certain subatomic particles that cannot be seen even through the most powerful of microscopes; their existence is known only by their effects. With Herbert, two effects are always apparent: fear and silence.
Herbert Muhammad is the force behind the most easily recognizable figure of our time—Muhammad Ali, a man who will have earned $50 million before his career ends, $15.5 million this year alone. As a boxing manager, Herbert is antithetic to the breed. He doesn't smoke a big cigar, he uses no unpleasant names for his fighter, and he displays an almost complete lack of knowledge of the ring; he may know that there are three minutes in each round, but that's it, say some Herbert watchers. The one thing Herbert does know is money; he knows the little trapdoors hidden in a deal and can shoot the eyes out of a bad one while half asleep. Ali needs a Herbert Muhammad.
No better description of Herbert's style can be given than that which evolved out of a phone conversation between him and Don King, once the exclusive promoter of Ali. As usual, King was doing most of the talking. Frustrated, he finally began to spin a parable with the passion of a stumping preacher.
"Ever hear of the lion," he roared on the phone, "who was so powerful that he couldn't hunt no more because all those other animals were wise to him? He can't get a meal anywhere. So he comes across this zebra, and he says, 'Zebra, huntin' is pretty slim out there. But if the two of us combine our talent, we could make all these other animals a real bonanza for us. With your speed and my power—you round 'em up and I knock 'em out—we gonna have all we want, all the booty we want.' So the two became partners, and business was great. And after a couple of weeks, the lion and the zebra are sittin' around the fireplace at night, and the lion says, 'Brother Zebra, you sure did a good job for us. How we gonna split up this booty?' The zebra says, 'We both worked, my speed and agility, your power and cunning—I think 50-50 would be fair.' Now, ya know what happened? The lion jumped on the zebra and ate him up."
King went on, and now the lion has struck a deal with a wolf, who "howls in the dark of night." The lion and the wolf go to work. The two acquire twice as much as the lion and zebra did, and once more the lion is surveying the spoils, sitting there, picking his teeth. "Brother Wolf," he says, "you did a tremendous job. You worked 24 hours a day, you're a real hustler. Now how we gonna split up all this booty?" The wolf, recognizing the lion's superiority, said he thought 60-40 would be all right with him. The lion jumps on the wolf and eats him up. Then the lion, who is soon hungry again, goes to Brother Fox. The fox is reluctant to deal with the lion, but he is pressed hard. The lion and the fox are immense successes in their hunt, garnering 10 times more than the lion ever did before. The lion is elated and says, "Brother Fox, you truly a hustler, you really know what you're doing. Now how we gonna split up this pile of booty, old brother?" The fox rummages through the pile and takes out a leg of lamb. "I'll take this," he says, "and you can have the rest."
"Brother Fox," says the lion, "where did you learn to be so fair?"
Looking in the direction of the fire, the fox says, "From those shiny bones over there of Brother Zebra and Brother Wolf!"
King's bluster and comic charm might have eased the sting of that little tale, but the implication was clear: Herbert was the boss, and a greedy one at that. It was obvious that King had thought that Herbert needed him, that he did all the work with Ali, that he was obtaining the incredible purses for him, yet he was willing to settle for scraps from Herbert; he merely wanted to be appreciated by Herbert. The two would later part company, but looking back now at that conversation, one remembers the sudden jolt from hearing Herbert Muhammad being spoken to in such a manner. For Herbert had always been a remote figure, forever changing his phone numbers, always off to one of his many houses or apartments around the world, refusing to be interviewed; Herbert was creepy, man, so the word went. Leave him be.