Publish date:

Cassius-Muhammad is portrayed with penetration, compassion and wit


Pride, fear, ignorance, canniness, catlike quickness and a superb physique are the very human qualities of a by-now almost legendary character known sometimes as Muhammad Ali, sometimes as Cassius Clay. In his new book about Muhammad-Cassius (Black Is Best, Putnam, $4.95), some parts of which have already appeared in the pages of this magazine (SI, April 11, 18, 25; May 2, 9, 1966), Jack Olsen has cut through the myth to bring the human being to life. Because the subject is so rich and the writer so endowed with talent for working the riches, Olsen's account may be the best biography of a sports figure published to date.

Like many instinctive actors, Clay (as Olsen prefers to call him) has a sharp intuition about his audience—any audience, usually captive. He is always on stage and he is always looking out of the corner of his mind to catch the effect his act is having. At the weigh-in before the first Liston fight in Miami Beach on February 24, 1964, Clay put on such a show that his heartbeat and blood pressure reached proportions that alarmed his physicians, but after the performance the exhausted actor relaxed on a sofa and eagerly asked friends, "How'd I do? How'd I do?"

Clay's oddball father was responsible for many of his son's notions and biases. Clay's mother, an admirable and endearing lady, is a living Griselda. One of the most engaging of Clay's own traits is his affection for his entire family, especially the worshipful, arrogant younger brother, Rudolph Valentino Clay, whom Olsen calls "a study in sibling obedience."

As Olsen presents it, Clay's attitude toward the rest of the world is an amalgam of reverse racism and real hurt. He chafed at his enforced humiliations and those of his black family from the time he was 3, and never, if he lives to be a Muslim Methuselah, can he, in his view, even the score.

"Cassius love all people," his thoroughly Christian mother told Olsen, but her son, unlike Jesus, prefers the eye for an eye of the Old Testament to the turned cheek of the New. "In other words," Olsen writes, "he has learned to treat white men as many white men treat Negroes."

It is the opinion of Cassius' family and many of his friends that the Black Muslims have captured him in an effort to take themselves out of the lunatic fringe on his championship coattails. Olsen does not offer a conclusion on this point, but he provides a meticulous account of the relationship. His book, in short, is the complete, up-to-date account of the first 25 years of a champion whose eccentric story is far from finished.