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Whether sermonizing in California or at home, Muhammad Ali is still as controversial and colorful as he ever was in the ring—to which, he promises, he will return a winner from 'Alcatraz'

Muhammad Ali, né Cassius Clay, who is the heavyweight champion of the world to everyone but a few misguided officials of the World Boxing Association and Madison Square Garden, spends his time these days laboriously preparing lectures or exuberantly giving them. He lives in a small house in what was a middle-class white section of Chicago but is now rapidly becoming a middle-class Negro section.

On a cold, wet afternoon a fortnight ago he sat at the dining room table in the house he bought from Herbert Muhammad, his manager. He was wearing a dark blue undershirt, blue jeans and white sweat socks, and before him on the table were a Bible, a Koran and a book by Elijah Muhammad: Message to the Black Man in America. On the floor was a tape recorder loaded with a tape of a speech Elijah had made in Chicago to his Black Muslim followers some time before. Ali has nearly a hundred of these tapes, which he plays over and over, making notes on what Elijah says.

He had been transcribing notes from a long yellow legal pad to three-by-five cards, in preparation for a lecture, and now he stopped and stretched hugely. The muscles in his arms and shoulders are immense; the mature Ali is a big man, bigger than Sonny Liston ever was.

"I been up since 5:30," he said. "Been working on this lecture I got to give at UCLA. This one runs 54 cards and I can hold an audience spellbound for a hour and a half with it."

He riffled through the cards admiringly, stopping now and again to read a phrase.

"I got six lectures I can give now," he said. "Took me 2½ months' hard work to get them ready. Sometimes I get up at 5:30 in the morning, work straight through to 3:30 the next morning and get mad cause I can't keep my eyes open to study more. I didn't study too good in high school and now I'm ashamed and I'm making up for it. I find a word I don't know, I look it up in the dictionary."

He regarded the top card of the 54 and began reading from it. At first he read in a quick monotone, but quickly the charm of his own prose and his extraordinary sense of the dramatic took hold and in a few moments he was delivering what amounted to a sermon. He has the same flair as a speaker that he had as a fighter.

"Take Lazarus," he said, staring hypnotically across the room as if he were addressing a multitude. "He was charmed by the wealth of the rich man. He didn't get any of it but he loved to be around it, loved to see it and feel it and smell it. Even when he was offered a home in paradise, he couldn't bear to leave all that wealth behind him. And Lazarus was hated and despised by the rich men."

He broke off suddenly and grinned.

"I got to get this down like I did boxing," he said. "Got to have the power and the speed and the stamina. I haven't got this lecture memorized yet, but I will by the time I have to give it."

He leafed through the Bible on the table, stopping occasionally to read a sentence or two.

"I'm going through the Bible looking for parables and comparing it with the Koran," he said. "Then I read Elijah Muhammad's book and I take what I understand out of that and that's how I get the subjects for my lectures. Like I find a parable about the wolf and the sheep trying to integrate together and I find other things to go with that, maybe out of some of these tapes of Elijah's. The time has come now for the black man to help the black man. The Negro needs a program of self-development and I'm developing myself now."

He paused to reflect upon this.

"Integration," he said. "It's like that wolf and sheep trying to integrate together. God didn't mean it that way. He made brown and black and red and yellow and white and meant them to be separate. Like I saw a little red ant wandering around on the ground. Maybe he was lost or maybe he was looking for something to eat. Anyway, he walked into a nest of black ants, and the next thing you know they carried him out of their nest dead. Red ants stay with red ants, black with black. Sharks stay together, dolphins stay together. You don't see them trying to integrate. You say maybe in another 5,000 years or so all the races going to be the same, but it ain't so. You say we'll all be the same color, maybe the color of that dog's ear over there." He pointed to a small stuffed dog with long honey-colored ears.

"I don't want to be that color," he said vehemently. "And I don't want my children to be that color. A man naturally wants his children to look just like him. I don't want no child with a speckled black and white skin and blue eyes and you don't want no black child. You want your child to look like you."

He turned toward the door to the kitchen and called out: "Belinda! Come here, wife, I want you to meet someone."

Belinda came into the dining room shyly. She was wearing the ankle-length dress the Muslims prescribe for their women, but even the voluminous folds of that garment could not conceal the fact that she is pregnant.

"I got a 17-year-old wife, she been watching me since she was 13," Ali said proudly. "She been trying to act like me all that time. She even looks like me, same color and everything."

"Ali!" Belinda cried, feeling her face tentatively as if she could discover any resemblance by touch. "I'm prettier," she said. She was right.

She returned to the kitchen and Ali went on.

"Now in about five months we're gonna have a child, maybe two. Doctor says she maybe going to have twins. But the child is gonna look like me, cause its mother looks like me. And that's the way I want it and that's the way any man wants it."

He picked up another stack of cards from the table and glanced through them. "Here's a lecture I made up proving God is a human being," he said. "Christians say God is a mystery. The dictionary say a mystery is something that is unknown. And the Christians divide God up into three parts—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost—contrary to the laws of nature and mathematics. Call Him a spirit. Can a spirit talk to us in His own language? They call Him a spirit but they call Him He, His, Him. He walks and talks and sits. Elijah Muhammad teaches God is a man and we are made in His image."

He put the cards down.

"Takes me at least six days to make an outline," he said. "Hard work, 16, 18 hours a day. But this is all I want. If I was walking down the highway with a quarter in my pocket and a briefcase full of truth, I'd be so happy. This is eternal work. If someone told me tomorrow that he would guarantee me the heavyweight championship for the next 15 years, five fights a year, half a million dollars after taxes from each fight, or he would make me a well-versed minister of Elijah Muhammad making $200—or $150—a week, I'd be a minister. And not because I'm already a rich man, because I'm not."

He opened a notebook and began to write down figures.

"Here's where it all went," he said. "First wife, she cost me $125,000 with lawyers' fees and all. Then I've spent probably $45,000 helping my mother and father. Bought them a house and I gave my mother a Cadillac, too. My brother, he's trying to get a little house. I've spent $25,000 on him. I paid Covington [Hayden Covington, the attorney who represented him in his case with the draft board] $68,000 and he say I owe him another $200,000. Other lawyers, $50,000. My home cost about $26,000 and I spent another $35,000 getting it all fixed up, say a total of $75,000. Cars, $45,000. Then my own personal use, maybe $30,000, not much because you never saw me drink or smoke or party. After a fight it was just me and a few friends sitting around and talking about the fight."

He added the figures up and said, "All that comes to $463,000. Now, in all my years of fighting, my share of the purses came to $2,300,000, and the government took about 90% of that in taxes. All my taxes are paid up. But you can see that don't leave me much."

If the government did, indeed, take 90% of Ali's earnings, his calculations leave him some $233,000 in the hole.

"People ask me, 'Champ, how you gonna eat?' " he went on. "I say, look out there at that little robin pecking and eating. Look up at all the stars and the planets in the heaven. They are not held up there on the end of long steel poles. The Lord holds them in their orbits and the Lord feeds the birds and the animals. If the Lord has this power, will the Lord let His servant starve, let a man who is doing His work go hungry? I'm not worried. The Lord will provide."

Ali has another hearing in his long battle with the draft board set for next week in Houston. He has appealed for reclassification on the grounds that he is a minister and a conscientious objector to war. He is not specifically concerned with the war in Vietnam.

"I'm against all war," he said. "I'm not following anybody. I said this before all this draft-card burning stuff. I still got my draft card. I made a speech at a white college in Buffalo, N.Y. and when I got to the room where I was gonna talk they had 34 signs stuck up on the walls and behind the platform. Signs said things like 'LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' So I told the man who invited me there I wouldn't talk until they took all the signs down. They took them down. I'm not criticizing the government I'm asking to give me justice. I'm against all war."

If Ali's appeals fail, he faces up to five years in the penitentiary, and he considers this possibility with philosophical calm.

"The Koran says you must be tested," he said. "God will try you. He tried Job and He tried Abraham and He tried Elijah Muhammad, too. Elijah spent three years in prison during the war, studying. If I was in jail tomorrow, I'd study and preach to the other prisoners. The loneliness and the confinement and the food, that would all be a test. But a man who believes in a Supreme Being does not fear."

He shrugged the huge shoulders and smiled. "I'm prepared," he said. "I'm thinking ahead. You see that pretty young wife. I'll have one child, maybe two before I go to jail. Then, during the years I'm in jail, they'll be getting bigger, so when I get out I'll already have them and I won't be starting at 30. And my wife will still be young."

"I don't know if I'll be able to fight," Ali said. "I mean I'll have to see what the food is like. Right now I'm 219, so I'm not far out of shape. I work so hard on these sermons and studying, I don't have time to do any exercise. The other day I ran four miles just to check my wind, and my wind was good but I got awful tired. If it was urgent, I could get in fighting shape in maybe three weeks. Seven weeks would be better."

Ali feels that Jimmy Ellis is the best of the pretenders to his throne.

"He used to give me hell for four or five rounds in the gym," he said. "He moves good, hits good with the right hand. And he's had all that experience as my sparring partner. He can whip the other ones. Joe Frazier? He's like this."

Ali got up and imitated Frazier, moving in with his hands up near his face.

"He gets hit," he said. "Jerry Quarry I don't know," he said. "But I think Ellis will beat him."

He was up now, moving around the living room, shadowboxing.

"People criticize me for holding my hands down," he said, holding his hands down. "Defense ain't in the hands. It's here in the legs."

"Move, move," he said, moving. "Stay just out of range." He held his hand up six inches from his nose.

"Here's where a man can reach," he said. "Move, make him miss, move in, pow, pow, move out. Long as I know how far he can reach, I'm going to be too far away. Don't make any difference where my hands are. You notice, if I get in trouble, I get my hands up." He brought his hands up by his face and ducked and wove, watching himself in the living room's wall-size mirror.

After a moment he sat down on a long couch facing the mirror and a built-in color television set. A cartoon featuring the Road Runner was on and he watched it for a moment.

"That's cute," Ali said. "I like that. Always trying to catch the Road Runner and never getting him. It's cute."

The phone rang and he picked it up and listened a moment. "Sell it," he said. "It isn't doing me any good."

He hung up and turned away from the TV set. "That's my bus," he said. "I paid $14,000 for it and it's been in the garage for six months. I got no use for it. Man offered me $12,000 and I might as well take it."

He got up and went into the kitchen and made himself a cheese sandwich, which he ate with great gusto.

"I only eat one meal a day," he said. "Since I don't get much exercise, I got to watch it. I don't eat beef. I eat lots of fish. Beef brings up the animal instinct in a man. I eat beef when I'm fighting."

A stairway leads down from the kitchen to a den in the basement of the house. The floor of the den is cluttered with the reminders of Ali's days of glory—a pair of boxing gloves, a big scrapbook, two suitcases' full of letters he has received from Muslims all over the world. He looked at the disarray.

"This is my past," he said. "All of it down here, out of the way. Here's my shoes. Boxing gloves. Things like that I got no use for now. They won't let me fight here and they won't give me my passport to fight anywhere else. If I was a cab driver I could drive my cab while I'm waiting on this case. I got a million dollars in contracts in Europe, but they won't let me go. They think I'm going to run away? This is my country. I got 22 million people suffering here. I'm not about to go away and never come back to America."

Back upstairs in the living room, he stood and began to dance in the effortless, fluid style that distinguished him as a fighter. He jabbed and moved sideways, avoiding a glass-topped coffee table in front of the couch.

"He does that all the time," said Belinda, who had just entered the room. She added, "One of these days he's gonna break my mirror doing that."

Ali stopped for a moment, then held his hand up dramatically.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned. "Here we are in Yankee Stadium and every seat is filled. And in this corner, at 223 pounds, right out of Alcatraz, is Muhammad Ali. He is 31 years old, and can he still have that same old power and speed after five years in prison?"

He changed to Muhammad Ali and stood up, shaking his hands over his head.

"And in this corner," he said, again the announcer, "we got Joe Frazier. He been the heavyweight champion for five years and he has won 13 straight fights and he is a young man. Can he beat Ali, the real champion?"

He pantomimed ringing a bell and came out of his corner moving sideways, fast, around the living room, pumping his left hand with wonderful speed.

"Ali sticking and moving," he said. "Pow, pow, he hit Frazier with two left jabs. He's moving and sticking. Pow, pow, pow, he hit Frazier three more lefts. He's in and out. He missed a right!" Ali threw a clumsy overhand right.

"Now he's sticking and moving some more," he said, sticking and moving. "Frazier hit him in the stomach with a right hand. Frazier moving in on him. Oh, oh! Frazier hit him in the head with a right hand and Ali is down!"

He fell on his stomach, shaking the house, and began to count dramatically.

"One, two, three," he had reached his hands and knees and was shaking his head dazedly. "Four, five, six," now on one knee but obviously hurt. "Seven, eight," he was up, wobbly.

"Referee wiping off Ali's gloves," he said. "And here Frazier come after Ali, but Ali is moving and sticking again." Ali began to move and stick, getting stronger and quicker, and by the time he rang the imaginary bell to end the round he was clearly in control again.

The second round did not last long.

"Ali looks like the old Ali," he said. "Pow, pow, pow, pow! Four left jabs to Frazier's head. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow!" He pumped blows with both hands as fast as he could punch. "A machine gun combination! Frazier is hurt! POW! Ali hit him with a left hook! POW! And a right hook! POW! POW! A right and a left to the head and Frazier is down!"

He danced back to a neutral corner and counted slowly to six.

"Frazier is up and Ali is after him," he said, going after the phantom Frazier. "He's got him backed into a corner. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, POW! Frazier is helpless." He backed away from the corner between the mirror wall and the front window and held up his right hand.

"They stopping the fight," he said. "And still champion of the world—Muhammad Ali!"

He was puffing slightly and sweating and Belinda regarded him with a wife's jaundiced eye. "He's always doing that," she said. "He's crazy."

Later, in his car driving toward downtown Chicago, Ali was relaxed and becoming sleepy.

Someone asked if he ever thought of himself as Cassius Clay and he shook his head.

"Cassius Clay?" he said as if it were the name of someone dimly recalled from his childhood. "Now and then someone call me Cassius Clay, but they don't mean harm by it. I don't make a thing of it unless it's on national television with millions watching, then I correct them. But most of the time I let it go, cause if I gave everyone who does it a lecture I wouldn't have much time to do anything else."

He pulled into a service station and a small, middle-aged black man came out.

"What can I do for you?" he said and did an exaggerated double take. He peered doubtfully for a moment.

"You Cassius Clay?" he asked.

Ali grinned and nodded, then said, "What's my name?"

The little man slapped his fist into his palm and thought for a moment. Then his face brightened.

"Allah," he said. "Allah."

"Muhammad Ali," Ali said gently. "Muhammad Ali. That's who I am. The preacher."

That's who he is. And he is still the heavyweight champion.