In scores of stories over the years, this magazine has viewed, previewed, interviewed, analyzed, taken issue with and warmly praised Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay. This is a collection of excerpts from that record, each preceded by its issue date.
Sept. 25, 1961
The clapboard house at 3302 Grand Avenue, Louisville is a commonplace dwelling one story high and four rooms deep. The ornamental frame of the front screen door was curlicued by hand with a scroll saw, and the concrete steps to the gray front porch are painted in stripes, red, white and blue.
"Don't bother your head about that house," says Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 19 going on 20, the lyrical young man, lyrically named, who grew up there. "One of these days they're liable to make it a national shrine. Only by that time I'll be long gone, man, living it up on the top of a hill in a house that cost me $100,000. You'll find me out by the swimming pool, and I'll be talking to a bunch of little boys sitting in a circle around my feet. 'Boys,' I'll say to them, 'I was just a poor boxer once, as I reckon you already know. Only I was a very fine boxer, one of the finest that ever lived. And right there's how come I could move out of that little house down there and build this big one up here on the hill.' "
For the present, of course, Cassius Clay is still just a boxer, still just an unsophisticated Olympic gold medalist who has turned professional and hasn't run out of luck. How very fine a fighter he is remains to be seen, but for Cassius, munificently backed as he is by 11 influential businessmen, it is merely a matter of months before he fulfills the prophecy, fluorescently and unconventionally spelled out in a sign in a tavern he leases in Louisville's east end. Cassius himself composed it with stick-on letters:
FLOYD-PATTERSON, V.S. CASSIUS-CLAY.
What the sign refrains from concluding, Cassius is glad to supply: when the epic fight is over, proud Floyd Patterson the champion will skulk from the ring as poor Floyd Patterson the Ex. Cassius Clay will thereupon settle the world heavyweight boxing crown on his own handsome head, and from that day forward will wear it for all it is worth—which, for him, is everything.
Oct. 16, 1961
In his Louisville hotel room last week, the day before he knocked out Alex Miteff, Cassius Clay, 19, undefeated in eight professional fights, noisily hammered his armor.
"I am not talking this fight," he said severely. "No comment. I'm mature. I'm growing a mustache. I shaved yesterday for the first time in my life. Things are getting so rough for me around here I'm losing all my girl friends. I don't feel like talking. I don't feel rowdy. But the trouble is, boxing's dying because everybody's so quiet. Patterson's quiet. Harold Johnson's quiet. What boxing needs is more Moores and Robinsons and Clays. I'm an unpredictable young man with a raggedy pink Cadillac. This is my town. When you walk down the street with old Cass you're liable to get a free bottle of champagne. Where do I find all the things I say? I'm an educated boy. I sit down and think them up....
"Roger Maris," said Cassius grandly, "the world of space—this is an age of records and record breaking. If you don't break some records you're a no one. I want to break some boxing records. I want to be the youngest heavyweight champion in history. I have to be first in the soup line."
Clay picked up an imaginary phone.
"Patterson," he said. "This Dundee. Yeah, yeah, what's up, Dundee? Patterson, come on down and fight Clay."
"You tread nice and easily, Cautious," Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, said. "You got a whole year or two to jiggle with."
Nov. 26, 1962
"There are two greats left," said Cassius, "Britain and Clay."
Nov. 18, 1963
Ruing the day, the man from Cassius Clay's Louisville sponsoring group chewed his lip while the boxer with the florid signature and the rococo personality signed the dotted line. "We did not want this fight so soon," the man said, "but Cassius insisted and we had to give in. After all, wise or unwise, it's his decision and his career." Far removed from such morbidity, the irrepressible Clay slapped down the pen in a Denver hotel last week after agreeing to fight Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship next February. "Somebody pinch me," he exulted while visions of dollar signs danced before his big brown eyes. "If I'm not asleep, this is a dream come true."
The dream can still become a nightmare—a few days later Clay got a stiff note from his draft board summoning him to a preinduction physical. A deferment probably will take care of that ("The government will make a couple million dollars out of a title fight," said Cassius, "so they'd be smart to let me go on"), but Sonny Liston will not be so easy. Although widely acclaimed as the savior of boxing, undefeated Clay, by sprinkling fulminating powder over his 19 so-so fights, has made himself the official—if illogical—challenger to the brutish Liston.
Feb. 17, 1964
Clay walked to the corner away from the spectators in the gym and glared at a tall, dark man with the face of a lynx and the soft brown eyes of a cocker spaniel.
"I am the greatest," he said and widened his eyes and pursed his lips the way a small boy does when he is defying his mother. "You are the best that ever lived," the man said. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Clay and his friend sang out in unison. They paused a minute and stared into each other's eyes, then opened their mouths wide and roared inarticulate defiance at Sonny Liston. The spectators applauded.
Clay submitted to having his hands wrapped and gloves put on. Once he half turned to the spectators and yelled in a voice rich with contempt: "Six-to-one odds. I'm gonna get rich on them odds. I saved the fight game. I'd throw in the towel before I'd faint at the Liston scowl."
The bell rang again and Clay began working with Harvey Cody Jones, a massively muscled young heavyweight who weighs as much as Liston but resembles him in no other way. Clay's spaniel-eyed friend watched him closely, then came down from the side of the ring. His real name is Drew Brown, but everyone in the Clay camp calls him Bundini.
Feb. 24, 1964
"If I were like a lot of guys—a lot of heavyweight boxers, I mean—I'll bet you a dozen doughnuts you wouldn't be reading this story right now. If you wonder what the difference between them and me is, I'll break the news: you never heard of them. I'm not saying they are not good boxers. Most of them—people like Doug Jones and Ernie Terrell—can fight almost as good as I can. I'm just saying you never heard of them. And the reason for that is because they cannot throw the jive. Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody you will probably ever meet anywhere. And right there is why I will meet Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world next week in Miami Beach. And jive is the reason also why they took my picture looking at $1 million in cold cash. That's how much money my fists and my mouth will have earned by the time my fight with Liston is over. Think about that. A Southern colored boy has made $1 million just as he turns 22. I don't think it's bragging to say I'm something a little special.
"Folks ask me what I'll do if I win and what I'll do if I don't win, but I don't have the answer yet. I have to go into the Army pretty soon, and after that I don't know. Maybe I'll build a big housing project and get married and settle down and think about being rich...."
March 9, 1964
It was, no matter what you have read or heard, an enormously exciting fight. It matched the classic contenders for a heavyweight championship of the world—a beautiful, controlled boxer against a man who could hit with deadly power. The fight—Clay against Liston—restored balance and intelligence to the concept of boxing. The boxer, using his skills with aplomb and courage and forethought, confounded and defeated the slugger. Cassius Clay, who for weeks had cried, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," floated and stung—and he whipped Sonny Liston as thoroughly as a man can be whipped.
March 9, 1964
Cassius had breakfast with Malcolm X at the Hampton House Motel. They discussed what Elijah Muhammad, the No. 1 Black Muslim, had said about Clay at a meeting in Chicago the night before (Allah and he had helped Clay win). "Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known," Malcolm X said, "the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him. He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man's hero. But Cassius is the black man's hero. Do you know why? Because the white press wanted him to lose. They wanted him to lose because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability." Now that Cassius had been mentioned publicly by Muhammad, the day ahead of him became one long interview (not one question was put to him that day about the fight). Some of the things he said he has been saying in watered-down form for several years, but this was the first time he was willing to identify himself with the Black Muslims. Although, as he said. "I am not a Black Muslim, because that is a word made up by the white press. I am a black man who has adopted Islam. I want peace, and I do not find peace in an integrated world. I love to be black, and I love to be with my people. I am a very intelligent boxer, you know, and people don't ask me about my muscles the way they would ask Liston or Patterson. They ask me about Zanzibar and Panama and Cuba, and I tell them what I think."
June 7, 1965
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning right-hand punch to the side of the head, and he won without benefit of a fix.
Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing's still-too-intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach....
The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston's ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston's left arm and into the side of Liston's jaw. The blow had so much force it lifted Liston's left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas. It was also powerful enough to drop him instantly—first to his hands and knees and then over on his back. More than 17 seconds elapsed before Liston could flounder to his feet, still only partly conscious. Even some 30 seconds later, when Jersey Joe Walcott, the referee, finally stopped the fight after a wild flurry of inaccurate punches by the almost-hysterical Clay, Liston was staggering drunkenly and had to be led to his corner by Trainer Willie Reddish.
Nov. 22, 1965
Clay has been boxing since he was 12, and the things he now does no longer have any roots in intellection. "Isn't nature wonderful," he said once in a glen in Massachusetts. "What makes moss grow on one side of a tree and not the other? Why do birds fly south and then north in the spring, and why do fish swim upstream to lay eggs? Nature is a mysterious thing. It is just like me. Sometimes I wonder when a big fist comes crashing by and at the last moment I just move my head the smallest bit and the punch comes so close I can feel the wind, but it misses me. How do I know at the last minute to move just enough? How do I know which way to move...?
"I got a feeling I was born for a purpose. I don't know what I'm here for. I just feel abnormal, a different kind of man. I don't know why I was born. I'm just here. A young man rumbling. I've always had that feeling since I was a little boy. Perhaps I was born to fulfill Biblical prophecies. I just feel I may be part of something—divine things. Everything seems strange to me."
April 11, 1966
The governor of Illinois found Clay "disgusting," and the governor of Maine said Clay "should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American." An American Legion post in Miami asked people to "join in condemnation of this unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic individual," and dirty mail began to arrive at Clay's Miami address. ("You're nothing but a yellow nigger," said a typical correspondent, one of many who forgot to sign their names.)
The Chicago Tribune waged a choleric campaign against holding the next Clay fight in Chicago; the newspaper's attitude seemed to be that thousands of impressionable young Chicagoans would go over to the Viet Cong if Cassius were allowed to engage in fisticuffs in that sensitive city. Amplified by the newspaper (on one day it ran 11 items about Clay), the noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies from Champaign-Urbana, bookmakers and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get-Cassius clamor.
April 18, 1966
No one will ever know the exact extent to which young Clay's home situation steered him toward the world championship. The immediate family is not talking. The official version of the childhood of Cassius and his brother Rudolph is that all was joy, and most of the other relatives are like Aunt Coretta, who intones faithfully, "People don't understand him, but we do, because we lived with him. His image to us is different from the public's. If they knew him, they'd let up on him. They think he's arrogant and insubordinate. But he's a very nice boy." Aunt Mary Clay Turner, pugnacious, blunt and unpretentious, discussed the subject one evening at her small home on the outskirts of Louisville, her stockings rolled to just below the knee, drinking Yellowstone bourbon from a half-pint bottle wrapped in paper, sitting alongside a stack of books on set-point topology and geometric function theory ("I'm taking a course in that mess right now," she explained).
In a bedroom, one son was practicing guitar and another was finishing an oil painting. Out on the front sidewalk young Roger, "my scientist," examined the craters of the moon through a 60-mm. 240-power refracting telescope, while the remaining three children were loudly involved in television, to their mother's annoyance.
"Here," she said, offering glasses and bourbon all around. "Pour yo' own trouble. I have it every Friday night to relax after teaching school all week." She talked about Cassius in admiring terms. "He said he was gonna do all these different things and he did them. That's why we were so proud of him." What had happened to turn him into such a sour public figure? Aunt Mary hesitated.
"There are certain things.... A story stops someplace, you know? If I told the whole story they'd all give me the bad eye when I go to school. But I know why he acts the way he does. I don't blame him. I'm just speaking of a number of events, not just one thing. Numerous events. Our family has it figured, what happened to him. The papa has it figured, too. He knows. But the papa never would say anything...."
Aunt Mary made it clear that she was not excusing anybody or setting up any cheap alibis. "All kids are affected by what happens with their parents," she said. "But some children try to rise above it. I work with those kind of kids whose parents knock each other down, drag each other out. The kid comes to school with a big old knot on his arm or he comes with a big welt on his head, and he makes up his mind he's gonna overcome it. And that means you have to be strong. If you're weak, stay home!
"I remember the day I told my mother I wanted to go to college. 'Well, if you go you'll go over my dead body, 'cause Everett went and he didn't do nothing with the education.' I said, 'Well, just give me $10 and I'll get the rest.' I put an ad in the paper asking for work and I worked clear through school. You have to be strong in your own way." Aunt Mary paused. "Here," she said. "You want to cut it with water?"
May 2, 1966
Clay became convinced that black was best only after he met Elijah Muhammad. "I used to think black was bad," he says. "My mother and father used to tell me if I go in this dark room the bogeyman would get me, and he was black. A black cat was bad luck, little black ducklings on the TV cartoons always walked in the back and had the hard time. And then I found out that black wasn't bad. Which is stronger, black coffee or white coffee? Which make better crops, black earth or light earth?"
May 8, 1967—It is hard to feel sympathy for a man who refuses to serve his country, but the New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association did their best last week to make Muhammad Ali an underdog. Although Ali has yet to be arrested or charged, much less convicted, the New York commission suspended his boxing license and took away his heavyweight title minutes after he formally indicated he would not submit to induction. The WBA was more laggardly in doing its patriotic duty and getting its name in the papers. The Associated Press didn't move the WBA's statement until nearly four hours had elapsed.
May 8, 1967
"I've left the sports pages," said Muhammad Ali. "I've gone onto the front pages. I want to know what is right, what'll look good in history. I'm being tested by Allah. I'm giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever. I've got no jails, no power, no government, but 600 million Muslims are giving me strength. Will they make me the leader of a country? Will they give me gold? Will the Supreme Being knock down the jails with an earthquake, like He could if He want? Am I a fool to give up my wealth and my title and go lay in prison? Am I a fool to give up good steaks? Do you think I'm serious? If I am, then why can't I worship as I want to in America? All I want is justice. Will I have to get that from history?"
Feb. 19, 1968
"People ask me, 'Champ, how you gonna eat?' " Ali said. "I say, look out there at that little robin pecking and eating. Look up at all the stars and the planets in the heavens. 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."
June 17, 1968
Shortly after his title was taken from him, Ali said he'd come back to bug the game, and so he has. "There I'll be, wearing a sheet," he said, "and whispering, 'Ali-e-e-e-e-e, Ali-e-e-e-e-e.' I'll be the ghost that haunts boxing, and people will say Ali is the real champ and anyone else is a fake."
—GILBERT ROGIN AND MORTON SHARNIK
Nov. 2, 1970
A journey of a thousand miles, say the Chinese, must begin with a single step. For Muhammad Ali, cut off from the ring that made him an international phenomenon and perhaps the most discussed athlete of our time, the way back to excellence—or even a modicum of it—was every bit of a thousand miles. But Monday night in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry, he took much more than a single, faltering step. Before 5,000 people, to many of whom he was a symbol of release, Ali reclaimed his eminence and reputation; few had doubted that he had ever relinquished them.
With a cracking right hand, the speed of which seemed hardly impaired since he last fought, Ali cut Quarry over the left eye in the middle of the third round, a wound which would require 11 deep sutures and would not allow the Californian to come out for the fourth round.... Most observers clearly approached this fight with wariness, uncertain as to whether they would see the reemergence of the strangest and most lurid comet in sport or the sad, last splutter of its disappearing tail. What they did see was an artist, bringing honor to his craft.
Feb. 1, 1971
Everything looks a little bigger than life now. Muhammad Ali, moving on the old familiar red canvas of the ring in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, belaboring a squatty heavyweight from Jamaica, is thicker in all of his dimensions. A barely discernible pad of fat blurs the outlines of a waist that once was slim as a girl's, but the weight is spread evenly; the shoulders are thicker, with heavier muscles, and the arms and legs give the impression now of solid, mature power. He was once a big heavyweight who looked like an overgrown light heavy; now he is a big heavyweight who looks like a big heavyweight. On this first day of serious preparation for his fight with Joe Frazier, Ali worked six rounds.
—TEX MAULE AND MORTON SHARNIK
March 15, 1971
He has always wanted the world as his audience, wanted the kind of attention that few men in history ever receive. So on Monday night it was his, all of it, the intense hate and love of his own nation, the singular concentration and concern of multitudes in every corner of the earth, all of it suddenly blowing across a squared patch of light like a relentless wind. It was his moment, one of the great stages of our time, and it is a matter of supreme irony that after all the years that went into constructing this truly special night Muhammad Ali was in fact carefully securing the details for his own funereal end—in front of the millions he moved deeply. The people, he said, would be in the streets of Africa and Asia waiting for word of what happened, and what they have heard—by now—is what they never will really believe. The sudden evil of Joe Frazier's left hook. Ali's bold effort to steal time by theatrics, his wicked early pace that left him later without any guns and his insistence on hooking with a hooker (a bad bit of business)—all of this combined to provide the push for his long, long fall from invincibility. It left Frazier at last the only heavyweight champion of the world and the survivor of one of the most destructive fights among big men in decades.
The first dramatic damage to Ali came in the 11th round when Frazier hooked him to the head and followed with a cruel left to the body that sent Ali rolling back to a neutral corner, a man who seemed caught in an immense, violent wave. He hung on, but his eyes took on a terrible softness and they were never the same again. At the bell, water was thrown in his face before he could reach his corner. There, with his medicine man, Bundini, desperately trying to inflame him, and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, shaking a finger frantically in his face, he was pasted back to a semblance of one piece. As he came out for the 12th one could see that something was wrong with the right side of his face; it was swelling rapidly and his jaw seemed broken. He spent almost the entire 13th round in a neutral corner, but he was not active and appeared in a trance, oblivious to the hoarse scream of Bundini: "You got God in your corner. Champ!" Ali responded in the 14th, but not convincingly, even though he did win the round; by now both fighters, their bodies graphically spent, were continually draped over each other, looking like big fish who had wallowed onto a beach. Then, in the 15th, Frazier exploded the last shells from that big left gun. It was near the middle of the round, and the left boomed into Ali's face, sending him to the canvas with his head ricocheting frightfully off the floor, his feet waving in the air. He got up and finished the round, but he had lost.
April 5, 1971
The press of people in the ring was considerable, with more coming up the steps trying to get to the fighters. Among them was the Rev. Ralph Abernathy in his familiar worker's coveralls, an Ali supporter, tears streaming down his cheeks, and in his grief, reaching arms outstretched for Ali on the steps, creating such a weird, demented figure that one of Ali's bodyguards, a tall ex-Muslim, hit him with a left hook and toppled him backward off the steps into the lap of Edward Bennett Williams, the famous Washington trial lawyer. There were those watching at ringside acute enough, even in the turmoil of the moment, to recognize that if the reverend wished to initiate a lawsuit, certainly he was in the proper hands.
Feb. 4, 1974
It is the same way with a man with a horn: when the lip goes bad so does the trumpet and the music that he alone made special. He is never the same again, but he can rise to a moment, catch a riff and carry it enough to make the world feel special for having heard him do it. So it was Monday night as Muhammad Ali suddenly erased all the doubts that had accompanied his self-created fantasies. The universe does indeed hold its breath for Ali, and then he gives it air.
He was an artist in search of an art against Joe Frazier before a crowd of 20,788 at Madison Square Garden and millions of others who are moved by him in incomprehensible ways. He did not find what he was looking for, the touch that few men ever have to begin with—age, exile and his playful nature have taken that—but what he did find over 12 steaming rounds was what no man can give another, an understanding of his craft. It is the one thing that separates the ring from absolute bestiality, this mostly invisible side of a fighter who takes it—the last thing he learns and the last thing that leaves him—and makes it a trenchant, if not dramatic, weapon. That is what Ali did against Frazier, his most persistent adversary over the years, a glorious laborer who came with both pick and shovel, but had neither at the same time.
In the end, it was a unanimous decision for Ali: ring generalship over a one-man army fighting a war of attrition.
Nov. 11, 1974
It is hard to imagine what the extraordinary events in the predawn hours under a pale African moon in Zaire are going to do to the future of boxing. Kids who for years in the back lots of the world have emulated the flamboyant and graceful style of their idol, Muhammad Ali, the butterfly who floats and stings like a bee, will now imagine themselves coming off their stools and standing stolidly and flat-footed in the corner of the ring, or, more extreme, lolling back against the ropes, their upper torsos out over the press-row typewriters at the angle of someone looking out his window to see if there's a cat on his roof. For such were the Ali tactics that surprised everyone—including the men in his own corner—and proved insoluble to George Foreman, the heavily favored heavyweight champion, leading him to destruction as surely as the big cartoon wolf, licking his chops, is tricked into some extravagantly ghastly trap laid by a sly mouse.
Dec. 23, 1974
Skeptic: Tell me one thing. Why do you think Ali's last victory was so popular, considering how controversial he is?
Writer: 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 their winners.
S: I'm not so sure about that. I didn't exactly hand over my fiver with a big smile.
W: An exception.
S: Tell me, do you happen to know what was in Ali's mind after he won?
W: He told me. He talked about leaving the stadium in Kinshasa as the dawn was beginning to break. Hundreds of fans were still in the stands and the ring had all these people in it, squaring off and acting out how Foreman had gone down. Ali and his wife went out and sat in the back seat of their Citroen. On the drive to the training camp on the banks of the Zaire River he said they had begun talking about how odd it seemed to be coming out of a fight into the light of day. Invariably, fighters arrive at the arenas in the late afternoon or in the early evening, leaving daylight, and after the night's activity they come into darkness. In the car Ali kept remarking on it. It seemed so symbolically appropriate that on this occasion he should be coming out of darkness into light.
Oct. 13, 1975
It was only a moment, sliding past the eyes like the sudden shifting of light and shadow, but long years from now it will remain a pure and moving glimpse of hard reality, and if Muhammad Ali could have turned his eyes upon himself, what first and final truth would he have seen? He had been led up the winding, red-carpeted staircase by Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines, as the guest of honor at the Malacañang Palace. Soft music drifted in from the terrace as the beautiful Imelda guided the massive and still heavyweight champion of the world to the long buffet ornamented by huge candelabra. The two whispered, and then she stopped and filled his plate, and as he waited the candles threw an eerie light across the face of a man who only a few hours before had survived the ultimate inquisition of himself and his art.
The maddest of existentialists, one of the great surrealists of our time, the king of all he sees, Ali had never before appeared so vulnerable and fragile, so pitiably unmajestic, so far from the universe he claims as his alone. He could barely hold his fork, and he lifted the food slowly up to his bottom lip, which had been scraped pink. The skin on his face was dull and blotched, his eyes drained of that familiar childlike wonder. His right eye was a deep purple, beginning to close, a dark blind being drawn against a harsh light. He chewed his food painfully, and then he suddenly moved away from the candles as if he had become aware of the mask he was wearing, as if an inner voice were laughing at him. He shrugged, and the moment was gone.
A couple of miles away in the bedroom of a villa, the man who has always demanded answers of Ali, has trailed the champion like a timber wolf, lay in semi-darkness. Only the heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet of him. "Who is it? I can't see! Turn the lights on!" Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far—and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," said Frazier. "Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion." Then he put his head back down on the pillow, and soon there was only the heavy breathing of a deep sleep slapping like big waves against the silence.
Time may well erode that long morning of drama in Manila, but for anyone who was there those faces will return again and again to evoke what it was like when two of the greatest heavyweights of any era met for a third time, and left millions limp around the world. Muhammad Ali caught the way it was: "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of."
Sept. 27, 1976
They are all gathered in the suite in Munich—the one who tastes the sweat on the champ's body; the one who licks the champ's mouthpiece; the keeper of the lists; the keeper of the heavy bag; the Raphael of the side deal—all of them standing there as if they were blind men on the streets of Calcutta, sensing that their tin cups are about to be smashed. The air is tense, the breathing heavy as Muhammad Ali, at ease in his bed, first searches the room with his eyes, then speaks.
"You, Bundini!" yells Ali, who had called the meeting after he heard about soaring hotel bills. "Bundini, how many phone calls can you make in a day? How many meals can you eat?"
"That's right, Champ!" wails the Amen Man, Jeremiah Shabazz.
"Aliii, Champ," moans Bundini, his eyes filling with tears. "Whyyyy, Champ, you pick on Bundini?"
"I feed you niggers," Ali goes on. "I take you all over the world. You see places. You learn things. Never been anywhere in your life. You treat me like this."
"That's right, right!" echoes Jeremiah.
"A lotta sausage eaters 'round here who don't tell the truth," says Walter Youngblood, an earnest man, a Muslim and an assistant trainer.
"Who you talkin' about?" asks Ali. Youngblood remains silent. Ali screams, "What kind of friend are you? You make a statement and then don't tell me who you mean."
Youngblood is furious and genuinely ready to rumble with Ali. He takes off his jacket.
"Come on over, sucker!" shouts Ali. "Come here, and I'll throw you out the window." He suddenly smiles; he is calming down now. "Look, fellas," he says. "I don't mind you eatin'. You want three steaks for dinner, get three steaks. I don't want anybody goin' hungry. But I don't wantcha wastin' food. Sendin' food back." The audience relaxes.
"Another thing," says Ali. "You can't be callin' New York and Chicago and L.A. every minute. I don't mind a man callin' his wife and kids once a day. Five minutes on each call, all right. I git homesick myself."
Says Ali, later, "Nobody has this kind of crowd around him. Not even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. That's because I have a genius for a manager—Herbert Muhammad." Shaking his head solemnly, the genius only says, "I find it all rather regrettable."
A burden for promoters, the Ali entourage—whose table manners and conduct have been deplored in the ornate dining rooms and lobbies of some of Europe's grandest hotels—is a study in every human excess, a phenomenon of the attraction of power.
"These people," says Herbert, "are like a little town for Ali. He is the sheriff, the judge, the mayor and the treasurer. And he is more merciful than just. He believes in forgiveness. If he stressed justice, there wouldn't be anybody around."
Ali's town is divided into three categories: the workers, the hangers-on and the groupies. Not among these: Cassius Clay Sr., magnanimous and oddly charming Old Cash, whose first target in any city is the piano bar, where he sings My Way over and over, and is fond of saying, "If it weren't for Old Cash, there ain't no Ali;" the genteel and lovely Odessa Clay, Ali's mother, strolling placidly about in her big, flowered dresses; and the eccentric brother, Rahman Ali, formerly known as Rudy, who likes to sit in hotel lobbies wearing a bright track suit and a fez, listening to tape decks and signing autographs from midafternoon to three in the morning—the lobby is then empty, the pen is still in his hand....
"I'm powerless," says Herbert Muhammad, aware that when he fires someone, Ali hires him right back; aware that his own position is constantly under siege in this unending Byzantine nightmare.
Ali himself is aware, too, seems to yearn for an answer other than "yes."
"Angelo," he once said, "you're white. You're not a Muslim. You don't depend on me to survive. Tell me how I look."
Correctly, but ironically, Angelo Dundee squeaked, "Great, Champ! Just great!"
Oct. 11, 1976
In exotic Istanbul, Muhammad Ali rattled the world stage for the second time in a week—the first when he was given a controversial decision over Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium, this second time as he announced with the appropriate dramatic inflection, Wallace Muhammad (head of the Muslims in America) by his side to give it an official imprint: "Mark my words, and play what I say right now fully. At the urging of my leader Wallace, I declare I am quitting fighting as of now and from now on I will join in the struggle for the Islamic cause."
The announcement was a last, fitting tremor in a bizarre week in which occurred one of the worst heavyweight title fights in history; in which a champion who had finally become too old was brutally exposed and found to be a fragile mortal like the rest of us; in which a challenger with meager gifts was robbed of his moment by his own head as well as bad advice from his corner....
Ali seemed a pathetic figure, merely a master of illusion, groping with his loss of reflexes; his feet knew precisely where to be, but his hands and mind seemed to be hooked up in some diabolical plot against him. He reminded one of Paul Léautaud, who writes of man's relationship to his body, his image, in his Journal. "Damn it all!" he writes, after a woman remarks upon his age. "How impossible it is to see oneself as one really is!" That is much to ask of anyone, and it is no certainty that Ali can do it, either. If he has done it sincerely, looked into that shimmering glass at all that he was and is, if he has retired, then it would be a remarkable triumph of sense over ego. If not, then one wishes he somehow could get a picture of the image left by him in the ring at Yankee Stadium: that of a cat hung by its tail outside a window, trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws, the sound grating and chilling and the spectacle altogether too cruel.