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Original Issue

A Conversation With The Greatest

I'd been trying to reach him for weeks, but I was still surprised—unprepared, in fact—when I picked up the ringing phone one night and there was Muhammad Ali. He was in fine fettle, charged up, and what ensued was not an interview so much as a vintage Ali monologue:

"Why do you want to check my brain? How about white boxers—Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, are you going to show their brains? No, it's me, a leader of the black people, they want to say I have a brain injury, that I'm crazy. I won't be no guinea pig, it's an embarrassment, a humiliation. What about my reputation, my family, my children—they're worth more to me than anything. For me to take that gamble, even to show nothing's wrong, I'd have to have $10 million....

"Why don't you do a test on Richard Nixon's brain? Get the top whites and let them submit to it. I'll tell you what. You get the wisest of the whites, you get William F. Buckley and some others, the brainiest. I'll pay 'em $25,000 to go on TV with me and let 'em try and trip me up, ask me any questions they like, any subject they want. Then we'll all do the brain show afterwards, for everyone, on TV, I want an hour and a half....

"Do you think, talking to you, that I sound crazy? Do I? Do you have this on tape? You don't? Well there's something wrong with your brain.... Why are they picking on boxing? It's because the black men are so superior in boxing that they want to stop it. Well, the black man's so hungry, he's got to fight. Yes, I think it's racial, the whole thing...."

Ali talked for half an hour. I got in a few sheepish words edgewise. But as he went on, he began to wind down and repeat himself. He was not interested in my questions. It has always been his pattern, even when he was in his early 20s, to grow tired of declaiming. Now his fatigue was obvious. He began to mumble and speak more and more softly. The angry tape in his head, what he wanted to say, was running out, or going onto a loop. At the end he was talking as if in a trance of self-hypnosis. He didn't hang up, he just dropped the phone.