On a wall in my den I have a photograph of Muhammad Ali and me. It was taken in 1978, a few weeks before his second fight against Leon Spinks, in New Orleans, the one in which he won the world heavyweight championship for a record third time. We had just come back from an early-morning jog at his Deer Lake, Pa., training camp. Ali, a towel around his shoulders, is telling a story. I am gazing at him and smiling. When I look at the photo, as I did after reading the manuscript of Bill Nack's story on young Cassius Clay that appears in this issue, I like to think of us as a couple of homeboys sharing some story that would be appreciated only by people who happened to be kids in Louisville in the 1950s.
I've lived in Louisville most of my life and was only a year behind the young Cassius Clay in the city's public school system. Understand, I'm not saying that I knew him then. To the contrary, we were separated geographically and sociologically. I lived in the city's South End, which was, and still is, a mostly white, blue-collar area. He lived miles away, in the West End, an area that was rapidly becoming predominantly black as whites moved to the suburbs.
Nevertheless, as we discovered years later, there were experiences we had in common: watching local television shows such as T-Bar-V Ranch, starring Randy Atcher and Cactus Tom Brooks, and Funny Flickers, a cartoon program hosted by Uncle Ed Kallay; taking trips downtown to mingle in the bustle of Fourth Street, then the city's main drag, with all those bright lights and intimidating stores; and rooting for the football and basketball teams of the University of Louisville, which was one of the first schools in the South to recruit black athletes. If you were to ask me to name a Cardinal football player from those days, I would mention Johnny Unitas. If you were to ask Ali, I'm sure he would say Lenny Lyles, the university's first black star and later Unitas's teammate on the Baltimore Colts. I was with Ali once when he saw Lyles at a reception.
"There's Lenny Lyles," he said. "Man, when I was at Central High, he was a big football star. I thought he was something 'cause he had this 1957 Fairlane Ford. I didn't know that one day I'd have Rolls-Royces. That Ford was soooooo pretty, and I said one day I was going to be like that."
I've never been able to pinpoint when I first became aware of the young Clay. I know it was sometime in the mid-1950s, perhaps when I saw him on the local TV boxing show, Tomorrow's Champions. That name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, caught your attention. I didn't know until later, and I'm not certain Ali knows to this day, that the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a Kentucky statesman and Civil War-era editor who fiercely advocated the abolition of slavery. Ironically, when years later Clay became Muhammad Ali, he explained the name change by saying that he didn't want to be called after a white man.
But besides the Clay name, there was the Clay style. He was so pretty, so cunning, so outrageous. But not completely original. Then, as now, professional wrestling was popular in Louisville. Ali once told me that he copied a lot of his preening and posturing from Gorgeous George, who made frequent appearances in Louisville then, both in person and on TV.
I would like to be able to say that we all recognized the young Clay's talent right away, that we knew he was destined for immortality. However, the truth was, most people seemed to think of him mostly as a curiosity, a character. The best fighter in Louisville at the time was Rudell Stitch. When Stitch died on June 5,1960—he drowned in the Ohio River while trying to save the child of another fighter—he was the second-ranked welterweight in the world. Later that year the young Clay partly replaced Stitch in the city's esteem by winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rome.
I didn't get to know Ali until fairly late in his boxing career, after I had become sports editor of Louisville's morning newspaper, The Courier-Journal. To this day I'm confident he wouldn't recall my name if we met. But he would know that I'm from Louisville. Whenever I showed up at his training camp or one of his fights, he would tell his entourage, "This is my writer from Louisville," making it clear that I was to be treated with respect. I'm sure Ali had a warm spot for his hometown paper mostly because he always has remained fond of Louisville and loyal to it.
Once in the late 1970s, when I told Ali that the mayor of Louisville was being criticized for wanting to rename a street in his honor, he said, "The Bible says a prophet is without honor in his home. In Louisville they know me too well. I walk down the street and they call me G.G. My mama says that's the first thing I ever said, and I tell her it stood for Golden Gloves or Greatest Gladiator. I don't go home for no praise, to have no streets named after me. I'm not great in Louisville to the people who know me." He winked. "But I'm proof that Louisville can produce the greatest in the world if it tries."
He is the greatest, and we did get that street renamed.
He told me many times that after he retired, he would come back to live in Louisville at least two months a year. He hasn't done that, but he slips into town to see his mom as often as he can. "You know," he told me, "life is short. Things go so quick. But home always will be home." I'd like to think he was saying something like that when the photo in my den was snapped.
Happy 50th, Champ. From one homeboy to another.