Before facing Sonny Liston for the first time, 22-year-old Cassius Clay wrote a first-person piece in the Feb. 24, 1964, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, a week before he became heavyweight champion. This is an abridged version of the story.
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 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. I don't think it's bragging to say I'm something a little special.
Where do you think I would be if I didn't know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice? I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying "yes, suh" and "no, suh" and knowing my place. Instead of that, I'm saying that I'm one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, which is true, and that I'm the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public is saying to me, "Put up or shut up." This fight with Liston is truly a command performance. And that's exactly the way I planned it.
I've said some pretty insulting things about Liston, but I've done that mostly to get people talking about the fight. I actually have a certain amount of respect for him; he's the champion, isn't he? When I see him staring at me with that mean, hateful look, I want to laugh, but then I think maybe it's not so funny. I'm pretty sure the way he acts is just a pose, the same way I have a pose.
When I get a crowd around me, somebody always wants to know if I'm really like the way I act. Well, of course, or else I couldn't act this way. But what I have done is exaggerate the natural way I am. I wouldn't sit around my house shouting and carrying on if it was just me and my folks, but I would if there was anybody else there to hear me. I do that to attract attention. I don't really love to fight, you see, but as long as I'm doing it, I sure don't want to do it for free. The fame and pride of doing something real well—like being the world champion—is a pretty nice thing to think about sometimes, but the money I'm making is nice to think about all the time.
I remember one day in Louisville I was riding a bus reading in the paper about Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. It was right after I had won the Olympic gold medal in Rome and had turned professional, and I was confident then I could beat either one of them if I had the chance. But I knew I wouldn't get the chance because nobody much had ever heard of me. I said to myself, How am I going to get a crack at the title? I knew I'd have to start talking about it—I mean really talking, screaming and yelling and acting like some kind of a nut. I would be like Gorgeous George, the wrestler, who got so famous by being flashy and exaggerating everything and making people notice him.
You can see how it has turned out—just the way I wanted it to. I started off slow because I was feeling my way, but pretty soon I caught on to what reporters like to hear. I told this man I was going to knock that boy down in the sixth round, and then I did. I said I am the greatest, I am a ball of fire. If I didn't say it, there was nobody going to say it for me. And pretty soon other people were saying I'm the greatest, and I said, "Didn't I tell you so in the first place?"
All the time I was building myself up, I was fighting and winning. I don't pretend I fought a lot of great boxers in the beginning. I fought a bunch of bums. But every time I won, I also made a lot of fresh enemies. One thing people can't stand is a blowhard, and the more I blew, the more people would come out to see me get beaten. I said I was pretty. (I'm not as pretty as I let on.) I said I was fast. I said I was terrific, and it got so you couldn't keep people away. And they would yell, "Take away his pink Cadillac, the bum," and "Bash in his pretty nose." I don't really care what people say about me personally as long as they buy a ticket to come see me.
Folks ask me what I'll do if I beat Liston and what I'll do if I don't, but I don't have the answer yet. I'm not too worried. I think I can make it in something else the same way I've made it in boxing. If things go wrong in the fight, I'll just wait a while. Summertime comes, flowers start blooming, little birds start flying and you wake up, get up and get out. You change with the times.
Pretty soon people said I'm the greatest, and I said, "Didn't I tell you so in the first place?"