Editor's note: Muhammad Ali, one of the world's greatest boxers and one of the 20th century's biggest personalities, died on June 3, 2016 in Phoenix, after being hospitalized for respiratory problems. This article was originally published on May 20, 2011.
Muhammad Ali was my first Big Story. He put my name on Page 1. He made me a columnist. He was also the single most important sporting lens through which I learned about politics, religion, race, and hero worship. Loving Ali has been easy. It's grasping what he stands for at any given moment that's been hard.
Our journey began as sheer joy. The first time I ever saw him, I was standing with the Beatles. That was Feb. 18, 1964, when his name was Cassius Clay. He was 22 years old. I was 26. The New York Times was so sure that Clay would be knocked out early in his heavyweight title fight in Miami against the champion, Sonny Liston, that the paper didn't bother to send its boxing writer. Instead, it sent a feature writer whose time was less valuable. I was thrilled with the assignment.
My instructions were stark: As soon as I landed, I was to drive my rental car from the arena to the nearest hospital, mapping the quickest route. The paper didn't want me to waste any deadline time following Clay to intensive care. After my mapping expedition, I drove to the seedy old 5th Street Gym (in what is now trendy South Beach) to watch Clay's daily training session for the first time. He hadn't arrived yet, but the gym was packed with tourists and sportswriters — Clay had been on the cover of Time for his coffeehouse-doggerel readings ("This is the story about a man / with iron fists and a beautiful tan") and his ability to predict the round in which his carefully chosen opponents would fall.
As I climbed the splintery stairs, there was a hubbub behind me. Four little guys around my age in matching white terry-cloth cabana jackets were being herded up. Someone said it was that hot new British rock group on their first American tour. I was annoyed. Bad enough this disgrace to poetry was sullying boxing, now these noisy mop tops were trying to cash in on the sweet science. A British photographer traveling with the Beatles had tried to pose them with Sonny Liston, but the champ had refused — "Not with them sissies," he is supposed to have said — and now they were settling for a photo op with the challenger.
The Beatles were cranky in that damp dressing room, stomping and cursing. I introduced myself, rather importantly, I'm afraid, and they mimicked me. John shook my hand gravely, saying he was Ringo, and introduced me to Paul, who he said was John. I asked for their predictions. They said that Liston would destroy Clay, that silly little overhyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves again. "Silly little overhyped wankers," I thought.
Suddenly the locker room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much larger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He seemed to glow. He was laughing.
"Hello there, Beatles!" he roared. "We oughta do some road shows together, we'll get rich."
The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they'd met before and choreographed their routine. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. Then they lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay's jaw. The five of them began laughing so hard their impromptu frolics collapsed. That photo op is a classic.
After the Beatles left, Clay jumped rope, shadowboxed, and sparred as his court jester, Drew Bundini Brown, hollered, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble!" Afterward, stretched out on a dressing-room table for his rubdown, Clay pretended to fall asleep as reporters asked him what he was going to do after he lost. Finally, a crabby old reporter from Boston said, "This whole act is a con job, isn't it?" and Clay pretended to wake up and said, "I'm making all this money, the popcorn man is making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it's warm." The Boston reporter shut up.
That was the moment when I began to wish this kid wasn't going to get his head knocked off. He would have been such a joy to cover, I thought. Too bad he's only passing through, a firefly fad like the Beatles.
My reverie of regret was interrupted by Clay, poking me. He put his head close to mine and whispered that he had noticed me coming out of the locker room with the four visitors. "Who were those little sissies?" he asked.
The week-long buildup to that fight was intense and clamorous, a feverish, hilarious, nutty series of encounters with down-and-out old boxers, sleazy hustlers, hookers, gamblers. While the week was a twilight reminder of the Damon Runyon days, it was also a foreshadowing of the more politicized days to come. Clay's mentor, Malcolm X, then a Black Muslim minister and white America's designated bogeyman, was floating around the edges of the scene. His presence made plausible the rumor that Clay was waiting until after the fight to announce his membership in the Lost-Found Nation of Islam.
I kept an eye out for Malcolm that week in Miami but never saw him. The summer before, I'd been assigned to write a sidebar to the second Floyd Patterson–Sonny Liston fight. This usually meant a chat with Patterson's wife or former manager or some old juvies from his neighborhood. I'm not sure if it was my political nature kicking in or if I was trying to create my own style, but I headed out to Brooklyn, where a thousand blacks and whites were protesting racial bias in the construction industry.
I spotted Malcolm, whom I recognized from newspaper photos. Tall, handsome, cold-eyed, the former Malcolm Little, a robber, drug dealer, and pimp who had found Islam and radical politics in prison, was standing across the street smirking at the demonstrators. I rushed over and asked him what he thought the fight signified. He said, "That's a stupid question," and his bodyguards, three black-suited members of the Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary wing of the Nation of Islam, shoved me into the gutter. As I went down, I yelled, "The only stupid question is an unanswered question!"
Malcolm smiled and nodded. The Fruit picked me up. I introduced myself. He said, "I'm pleased to see that the two best men in the sport are black. But they'll be exploited, of course, and the promoters will get all the bread. They'll let a Negro excel if it's going to make money for them."
That sidebar was a turning point for me. It gave me the courage to find my own signature. The Times ran the story without discussion, and it may have led to my being sent to Miami Beach six months later.
That week of his first title fight, Clay dazzled with charm and braggadocio. The sportswriters of my generation were delighted with a subject who reflected our happening times of hippies, pop art, psychedelics, free love, rock and roll. We bemoaned his imminent demise at the hands of the baleful ex-con Liston, whose most searching remark about Clay, written in red in my notebook, was, "He's a fag, I'm a man."
The older sportswriters — Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, Arthur Daley — clustered in Liston's camp. They derided Clay's unorthodox boxing style (he leaned away from punches rather than letting them "slip" over his shoulders). They seemed offended by his trash talk, "Liston's a big ugly bear" and "I am the greatest." They also resented the casual way he treated them, his cheery disrespect for their importance.
The fight, of course, was my professional dream come true. The first inkling that the prohibitive 7-to-1 odds against Clay might be a mistake came when the fighters met in the middle of the ring. Clay was bigger than Liston. Round by round, I kept losing my breath. Except for the moments when he was apparently blinded by some chemical from Liston's gloves, Clay totally dominated the fight. Clay danced around Liston, he jabbed, he slugged, he mocked the brute. Then Liston sat down on his stool and wouldn't get up, and it was over. Clay capered on the ring apron, yelling at the press, "Eat your words!"
And then it was my turn, minutes to deadline, banging out a paragraph on my little Olivetti, ripping out the page, handing it to the telegrapher at my side, banging on. I loved the rush of writing under the gun. I'd never say it was better than sex, but it was in the same ballpark.
The front-page, above-the-fold story I filed began, "Incredibly, the loud-mouthed, bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round."
I don't remember what I did with the rest of that night, but I don't think I slept. I still have the scrawled notes of my future-story file: Muslims, Malcolm, Clay's early life in Louisville, Liston's reputed mob connections, whither boxing?, a new model of sports hero. I wanted to hang on to this story.
It got even better the next morning, at Clay's press conference. He was subdued and polite, and after he said that he would give Liston a rematch and fight all contenders, he said, "I'm through talking. All I have to be is a nice, clean gentleman."
The older reporters liked that. They smiled and nodded at one another. It had all been a put-on after all. They shifted a little nervously, though, when he added, "I'm sorry for Liston. You people put too much load on him, you built him up too big, and now he has such a long way to fall."
At that, most reporters, certainly the older ones, left to file their stories: All was right with the world — Clay was a nice kid, if a little full of himself. Some would write that he had gotten lucky, a few that the fight might have been fixed so Liston would get an even bigger payday next time.
The younger reporters lingered, unsatisfied. We asked about Malcolm and about the Muslims' nationalism and their espousal of racial separation.
"Listen," said Clay. "In the jungle the lions are with lions and the tigers with tigers and the redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds. That's human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don't want to go where I'm not wanted."
Most of us were integrationists, supporters of Freedom Rides, sit-ins, voter-registration drives. We looked at one another. Is he kidding?
Someone asked, "So are you a card-carrying Muslim?"
Clay sounded annoyed. "I go to Black Muslim meetings, and what do I see? I see that there's no smoking and no drinking and no fornicating and their women wear dresses down to the floor. And then I come out on the street, and you tell me I shouldn't go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don't want me to go in there."
"What about your responsibility as champion to the youth?"
Clay quickly replied, "I don't have to be what you want me to be, I'm free to be who I want."
That sounded like an athletic declaration of independence to me. Maybe my heart didn't quite leap, but it bounced a little. This was going to be a big story, and it was going to be around for a while, and I was going to ride it to the buzzer.
From the book An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir, by Robert Lipsyte. Copyright ©2011 by Robert Lipsyte. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.