The greatest, p.2
The Greatest, p.2Walter Dean Myers
He wanted to report the bicycle stolen and was told that there was a policeman in the basement. Cassius found the officer, Joe Martin, and told him what had happened. He also added that when he found whoever had stolen his bike, he was going to beat him up.
Joe Martin had been a member of the Louisville police force for years. He enjoyed working with young people, black and white, and taught boxing at the Columbia Gym.
“You thinking about beating somebody up, you had better learn to fight,” he told the eighty-nine-pound Cassius. That suited the boy. He wanted to teach the bike thief a lesson and in his twelve-year-old mind he could imagine himself beating up the perpetrator. Cassius started boxing lessons.
Men who spend their lives teaching boys are a special breed. There is often a tenderness about them that is never expressed but that the child can understand. Joe Martin was such a man. At first, he didn’t think much of the new boy’s skills. Cassius was skinny and awkward. A lot of the other boys beat him in the ring; some beat him easily. But there was one thing that was different. Cassius would show up at the gym like clockwork — none of the other boys were as dedicated. Whatever work Martin asked of him he did, and then some. Soon, he was training six days a week with Martin and also with a black man named Fred Stoner.
* * *
One of the most difficult things for mature black men to see is the downward spiral of young black boys. Some react by turning away, by denying that it is happening. Others just angrily blame the kids. Still others, remembering the sweet language of youth, reach out and offer a helping hand to the hearts expecting disappointment and to the minds that have learned not to trust. Fred Stoner, at the Grace Community Center in Louisville, was one of the black men reaching out to young boys in the fifties and sixties.
One of the problems for black boys was that there were so few outlets for them. Too many children had nothing to do after school, and trouble waited in the streets. The Grace Community Center gave them a place to be, to hang out, to be safe. It also gave young Cassius Clay a place to learn more about boxing.
Cassius found out about the Grace Center and was eager to see what he could learn from it. He and his brother, Rudolph, began to go to both gyms: the Columbia Gym with Joe Martin, where Cassius would train as hard as he could, and then the Grace Center.
What Fred Stoner learned about Cassius — which Martin already knew — was that the loud-mouthed kid who liked to brag about what he would do to an opponent was absolutely dedicated to boxing. He practiced for long hours, perfecting each move he was taught, learning how to control himself physically in the ring.
Where Joe Martin, the patrolman, was a tough guy and expected his young fighters to be tough, Fred Stoner was more schooled in the ways of boxing. He knew that Cassius Clay’s dream depended on more than his determination, even when he saw him training as much as six days a week. Cassius spent a lot of time with Stoner and appreciated what the black man was offering him.
Stoner liked Cassius and his brother. He guessed that the Clay boys, who didn’t drink or smoke, came from the same economic background as the other boys who hung around the center. Young black boys, such as Cassius and Rudolph, who had working-class parents, didn’t go to symphonies and ballets. They grew up with little exposure to outside cultural influences.
“I suppose Clay was a hungry fighter,” Stoner said. “He didn’t come out of an affluent family. He didn’t have it too easy. We’re all out of the same bag.”
What Stoner perhaps suspected, and what the world was yet to know, was that boxing would bring young Cassius Clay out of the cultural ghetto. Boxing would change his life forever.
* * *
Joe Martin remembered that nothing seemed to discourage Cassius. Once, he was knocked unconscious but returned the next day to train against the boy who had knocked him out.
Martin produced a local television show, Tomorrow’s Champions, and young Cassius began to appear on it. He won some fights and lost others. Two years later Cassius’s dedication to training and his determination to improve were still there, but he wasn’t yet anything special.
To boost his own confidence he bragged a lot. He told other young fighters that they couldn’t beat him, that they couldn’t hurt him. He wasn’t a particularly hard puncher, but that didn’t stop him from announcing that he was going to knock out anyone he faced.
By the time Cassius turned sixteen, things had changed. He was still thin, he was still a light hitter, but he had reflexes and a coordination that old professionals in the field had never seen. He still lost fights, but even the officials who ruled against him saw that he was good.
Cassius was devoting more and more of his time to boxing. The winner of two national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) titles, six Kentucky Golden Gloves, and two Golden Gloves championships, his mind was set on a boxing career. He dropped out of high school in March 1958. Central High’s tenth grade was not as attractive as the upcoming Olympics. He was being noticed by fight fans around the country.
By his eighteenth birthday, in 1960, there was no doubt about Cassius Clay’s boxing skills. There were still problems with his technique, though. Instead of moving away from punches the way most fighters did, he would simply lean back, judging the distance and velocity the punch would travel as it came toward his chin. It was a fundamental mistake. If, in the heat of battle, he judged wrong, he could have been hit hard. But he was fast enough to get out of harm’s way: His reflexes were as sharp as anyone had ever seen.
It takes more than boxing skills to be a fighter. It takes the courage to stand up to an opponent, knowing that he wants to use his talent to hurt you as badly as he can. It also takes the ability to deal with two aspects of pain: the anticipation that you will be hurt, perhaps badly, and the knowledge that you can stop more pain simply by quitting. Cassius seemed to have the skills and the courage, and that’s what it would take to qualify for the Olympics, which were to be held that summer in Rome.
To get to the Olympics he had to go through a series of fights, meeting the best amateur fighters from around the country. Only one fighter from each weight group would be sent to represent the United States. The finals of the trials were to be held in California. But Joe Martin, still working with Clay, discovered a problem: Cassius was afraid of flying. Martin convinced Cassius that there wasn’t time for a long train ride across the country. During the turbulent flight, Martin had to work hard to calm the young man down. It worked. Clay won the trials and qualified to go to Rome.
Prior image: Training for the 1960 Olympic Games.
Clay wasn’t heavy enough in 1960 to enter the Olympics as a heavyweight. Instead, he was entered in the 178-pound light heavyweight division. He won his first three fights fairly easily. Clay had trained hard for the Olympics. Even in the Olympic village he stayed up late at night to shadowbox in his room while his boxing teammates slept. His style — straight, crisp punches and avoiding being hit — impressed the international judges. But the fourth fight proved difficult.
Olympic matches only have three rounds. A fighter is scored by how many times he hits his opponent cleanly and by his ability to avoid being hit. The fighter who wins two rounds almost always wins the match because it is extremely difficult to knock out an opponent in three rounds.
The Polish challenger, Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, was a European champion and had won a bronze medal four years earlier in the 1956 Olympics. Pietrzykowski was tough and plowed into the inexperienced Clay. The left-handed Polish fighter’s strength and mauling style made Clay look bad. He clearly lost the first round.
Clay tried the same quick jab-and-move tactics in the second round and realized that he was receiving as much punishment as he was giving. He had dreamed of the glory of being a champion, and this was his chance. He didn’t want to lose.
He made a small change in style, setting his feet more firmly in order to throw harder punches. He had to stop the Pole’s oncoming rush. At the end of the second round it wasn’t clear who was ahead
Clay came out in the third and final round with the determination that was to become his trademark. He used every bit of the skill and nerve he had to take control of the fight. The end of round three left Pietrzykowski battered and helpless against the ropes.
The 1960 games in Rome were a turning point in Olympic coverage with the emergence of two black stars. One was the tall sprinter from Tennessee State University, Wilma Rudolph. An outstanding athlete, Rudolph was a hit with Americans across the country as she won gold medals in three events. The other star was Cassius Clay.
At the medal ceremony, eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay looked like a child next to the older men he had beaten. The fight had been broadcast on television all over the world. People who knew next to nothing about the sport now knew about a young man from Louisville named Cassius Clay.
The Olympic team flew back home from Rome to New York. When Clay returned to the United States, his world had turned completely around.
What was happening to him? The young man from the segregated South who was used to being banned from certain restaurants and parks because he was black, was now being celebrated. In New York he visited Harlem for the first time and met Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who had ever entered a ring.
Sugar Ray Robinson was handsome and flashy. He liked to drive his lavender-colored Cadillac convertible slowly through the streets of Harlem, stopping now and again to spar with young boys, shaking hands, and generally accepting the enthusiastic appreciation of his fans. Before the Olympics and the gold medal, Clay had glimpsed the kind of attention a famous boxer could receive. When he returned he was getting much of the same attention.
At eighteen, the world seemed his for the taking.
* * *
Back home, a group calling itself the Louisville Sponsoring Group agreed to back Clay in his professional career. The group consisted of eleven men. They were white and southerners, but they were also people who were willing to look out for a young black man from their home state.
Clay received a $10,000 signing bonus from the group and was guaranteed a $333-per-month draw against his future earnings. In addition, 15 percent of his income would be put into a pension plan for him.
At the time, for boxing, and for professional sports of any kind, this was a great deal for Clay. Most beginning fighters were lucky to clear $200 a fight at the start of their careers, and none of them got a signing bonus. Very often they would have to take menial jobs that would interfere with their training. Clay, through the help of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, could concentrate solely on boxing.
There are two sides of boxing. On one side are the winners, trying to hold on to the money they make, trying to maintain their health. On the other side are the losers, with both money and health slipping away. Archie Moore, the man selected by the Louisville Sponsoring Group to be Cassius Clay’s new trainer, knew both sides of the game.
Archie Moore was born in Benoit, Mississippi, on December 13, 1913. He was raised by his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, Missouri, and began boxing in reform school. His professional boxing career began in 1936. Life was hard for all Americans during the depression years that began in 1929 and didn’t end until World War II. Boxing was a way of making a few dollars during those years, but it was nothing like the lucrative sport it would become. The young Moore worked a number of jobs as a laborer, sometimes taking fights with just a day’s notice.
Boxing has a number of economic levels. There are the “headline” fights of the major box office draws. These are the fights of which the international sports community takes note and which command high “purses,” or payments for fights, for the fighters. There is usually a major effort to promote these events to the general public, and the fighters are often well known. All fighters want to reach this level because of the money to be made. Fighters and managers at the top are never eager to fight someone from a lower level. The mid-level fights feature lesser-known boxers, and there is often pressure for the reigning champions in each weight division to fight the top contenders. At the bottom of the game are the fighters who scramble for matches and who fight for a few dollars while holding down full-time jobs.
The goal for the young fighter is to get a bout with an upper-level opponent. Archie Moore found himself in the ring with the same fighters over and over again because the top fighters would simply ignore him. But for Archie and for most young fighters, boxing had two irresistible lures. The first was the hope for a big payday and the match that would propel the man who often scrubbed floors to eat, into the big time — the good life of fancy clothes, a pocket full of money, and celebrity. The downside of this dream is that few fighters make money at boxing. A typical mid-level purse in the 1960s might have been a mere $2,500. From this the boxer had to pay his training expenses, cornermen, medical expenses, equipment, travel expenses, and give perhaps as much as 40 to 50 percent to his manager. He was lucky if he broke even. At the lowest levels even to this day, fighting is for little more than a few extra dollars of spending money.
The second lure of boxing was the same for the fighter as for the fan — the sport itself, the exciting, primitive appeal of two men fighting in a ring. Civilized men might control their impulses to hit people, deny the rush that violence can sometimes produce. But in the ring it was, and still is, allowed. The best fighters are invariably those who can most easily break down the barriers of control we have all been taught, who can bring a rage to the ring, a willingness to smash a man into unconsciousness, to see him fallen and bleeding on the canvas. To fight on a professional level you have to want to hurt people. You have to want to see the helpless look in a fighter’s eyes as you send yet another punch in his direction. Professional boxing is a sport of blood and pain and more pain. It is a sport in which naked brutality is the norm. If a fighter doesn’t love it, he needs to be in a different place.
The dark side of this issue is obvious. While it is the boxer’s desire to batter his opponent without mercy, it is also his opponent’s aim to do the same. The cost to the human body is staggering. As Archie Moore observed, “Your body just has a certain number of hard fights in it.”
In amateur boxing the fighters are required to wear protective headgear. Points are scored by the landing of blows, and not by the force behind the blows or the effect. A knockdown is not considered more significant than any other blow, and knockouts are rare. In professional boxing the force of the blows, especially to the head, are more highly regarded by the judges than lighter blows. Knockouts, especially in the heavyweight class, are the name of the game. A knockout, simply put, is an injury to the brain that renders the sufferer incapable of standing up. Sometimes a fighter can sustain an injury to the brain sufficient to make him unaware of what is going on while still able to stand, and therefore vulnerable to even more punishment. Referees are constantly looking at fighters’ eyes to see if they are “out on their feet.”
* * *
Archie Moore was forty-seven when Cassius Clay arrived at his camp in November 1960, sent by the Louisville Sponsoring Group for training. But Clay had already tasted the kind of fame he had longed for, had seen the lights of Harlem and those of the press corps. He had seen his image in Sports Illustrated and on television and was growing to love it. Now he was at the spartan camp of Moore, who had been fighting longer than Clay had been alive, and who wanted to teach the young star defensive fighting.
Clay trained in the Salt Mine, Moore’s aptly named camp in Ramona, California. Moore tried to teach Clay his way of avoiding punches. But every fighter comes to his own style based upon his own visions of himself and assessment of his skills. Moore saw himself as a survivor, and indeed he was, having survived an amazing twenty-four years in the ring. He stayed low in the ring, using his arms and shoulders to absorb punches as he moved into his opponent — taking the punches to his arms and body did not put him at risk of being knocked out or sustaining career-ending injuries. He had seen too
Clay didn’t think that Archie Moore was wrong in what he was teaching. But what the young fighter understood, better than anyone else, was the range of his own skills and how those skills made him feel confident in the ring.
Sugar Ray Robinson was considered one of the best fighters who had ever lived. He had the uncanny ability to punch with devastating force while moving backward. His hand speed and combinations were legendary. He was an attractive, flashy fighter, and Clay was impressed by the middleweight’s popularity.
Clay’s style, the style he was developing, also had a strong defensive element. He had fantastic hand speed and foot speed. His physical coordination, his ability to move around the ring, was impressive for a man his size. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” was more than a clever slogan; it was a technique that would take him to the very top of the boxing world. But Archie Moore worried that Clay’s fabulous speed would one day fade, or be slowed by fatigue in the closing rounds of a long fight. Still, speed was Clay’s game. It fit his personality. He didn’t want to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with an opponent. He wanted to frustrate the men he fought, to mess with their minds as they swung at him and missed. Clay was also confident that he could figure out the styles of the men he would fight and undermine their strengths. While he understood there would be bigger, stronger fighters than he was, he felt that the combination of his physical skills and his understanding of the fight game would defeat any opponent.
When Cassius Clay went home from Moore’s camp for the Christmas holiday, he knew he would never return.
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