The greatest, p.3
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       The Greatest, p.3

           Walter Dean Myers
 
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  As impressive as the young Clay’s Olympic experience was, there were two events that had occurred, years before, in May 1954, that perhaps had the most influence on him. In Southeast Asia, the fall of Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam, signaled the French defeat and the beginning of American involvement in a long and bitter war. The United States at first sent soldiers to Asia as “advisers” to the South Vietnamese army. As the war escalated, however, it became clear that Americans would also have to serve as combat soldiers. Many people felt that the United States should not have been involved in that war and did not want to support it either financially or by entering the armed forces.

  At home the issue of race loomed large. The Supreme Court’s ruling to end school segregation with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision should have meant new opportunities for African Americans. The truth of the matter, though, was that southern schools refused to allow African Americans to register, and that new lawsuits were being filed to force integration. The civil rights movement was growing within the United States as the Vietnam War was intensifying in Asia. Both events would affect Clay deeply.

  In 1962, Cassius Clay looked younger than his twenty years. His appearance, handsome to the point of being “pretty,” as he called himself, was a marked contrast to his chosen profession. The youthful Clay, joking with his fans, reciting his poetry on television, looked to all the world like a friendly kid — not a menacing fighter. His good looks and his playfulness helped Clay attract a following far different from fighters who preceded him. Young people, black and white, especially identified with the brash young man from Louisville. Many of his new fans had never followed boxing before. The idea of two men beating each other senseless was not a sport for everyone, but Clay made it different.

  The media, especially, took to Cassius Clay. Unlike the usual array of heavyweight fighters who spoke poor English or in monosyllabic grunts, Clay ran his mouth a mile a minute.

  “I am The Greatest!” he would shout at anyone who would listen.

  The press didn’t always appreciate Clay’s shouts and rants. Some sportswriters were open in their disgust for Clay. Who was this bragging fool? They couldn’t wait until someone shut up the Louisville Lip.

  Love him or hate him, the press was writing about Clay, and he understood the importance of publicity. He was becoming a media sensation. Writers began to wonder who the real Cassius Clay was. Was he an insignificant clown just looking for a big payday in boxing? When Clay claimed that he was The Greatest, was he referring to the greatest fighter or the greatest human being?

  By 1962, Clay had not proven himself as a boxer against a major opponent. There were fight professionals who thought he had superior skills, but skills alone did not make anyone The Greatest. What would happen when he faced an opponent at the top of the game, whose skills were as good as his and who would provide the gut check that all fighters eventually face? If they spend enough time in the ring, all fighters reach that moment when they get badly hurt. What would Clay do when his moment came?

  Boxing fans and writers always compare fighters, and young Clay was no exception. The chief comparison was with the man who held the heavyweight championship the longest, Joe Louis. Louis’s heavyweight career began in 1934, and he won the heavyweight championship in June of 1937. Born Joseph Louis Barrow, Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” was a proud, disciplined champion who never bragged about his conquests. His managers advised him never even to smile after a win, especially against a white opponent. During World War II, Louis enlisted in the army and fought ninety-six exhibitions to entertain the troops while raising thousands of dollars in U.S. bonds to support the war effort. America saw Louis as a relatively simple person, one who did not challenge the traditional position of the black man.

  Louis’s most famous fights were with Max Schmeling, the German heavyweight. On June 19, 1936, the Nazi war machine was gearing up for world domination. Much of the Nazi philosophy dealt with the idea of racial superiority, and the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, saw Schmeling as personifying his theme of the master race. When Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in the twelfth round of their fight, the Nazis were elated.

  By 1938, World War II was already raging in Europe, and it seemed likely that the United States would soon be involved. The Nazis were eager to have Schmeling defeat Louis again and become the world champion. The night of the fight, June 22, 1938, millions of black Americans were huddled around their radios hoping for “their Joe” to defeat the German. They didn’t have to wait long. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. All of America was proud and relieved that an American had won.

  As a fighter Joe Louis was capable of knocking an opponent out with one punch, an ability that Clay had not shown. But it was Joe’s dignity that people talked about when they compared the two fighters. Would Clay ever display such dignity?

  Another fighter on the scene in 1962 was Charles “Sonny” Liston. Liston was considered by many in boxing insiders as being unbeatable. A massive man with good boxing skills and a crushing punch, he was seen as the most formidable heavyweight fighter. Because of Liston’s ties to organized crime, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, asked Floyd Patterson, the heavyweight champion at the time, not to fight Liston. Patterson, a man dedicated to the sport of boxing, felt that all contenders deserved a chance at the crown.

  For Cassius Clay, the 1960s had begun with the Olympics, a gold medal, and international fame. By the beginning of 1962 he had already won ten professional fights against carefully selected opponents. Another Olympic gold medalist, Floyd Patterson, had lost the heavyweight championship to the powerful Swede Ingemar Johansson and had won it back convincingly with a crushing knockout. Patterson was scheduled to fight Sonny Liston in September 1962, and no one gave the former Olympian much of a chance against the much bigger, hard-hitting Liston.

  The September 25 fight between 214-pound Sonny Liston and 189-pound Floyd Patterson ended quickly, with Liston knocking out Patterson in the first round. Two months later Clay fought his former teacher, the aging Archie Moore.

  “I had to fight him for financial reasons,” Moore said. “It wasn’t what either of us wanted, but I was in a bind financially.”

  Prior image: Cassius Clay vs. Archie Moore.

  Clay predicted he would knock out the forty-eight-year-old Moore in the fourth round and accomplished that feat. Moore was clearly over the hill, but he still had a measure of respect. People were still wondering just how good Clay really was.

  Professional fights are entertainment events, designed to make money. Tickets, television and radio rights, and even film rights are all for sale. Sonny Liston had demolished Floyd Patterson for the championship, and a rematch was scheduled for July 1963. But another Liston-Patterson fight, projected as another early loss for Patterson, was not a big money fight. So the question was, who would be a sufficient challenge to Liston and command the large money a major heavyweight fight could bring? Cassius Clay decided to promote himself as that boxer.

  Meanwhile, more and more of the burden of the war in Vietnam fell on American soldiers. The cold war also became more intense as Russian missiles were discovered in Cuba, causing an international crisis. Colonel John H. Glenn became the first American astronaut to go into orbit. In the South, Freedom Riders, civil rights workers attempting to integrate interstate bus lines and train terminals, were viciously beaten by racists. Police dogs were used to attack African Americans protesting attempts to keep them from voting.

  Black athletes, for the most part, were not part of the civil rights movement. Joe Louis did not speak out on racism. Sugar Ray Robinson, like Joe Louis, had served the United States in the army and had fought exhibitions in the States and in Europe during World War II.

  Floyd Patterson made a point of being nonpolitical and moved his family to a predominately white neighborhood. He considered himself first and foremost a boxer, and he just wanted to get along with all people. In 1962, however, Amer
ica was changing. Television was bringing both the civil rights and antiwar movements into American homes. This was the milieu in which twenty-year-old Cassius Clay came to manhood.

  Direct involvement in the civil rights movement was not that easy for young African Americans to accomplish. In order to maintain a favorable position with liberal observers, movement leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, and A. Philip Randolph recruited college graduates and other highly educated people. The only major organization that was giving a voice to the “common man” was the Black Muslim group known as the Nation of Islam. In 1962, Clay drove to Detroit and heard the Nation of Islam’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad for the first time. He also met a man who would greatly influence his life, a man called Malcolm X.

  Cassius was maturing into manhood. Like all young Americans he saw the racial conflicts throughout the country. He saw more and more young men of his own age question the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Many older Americans did not know what to make of this younger generation. Nor did they know what to make of a young man running around saying that he was The Greatest.

  The year 1963 was a most dramatic one in American history. For Cassius Clay it was a year of important decisions. A week after his twenty-first birthday he fought Charles Powell in Pittsburgh, knocking out the fairly ordinary fighter in the third round. The fight was seen as such an easy bout for Clay that two months later he was in the ring again, this time in New York against Doug Jones, considered by many to be an excellent boxer, but one who lacked the big punch needed to become a champion. Clay predicted that he would knock out Jones in the fourth round: “I’m changing the pick I made before. Instead of six, Doug goes in four!”

  The fourth round came, and Clay tried his best to knock out Jones, but failed. In the sixth round, he worked as hard as he could to end it, but it wasn’t to be, and the large crowd at Madison Square Garden was clearly disappointed. Clay won the match on points, but some sports fans saw the mediocre fight as a sign of Clay’s true ability. He was advised not to predict the round of his next fight, which would take place in London, England, against British heavyweight Henry Cooper. Clay ignored the advice and said that Cooper would fall in the fifth round.

  The crowds that Clay had been attracting in the United States were phenomenal. He was giving boxing a much needed shot in the arm as thousands of fans showed up to see this trash-talking young man. The Jones bout had filled Madison Square Garden to capacity. But Clay’s reception in England was exceptional, as the twenty-one-year-old boxer was treated like royalty. Cheering crowds stopped traffic as Clay toured the posh downtown sections of London. He realized that he was a celebrity even thousands of miles from home and in another country. He clowned around for a series of publicity photos with the Beatles, the most popular rock ’n’ roll group in the world at the time, posed with English dignitaries, and gave endless interviews.

  This reception by English fans gave Clay a different idea of his stature. He was being accepted in a much wider population than other sports figures. He was not only young and handsome, but his youth and charm were accessible. He was, in fact, a world figure at twenty-one.

  * * *

  Tuesday, June 18, 1963. The fight with Henry Cooper would reveal much about the young Clay, some of it troubling to those around him. The press had played up the fight, and British crowds were eager to see the real Clay. The beginning of the fight was typical Clay — he was so much faster than Cooper that the fight seemed to be a mismatch. Time and again he had Cooper in trouble, only to back off and go into a kind of dance routine. Some of the producers didn’t like Clay’s clowning around, thinking it would cheapen the match. But then, at the end of the fourth round, Cooper lunged forward with a tremendous left hook that got Clay hard on the jaw. He fell back into the ropes, dazed. Then, hands lowered, he lurched forward onto the canvas. The crowd was stunned.

  Clay was down and confused. He got up, but it was obvious that his head still wasn’t completely clear. The bell rang, ending the round, and Clay’s handlers helped him back to his corner. He seemed to be in trouble as he slumped onto the stool.

  Angelo Dundee, his trainer, put smelling salts under Clay’s nose, trying desperately to bring him around. The cornermen put ice on his back and into his trunks, trying to shock him back to full consciousness. Dundee, an expert handler of fighters, thought that Clay might not be able to continue.

  Clay’s glove had been split earlier, and now Dundee, standing hunched over Clay, opened the split. Then he called it to the referee’s attention. “I don’t know how much time that got us,” Dundee later said. “Maybe a minute, but it was enough.”

  A minute. A minute for the boxer to recuperate, for the brain to recover from the damage it had been dealt. A boxer is considered knocked out if he is down for a count of ten. Ten long seconds of brain damage so severe that a man cannot perform the simple act of standing up.

  The bell rang, finally, for the next round. The split was finally taped, but the delay had given Clay ample time to recover. He came to the middle of the ring and, like a man possessed, threw more punches at Cooper than the English boxer had ever seen before. Cooper was demolished. Mercifully, the referee stopped the fight. Clay raised his fists above his head in victory.

  Clay was a star. He was loved by people who knew nothing about the fight game. As the biggest draw in boxing, he was also where the money was. Sonny Liston’s people contacted Clay. A fight for the heavyweight championship of the world was arranged.

  * * *

  Who was Cassius Clay? He was a black man who had grown up in a racist South, who had seen black men reaching for brooms when they should have been reaching for the stars. He was a black man who had felt the humiliation of seeing water fountains from which he could not drink because of the color of his skin.

  Prior image: The Greatest, 1964.

  On August 28, 1963, Clay saw the March on Washington, a national outpouring of support for the civil rights movement. He also saw, less than a month later, the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four little girls were killed.

  But as Clay observed America in 1963, America was also observing him. Charming, handsome, and a world-class athlete, he was attracting a lot of attention from young people. After the Cooper fight in England, however, he began to see more criticism. Barry Stainback, a writer for Sport magazine, asked, “How has Clay come so far and learned so incredibly little about his craft? Simply because he hasn’t had to learn anything. [Doug] Jones is the only real fighter Clay’s met so far, and he too should’ve been a setup because of his great lack of height, weight, and reach in comparison to Cassius…Some of us would like to buy a large insurance policy on Cassius Clay before he steps in with good old Charley Liston. That could be worth a fortune.”

  While the sports media questioned Clay’s ability, Clay showed his audience a new militant position. In August, at the March on Washington, the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X denounced the nonviolent direction of the civil rights movement. By September it was Clay who spoke against nonviolence: “I’m a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I’m no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won’t hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.”

  The Nation of Islam was becoming more visible to both Clay and the American public. In 1959, newscaster Mike Wallace, along with Louis Lomax, had produced a program about the Nation of Islam called “The Hate That Hate Produced.” This documentary presented to Americans their first open look at the Nation of Islam with its strongly antiwhite sentiments. The theme of the program was that American racism, directed against African Americans, had created a reaction of hatred against whites. The organization most connected with that hate was, said Wallace, the Nation of Islam.

  The widely seen television program acknowledged that the leader of the Nation of Islam was the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but the most outspoken and effective member was the man known as Malcolm X. Malcolm and the Nation
of Islam were interested in Cassius Clay because Clay had already taken a political stance in his private life and had shown interest in many of the principles of the Nation of Islam.

  By 1963, Clay had been listening to Malcolm X and to ministers from the Nation of Islam for some time. They offered him an alternative both to Christianity and to the position of black people in the United States. While the civil rights movement sought to integrate all Americans, the Nation of Islam favored the separation of the races. Moreover, the Muslims claimed that the black man had sufficient resources in his own community to have a separate nation without becoming part of the white community.

  Cassius, not yet twenty-two, understood fully that he was a celebrity and therefore was being sought by the Muslims at least partially because of his celebrity status. But why was the white community seeking him out? He knew that he made money for people involved in the boxing business. He knew that the offers he was receiving from television stations, from newspapers, from magazines were for the purpose of exploiting his fame. Clay was a fighter, a person used to standing toe-to-toe with an adversary and using his skills to gain a victory.

  Perhaps in another year — in 1960 or 1962 — Cassius Clay would have remained Cassius Clay. Perhaps if the black Christian churches had taken a more militant stance, had asked Clay to stand up for Christianity and fought more aggressively against racism, Clay would have taken up the challenge and continued in the religion of his mother. But in 1963 there was a convergence of events, which Malcolm X described as a turning point in the history of black Americans.

  * * *

  A grassroots movement had begun in the black community early in 1963. There was a call for a nationwide protest against injustice in which all black Americans would demonstrate their solidarity. The protest would take the shape of a march on Washington.

  As the movement began to gather force, President John F. Kennedy became concerned that a mass gathering of African Americans in the nation’s capital would undermine the sympathy shown to the civil rights movement. Hurried meetings were called and support for the protest was announced. But along with the support came a change in leadership. From the grassroots demonstration, a gathering of ordinary people against racism and injustice, the march became a highly organized assembly of whites and blacks. Malcolm X protested. He said that the march was losing its anger and had become, instead, a carefully controlled gathering of people more interested in loving their enemies than in a revolution.

 
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