The champ

They all fall

In the round I call

Fifty years ago today, Cassius Marcellus Clay motor-mouthed himself, quite literally, into the world heavyweight boxing title — or at the least, into the storied title fight, February 25, 1964, against reigning champion Sonny Liston in Miami.

A good two years before his dancing feet and blinding jabs propelled him to boxing glory, the ‘Louisville Lip’s’ mouthy ways had already drawn the attention of the game’s premier writers. AJ Liebling, who after making his bones as a war correspondent wrote brilliantly of boxing in his later years, watched a young Clay, by then an Olympic champion, train for his debut as a professional. “Clay has a skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water,” Liebling wrote in a piece for the New Yorker (March 3, 1962; subscription required).

Liebling was ringside, watching Clay train at the Department of Parks gymnasium on West 28th Street, NY, when Clay first game him a glimpse of his motor-mouth skills. The young boxer was doing sit ups when his trainer, the legendary Angelo Dundee, mentioned that Clay wrote poems, and had just done one on Floyd Patterson. Here is what happened next:

“I’ll say it for you,” the poet [Clay] announced, without waiting to be wheedled or breaking cadence. He began on a rise:

You may talk about Sweden

[Down and up again]

You may talk about Rome

[Down and up again]

But Rockville Center is Floyd Patterson’s home

[Down]

And so on, Clay’s verse and the rhythm of his sit-ups in perfect sync, till he gets to the punch line:

“He cut up his eyes and mussed up his face

And that last left hook knocked his head out of place!”

As the title fight neared, Clay’s lippy style shifted in tone from the playfully admiring to the abusive, and its focus from the once-great Patterson to the reigning champion, Liston.

This is the legend of Cassius Clay

The most beautiful fighter in the world today.

He talks a great deal and brags indeedy

Of a muscular punch that is incredibly speedy

The fistic world was dull and weary

With a champ like Liston things had to be dreary

Then someone with color, someone with dash

Brought fight fans a-running with cash

This brash young boxer is something to see

The heavyweight championship is his destiny.

From thus brashly announcing himself to the world, well before the world was ready for him, Clay began to escalate the venom of his taunts as the fight grew closer. His preferred epithet for Liston was ‘the ugly bear’; his carefully-scripted ‘impromptu’ riffs  including lines like “You so ugly, when you cry the tears run down the back of your head. You so ugly, you have to sneak up on the mirror so it won’t run off the wall. ” (Part of an extended monologue, quoted by Tom Wolfe in his superb 1963 Esquire piece The Marvelous Mouth).

“He even smells like a bear,” Clay told reporters. “When I beat him, I am going to donate him to the zoo.”

Some interpreted his rants as the product of fear; others, as unbridled arrogance. Clay knew precisely what he was up to. While the media, shocked by his brashness, eagerly awaited the young pretender’s moment of hubris (43 of 46 boxing reporters at ringside, in pre-match predictions, said Liston would win with humiliating ease), Clay continued with his clear-eyed strategy — and explained why, in a first person piece in Sports Illustrated, one day before the fight that was to change boxing history:

Where do you think I would be next week 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, Ky., my home town, washing windows or running an elevator and saying “yes suh” and “no suh” and knowing my place. Instead of that, I’m saying 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 has heard me talk enough and they’re 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.

Part of my plan to get the fight has made me say some pretty insulting things about Sonny Liston, but I might as well tell you I’ve done that mostly to get people to talking about the fight and to build up the gate. I actually have a certain amount of respect for Liston; he’s the champion, isn’t he? That doesn’t mean I think he’s going to stay champion. I have too much confidence in my own ability to think I’m beaten before we start. I do mean he is a strong, hard puncher, and he’s not a fighter anybody can laugh at. When I walk into a room where he is and 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, but that look of his still shakes me. I wonder what’s really going on in that head of his, and I wonder what poor, humble Floyd Patterson was thinking when he had to climb into the ring with Liston.

But I am not fooled by what Liston did to Patterson once they started to fight. Liston didn’t do anything except hit Floyd while he stood there and took it. Now don’t think for even a little bit I’m going to stand around for Liston to do with as he pleases. The way I plan for things to go is to stay out of his way during the early rounds, and I count on him to wear himself out chasing me. I’ll circle him and jab him and stick and fake, dogging him most of the time and tying him up when he gets too close. He won’t be able to hurt what he can’t even hit.

Liston had decimated former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, via two first-round knockouts, in the run-up to the Miami bout, while Clay’s own preparation included underwhelming wins against two never-will-be heavyweights (Doug Jones and Henry Cooper). Veteran fight reporters previewed the February 25 title fight as a match up between Liston’s brutal punching power and Clay’s penchant for back-pedaling and relying more on foot speed than his fists.

Clay agreed — only, he had a characteristically pithy turn of phrase to describe his strategy: “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

On the day of the fight, Clay and his team strutted to the ringside, premiering a chant that was to redefine a sport:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!

The slogan, now inextricably linked with the Clay/Ali mythos, was the creation of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, the assistant trainer Sugar Ray Robinson recommended to Clay. Bundini (here’s a cute story of how Drew Brown became Bundini Brown — in India), who went on to become one of Clay’s best friends, and who came up with that exhortation to gee up the fighter during his progress to the ring, died broken, and broke — just another of the sad footnotes the history of the sport is littered with.

The fight itself has by now acquired the panoply of legend; here is a typical Wiki description, long on detail, short on drama. And from among contemporaneous chronicles, here is Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, one of the correspondents who had written Clay off as a blow-hard before the fight and predicted a brutal comeuppance, wonderingly recanting.

A more poignant description, one that sums up all that Clay/Ali was, and continues to be, is contained in David Remnick’s King of the World. Remnick and Ali, the latter by then in the quivering, debilitating grasp of full-blown Parkinson’s, are in the latter’s home, reviewing his life and watching the iconic fight on videotape. Excerpt:

“SEE THAT? SEE ME?”

Muhammad Ali sat in an overstuffed chair watching himself on the television screen. The voice came in a swallowed whisper and his finger waggled as it pointed toward his younger self, his self preserved on videotape: twenty-two years old, getting warm in his corner, his gloved hands dangling at his hips. Ali lives in a farmhouse in southern Michigan. The rumor has always been that Al Capone owned the farm in the twenties. One of Ali’s dearest friends, his cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown, had once searched the property hoping to find Capone’s buried treasure. In 1987, while living in a cheap motel on Olympia Avenue in Los Angeles, Bundini fell down a flight of stairs. A maid finally found him, paralyzed, on the floor; he died three weeks later.

Now Ali was whispering again, “See me? You see me?” And there he was, surrounded by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and Bundini, moon-faced and young and whispering hoodoo inspiration in Ali’s ears: “All night! All night! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” “That’s the only time I was ever scared in the ring,” Ali said. “Sonny Liston. First time. First round. Said he was gonna kill me.”

The fight began. In black and white, Cassius Clay came bounding out of his corner and right away started circling the square, dancing, moving around and around the ring, moving in and out, his head twitching side to side, as if freeing himself from a neck crick early in the morning, easy and fluid—and then Liston, a great bull whose shoulders seemed to cut off access to half the ring, lunged with a left jab. Liston missed by two feet.

At that moment, Clay hinted not only at what was to come that night in Miami, but at what he was about to introduce to boxing and to sports in general—the marriage of mass and velocity. A big man no longer had to lumber along and slug, he could punch like a heavyweight and move like Ray Robinson.

“It’s sweet, isn’t it?” Ali smiled. With great effort, he smiled. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system that stiffens the muscles and freezes the face into a stolid mask. Motor control degenerates. Speech degenerates. Some people hallucinate or suffer nightmares. As the disease progresses, even swallowing can become a terrible trial. Parkinson’s comes on the victim erratically. Ali still walked well. He was still powerful in the arms and across the chest; it was obvious, just from shaking his hand, that he still possessed a knockout punch. No, for him the special torture was speech and expression, as if the disease had intended to strike first at what had once pleased him, and pleased (or annoyed) the world, most. He hated the effort that speech now cost him. (“Sometimes you won’t understand me,” he said when we first met. “But that’s okay. I’ll say it again.”) He rarely risked a word in front of a camera. And usually it was an enormous effort to show a smile. I said I knew what he was talking about. My father has Parkinson’s. He can no longer walk more than a few steps, and his speech, depending on the time of day, can be a trial. So I knew. What I couldn’t tell him was that my father is over seventy. His speech is better than Ali’s. But my father had not spent decades getting hit hundreds, thousands of times, by the best heavyweight fighters of his era.

Ali was smiling now as his younger self, Cassius Clay, flicked a nasty left jab into Liston’s brow. “You watchin’ this? Sooo fast! Sooo pretty!” Liston seemed hurt and confused. He had no answer to this new species of athlete.

This “new species of athlete” would go on to define the tumultuous sixties become its lightning rod and standard-bearer, as Jimmy Cannon said:

He is all that the sixties were. It is as though he were created to represent them. In him is the trouble and the wildness and the hysterical gladness and the nonsense and the rebellion and the conflicts of race and the yearning for bizarre religions and the cult of the put-on ad the changed values that altered the world and the feeling about Vietnam in the generation that ridicules what their parents cherish.

Having defined his sport and through it his decade, he would go on to be enshrined Sportsman of the Century by both Sports Illustrated and the BBC. The man who was once vilified for his religious and political beliefs and had his gloves, and his livelihood, snatched from him now lives on to see the gloves he wore in that storied fight against Liston go under the auctioneer’s hammer — and fetch a fortune. And it all began fifty years ago, when a brash young man with a quick mouth and quicker fists announced himself to the world.

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2 thoughts on “The champ

  1. Ali was a great athlete who pursued the wrong “sport”. Why did he pick the one arena which is brutal, barbaric and primeval (other than US football)? What a waste of a great quipper and a great strategist!

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