By Peter Gleason
Cassius Clay enjoyed early success as a pro boxer.
His outrageous predictions, usually in rhyme — “This is no jive, Cooper will go in five” — put off many older sportswriters, especially since most of the predictions came true. (The Englishman Henry Cooper did go down in the fifth round at Wembley Stadium in 1963, after he had staggered Clay in the fourth.)
In 1963, at 21, after only 15 professional fights, he was on the cover of Time magazine. The winking quality of the prose — “Cassius Clay is Hercules, struggling through the twelve labors. He is Jason, chasing the Golden Fleece” — reinforced the assumption that he was just another boxer being sacrificed to the box office’s lust for fresh meat.
It was feared he would be seriously injured by champ Sonny Liston, a 7-to-1 betting favorite to retain his title in Miami Beach, Fla., on Feb. 25, 1964.
But Clay was joyously comic. Encouraged by his assistant trainer and “spiritual adviser,” Drew Brown, known as Bundini, Clay mocked Liston as the “big ugly bear” and chanted a battle cry: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble.”
The Beatles, on their first American tour, were in town and showed up for a photo op at Clay’s training gym. Malcolm X, a leading minister for the Nation of Islam and a worrisome presence to many white Americans, was there, too, with his family members as guests of Clay, whom they saw as a big brother.
To the shock of the crowd, Clay, taller and broader than Liston at 6-3 and 210 pounds and much faster, took immediate control of the fight. He danced away from Liston’s vaunted left hook and peppered his face with jabs, opening a cut over his left eye. Clay was in trouble only once. Just before the start of the fifth round, his eyes began to sting. It was liniment, but he suspected poison. Dundee had to push him into the ring. Two rounds later, Liston, slumped on his stool, his left arm hanging uselessly, gave up. He had torn muscles swinging at Clay in vain.
Clay, the new champion, capered along the ring apron, shouting at the press: “Eat your words! I shook up the world! I’m king of the world!”
The next morning, a calm Clay affirmed his rumored membership in the Nation of Islam. He would be Cassius X. (A few weeks later he became Muhammad Ali, which he said meant “Worthy of all praise most high.”) That day he harangued his audience with a preview of what would, over the next few years, become a series of longer and more detailed lectures about religion and race. This one was about, as he put it, “staying with your own kind.”
“In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers,” he said. “I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”
The only prominent leader to send Ali a telegram of congratulations was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I remember when Ali joined the Nation of Islam,” Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and politician, once said. “The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion he’d do it — that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America, and be proud of it — sent a little thrill through you.”
The thrills gave way to darker thoughts. After Malcolm X left the Nation and was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965, by members of the group, there was talk that Ali had been tacitly complicit. Jack Newfield, a political journalist with an interest in boxing, wrote, “If Ali, as the new heavyweight champion, had remained loyal to his mentor, and continued to lend his public support to Malcolm, history might have gone in a different direction.”