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Issue Date: November 2010 Issue


Muhammad Ali: Boxing’s Prettiest Face

From Dan Coughlin's new book, Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It
Within a month of winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he explained was his "slave name," to his new Muslim name, and he instantly became a world figure. Until then we didn't realize how many Muslims there are in this world. There are a lot of them and Ali was their hero.

Like most white guys, I had never actually known anyone named Muhammad and I wasn't comfortable calling him by that name. We had just gotten to know him as Cassius. Today it's easy. We've known him as Muhammad for most of our lives. But in 1964 we chickened out and called him, "Champ." We'd say, "Yeah, Champ. Whattaya say, Champ. Way to go, Champ." He knew what was going on but he let it alone.

This Muslim stuff was puzzling. It was difficult for many of us white guys to understand how the Islam religion differed from the Black Muslims who were burning down the cities at that time.

"What the hell is going on here?" we wondered.

So I spent an afternoon with Ali on April 9, 1964, trying to get the answers and when it was over, I was more confused than before.

Ali was in town as a favor to Pete Rademacher, the former Olympic heavyweight champion, who was promoting a fight show at Baldwin-Wallace College. Ali appeared on the Mike Douglas television show on WKYC Channel 3 at noon, and he attended the fight show that night in Ursprung Gym. In the middle, Ali and I got together.

I picked up Ali at the television station after the show. Stepin Fetchit, an old black vaudeville star, also was a guest on the show, and he needed a ride. So we dropped him off at Public Square where he caught the Rapid Transit train to the airport. His bones creaked as he got out of the back seat of my old Ford, and I noticed that Ali slipped a $100 bill into his hand.

From there it was off to the Majestic Hotel on East 55th Street, just north of Central Avenue. Ali could have stayed at any hotel — our downtown hotels in Cleveland were not segregated — but he preferred the Majestic, a 19th century mansion converted to a hotel that catered only to blacks. As we parked alongside the hotel and walked to the front entrance, children from George Washington Carver Elementary School recognized Ali from across the street. It was dismissal time and hundreds of kids suddenly appeared. These children were no more than 12 or 13 years old, but they already knew the heavyweight champion. In those days, there was only one champion and there he was in real life. I doubt that the children would have recognized Sonny Liston or Floyd Patterson, Ali's immediate predecessors as heavyweight champion, but they knew Ali, even though he had been heavyweight champion for only six weeks. That's the immediate impact he had on the world.

When Ali saw an audience, a switch in his brain clicked and it was showtime. They waved and called his name. Ali called back.

"Who's the greatest?" he shouted.

"You're the greatest," they responded.

And so it went for several minutes. The kids poured onto the street, blocking traffic on a major north-south artery and for several minutes they shut down a large portion of Cleveland's East Side. Ali led the chants and the kids answered until the champion grew tired and we slipped away into the hotel.

We squeezed into a tiny elevator and rode to the fourth floor — the top floor — and retreated to his small room. Ten years later Ali traveled with an entourage of dozens and he rented entire floors of shiny new hotels. But in the spring of 1964 his only traveling companion was his road manager, a man named Archie Kariem. In the privacy of his room Ali exhaled loudly and his tall body seemed to slump. The show was over.

"It's an act," he said.

"What's an act?" I said. "Your act with the kids out there? Your act with Sonny Liston before the fight?"

His entire public life, he said, was a performance. It was his signature. He was a promoter. His wild-eyed proclamations leading up to his fight with Sonny Liston in Miami Beach were orchestrated to generate interest and sell tickets.

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was Ali's anthem leading up to the Liston bout, but it was suspected that his obnoxious cornerman Drew (Bundini) Brown was the actual author.

At every opportunity Ali ridiculed and discredited Liston. No sport, not even boxing, had ever seen anything so outrageous. Ali called Liston an ugly chump and said it was time for "a pretty face" to rule boxing. He caressed his face like a model selling cosmetics.

Until then fighters never made incendiary comments. The most quotable was Joe Louis' prophetic remark about former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn. "He can run but he can't hide," Louis said before their 1941 fight.

"I don't hate Sonny Liston. I never did," Ali said that afternoon. "I went over to his house a few days before the fight and told him exactly what I was going to do and why. Liston agreed. I have advisers telling me exactly what to do. We plan out everything I say in advance, just like the president has his cabinet. But the fight was for real."

We got to the Muslims. What were their beliefs? What were his beliefs?

Integration, he said, will not work because it is not the natural order. Blacks and whites should live in peace but separately. They should have nothing to do with each other.

We were both young, inexperienced and naive. He was 22. I was 26. Blacks and whites alike were dying in marches and sit-ins, and I thought they were noble. Ali dismissed their courage as futility. I wasn't going to fight him over our views. I wasn't there to debate him.

"I get more hell from colored folks than from white folks for being a Muslim," he said. "I don't hate anybody. I want to live in peace. I go where I'm wanted. If I'm not wanted, I move on. I don't bash in store windows. I don't march and picket. I can't carry on like that. I'm too big a man for that. You white folks are the ones who have the problem. You don't know whether to support one Negro group or the other."

Because there was no chair in the room, I sat on the edge of his bed writing down everything he said, filling up my notebook. Ali had taken off his suit coat and hung it on a hanger in his small closet and was standing in front of a mirror as he expounded on his philosophies. All the time he rubbed some type of ointment from a little blue jar on his face and hands. This went on for a long time. He continually worked it into his skin.

I couldn't see the jar because it was on top of a highboy dresser. It would have been rude to ask him what he was doing, so I stood up — as though to stretch — so I could read the label.

"Whitening cream!" That's what it said.

This day was getting crazier. While he was advocating separation of the races, he was rubbing whitening cream into his face and hands. Forty-five years later I related the story to Stacey Bell of Channel 8.

"That's not uncommon," she said. "Whitening cream is used to balance the complexion. Some persons of color have uneven pigments. Darker in some areas. Lighter in others. Whitening cream evens it all out."

This was overkill. His skin was perfectly pigmented. His entire body was exactly the same shade. There were no variations. It was obvious to millions of people who saw him in the ring wearing only boxing shorts. Everything about his skin can be explained. He had a light complexion because of an Irish grandfather, which also accounts for his boastful personality and penchant for poetry.

If I could turn back the clock to 1964, I would ignore good manners and say to Ali, "What in the hell are you doing?" But I was an invited guest in his hotel room. It was no time for confrontation. There are rules for invited guests. Good manners are involved. I just kept writing in my notebook and turning the pages.

And that's how it went over the next 15 years. Ali was responsible for some of the most thrilling events in my life. I covered his comeback victory over Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, two of his fights with Joe Frazier, his win over Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium, his survival of Earnie Shavers' relentless attack in Madison Square Garden.

Ali inflicted terrible punishment on the obscure Chuck Wepner at the Richfield Coliseum in 1975. After the fight I had to search out Wepner. I found him standing over the drain in his shower. He was dressed in a suit, dress shirt, open neck, no tie, and he was standing over the drain in his shower, convulsing with the dry heaves. Ali gave Wepner more than a beating. He gave him the biggest payday of his life in a one-sided fight that became Sylvester Stallone's inspiration for the movie franchise, Rocky.

Explaining Ali is impossible. He was a contradiction. What he said about blacks and whites back in 1965, I don't believe he meant a word of it. During his entire boxing career his trainer was Angelo Dundee, an Italian. His bodyguard was the big Irish lummox Gene Kilroy. Although he gave Don King credibility as a promoter, Ali also fought several times for white promoter Bob Arum. And he gave Irish sportswriters a lifetime of stories.

Excerpted from the book Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It © Dan Coughlin. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Co., Publishers. The book is available at Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com.

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