June 4, 2016


The Outsized Life of Muhammad Ali (DAVID REMNICK, 6/04/16, The New Yorker)

Cassius Clay lived in a modest house on Grand Avenue, a relatively pleasant street with other black families, not in "Smoketown," the poorer black neighborhood in southwest Louisville. It was middle class, "but black middle class, black Southern middle class, which is not white middle class at all," Toni Morrison told me when I was working on a book about Ali. (As an editor at Random House, Morrison had worked on Ali's autobiography, "The Greatest.") Cassius was named for a nineteenth-century Kentucky abolitionist and military commander who inherited forty slaves and then freed them when he came home from the war in Mexico. He was, for a while, Abraham Lincoln's emissary to Russia, but he soon returned to Kentucky to work again for the abolitionist cause. Cassius--the boy, the fighter--was told stories about his great-grandfather who was raised on the abolitionist's farm, "but not in a slave capacity. No, sir!," as Clay, Sr., Ali's father, once said.

Louisville, when Cassius was growing up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, was a Jim Crow city. American apartheid. Not quite as virulent as in Jackson or Mobile, but plenty bad. At movie theatres like the Savoy, whites sat in the orchestra, blacks in the balcony; most other theatres were for whites only, and so were the stores downtown. There were white schools, white country clubs, white businesses. Blyden Jackson, a black writer from Louisville, who was in his forties when Clay was growing up, wrote, "On my side of the veil everything was black: the homes, the people, the churches, the schools, the Negro park with Negro park police. . . . There were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas." It was a childhood in which Cassius saw his mother turned away for a drink of water at a luncheonette after a hard day of cleaning the floors and toilets of white families. These were daily scenes, the racial arrangements of Louisville.

Cassius's father was a man of thwarted dreams. He distrusted whites, and felt he was prevented from becoming a painter of canvasses rather than of signs and billboards. He drank too much, and his bitterness sometimes tipped into chaos. He was, one of Ali's friends said, the source of a great deal of pain in the family. His mother, Odessa, was usually the object of Cassius, Sr.,'s fury and fists, and she was the boy's comfort. Odessa was the first to know that her son was hyperverbal and quick with a left hand. As she once recalled, "He was always a talker. He tried to talk so hard when he was a baby. He used to jabber so, you know? And people'd laugh and he'd shake his face and jabber so fast. I don't see how anybody could talk so fast, just like lightning. And he never sat still. He was in the bed with me at six months old, and you know how babies stretch? He had little muscle arms and he hit me in the mouth when he stretched and it loosened my front tooth and it affected my other front tooth and I had to have both of them pulled out. So I always say his first knockout punch was in my mouth."

As an athlete and as a performer, Clay learned from, and copied, a multitude of sources: the braggadocio of the professional wrestler "Gorgeous" George Wagner, the footwork and boxing style of Sugar Ray Robinson. But no public figure affected him more deeply than Emmett Till, a boy from Chicago, who, on a visit to family in Money, Mississippi, was murdered for the alleged sin of "reckless eyeballing." The story was that Till, who was fourteen, dared to call a white cashier "baby." A few days later, white men turned up at the house where he was staying, dragged him out of his bed, shot him in the head, tied barbed wire attached to a bulky cotton-gin fan around his neck, and threw his corpse in the Tallahatchie River. The horror that Cassius experienced looking at the pictures of Till's brutalized face in the pages of Life and the black press helped convince him of the limits of his possibilities as a black kid in the South.

"There wasn't nothing to do in the streets," he told one writer, recalling his own stunted growing up. "The kids would throw rocks and stand under the streetlights all night, running in and out of the juke joints and smoking and slipping off drinking, nothing to do."

At Central High, Cassius's marks were so bad in the tenth grade that he had to withdraw and then come back and repeat the year. A career in professional football or basketball seemed to require college, and that, he felt, wasn't going to happen. Boxing was the path. He daydreamed in class, shadowboxed in the hallways. He trained at first in the gym of a local police officer named Joe Martin and, even as a teen-ager, he showed uncommon skill. He was incredibly disciplined even then, waking at dawn and running through Chickasaw Park. And the preternatural confidence was there from the start. He was The Greatest practically before he entered the ring. Even in those days, Clay was using doggerel verse, like a pugilistic Ogden Nash, to predict an opponent's demise: "This guy must be done / I'll stop him in one." At school assemblies, he got up in front of the student body while the friendly principal, Atwood Wilson, introduced him as the "next heavyweight champion of the world! This guy is going to make a million dollars!" He struggled in class, finding it hard to read a book, but he was intelligent, absorbing things through other means. As an aspiring fighter, he tore through Golden Gloves competitions, leading his mentor, Wilson, to say, "The truth is, the only thing Cassius is going to have to read is his I.R.S. form, and I'm willing to help him do it."

But, while he eventually became an Olympic champion, he did not so much impress boxing writers as bewilder them. Even A. J. Liebling, the finest of all boxing writers, and no one's idea of a reactionary or a hack, was confounded by the young man's loose-limbed style. Clay's refusal to exchange punches with his opponent in the traditional manly fashion, his way of dancing, of circling an opponent, flashing lacerating jabs that came lashing up from the hip . . . this was not proper, somehow.

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay won the gold medal with a victory over a lumbering opponent from Poland. Liebling offered only qualified praise. "Clay had a skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water," he wrote. "He was good to watch, but seemed to make only glancing contact. It is true that the Pole finished the three-round bout helpless and out on his feet, but I thought he had just run out of puff chasing Clay, who had then cut him to pieces."

Even after Clay turned pro, Liebling never quite warmed to him. Witnessing Clay's battle with a persistent heavyweight named Doug Jones, Liebling focussed less on Clay's narrow decision and more on his bragging before and after his bouts. He called Clay "Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet." Others called him Gaseous Cassius. Pete Hamill, another white liberal who would eventually come to adore the fighter, wrote in the New York Post, "Cassius Clay is a young man with a lot of charm who is in danger of becoming a dreadful bore."

Posted by at June 4, 2016 4:03 PM