|Home Page||Biography||Articles||Forewords||Text Interviews||Audio Interviews||Video Interviews||Oprah Videos||Malcolm X||Roots: The Saga of An American Family|
|Roots: The Next Generations||Roots: The Gift||Christmas Story||Queen: The Story of An American Family||Mama Flora's Family||Palmerstown USA||Stories of America|
|Alex Haley Museum||Alex Haley Memorial||Haley Heritage Square||CDF Alex Haley Farm||Alex Haley Testimonials||Press Media Kit||About Us||Resources||Quotes|
|Muhammad Ali: Ringside||Share:|
Muhammad Ali: Ringside
(The below Cassius Clay interview by Alex Haley is an excerpt of the full interview that was published in the October 1964 issue of Playboy.)
Alex Haley Interview With Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) - October 1964
It wasn't until 9:55 on a night last February that anyone began to take seriously the extravagant boasts of Cassius Marcellus Clay: That was the moment when the redoubtable Sonny Liston, sitting dazed and disbelieving on a stool in Miami Beach's Convention Hall, resignedly spat out his mouthpiece—and relinquished the world's heavyweight boxing championship to the brash young braggart whom he, along with the nation's sportswriters and nearly everyone else, had dismissed as a loudmouthed pushover.
Leaping around the ring in a frenzy of glee, Clay screamed, "I am the greatest! I am the king!"—the strident rallying cry of a campaign of self-celebration, punctuated with rhyming couplets predicting victory, which had rocketed him from relative obscurity as a 1960 Olympic Gold Medal winner to dubious renown as the "villain" of a title match with the least lovable heavyweight champion in boxing history. Undefeated in 100 amateur fights and all 19 professional bouts, the cocky 22-year-old had become, if not another Joe Louis, at least the world's wealthiest poet (with a purse of $600,000), and one of its most flamboyant public figures.
Within 24 hours of his victory, he also became sports' most controversial cause célèbre when he announced at a press conference that he was henceforth to be billed on fight programs only as Muhammad Ali, his new name as a full-fledged member of the Black Muslims, the militant nation-wide Negro religious cult that preaches racial segregation, black supremacy and unconcealed hostility toward whites....
We approached the mercurial Muslim with our request for a searching interview about his fame, his heavyweight crown and his faith. Readily consenting, he invited us to join him ... in his chauffeured, air-conditioned Cadillac limousine on leisurely drives through Harlem. We interjected our questions as the opportunities presented themselves—between waves and shouts exchanged by the champion and ogling pedestrians, and usually over the din of the limousine's dashboard phonograph, blaring Clay's recording of "I Am the Greatest." We began the conversation on our own blaring note.
Haley: Are you really the loudmouthed exhibitionist you seem to be, or is it all for the sake of publicity?
Clay: I been attracting attention ever since I been able to walk and talk. When I was just a little boy in school, I caught onto how nearly everybody likes to watch somebody that acts different. Like, I wouldn't ride the school bus, I would run to school alongside it, and all the kids would be waving and hollering at me and calling me nuts. It made me somebody special. Or at recess time, I'd start a fight with somebody to draw a crowd. I always liked drawing crowds. When I started fighting serious, I found out that grown people, the fight fans, acted just like those school kids. Almost from my first fights, I'd bigmouth to anybody who would listen about what I was going to do to whoever I was going to fight, and people would go out of their way to come and see, hoping I would get beat. When I wasn't no more than a kid fighter, they would put me on bills because I was a drawing card, because I run my mouth so much. Other kids could battle and get all bloody and lose or win and didn't hardly nobody care, it seemed like, except maybe their families and their buddies. But the minute I would come in sight, the people would start to hollering "Bash in his nose!" or "Button his fat lip!" or something like that. You would have thought I was some well-known pro ten years older than I was. But I didn't care what they said, long as they kept coming to see me fight. They paid their money, they was entitled to a little fun.
Haley: How did your first fight come about?
Clay: Well, on my twelfth birthday, I got a new bicycle as a present from my folks, and I rode it to a fair that was being held at the Columbia Gymnasium, and when I come out, my bike was gone. I was so mad I was crying, and a policeman, Joe Martin, come up and I told him I was going to whip whoever took my bike. He said I ought to take some boxing lessons to learn how to whip the thief better, and I did. That's when I started fighting. Six weeks later, I won my first fight over another boy twelve years old, a white boy. And in a year I was fighting on TV. Joe Martin advised me against trying to just fight my way up in clubs and preliminaries, which could take years and maybe get me all beat up. He said I ought to try the Olympics, and if I won, that would give me automatically a number-ten pro rating. And that's just what I did....
Haley: Your poetry has been described by many critics as "horrible." Do you think it is?
Clay: I bet my poetry gets printed and quoted more than any that's turned out by the poem writers that them critics like. I don't pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim to about what they're criticizing, they ought to be doing that instead of just standing on the side lines using their mouth.
Haley: How often have you been right in predicting the round of a knockout?
Clay: I ain't missed but twice. If you figure out the man you're up against, and you know what you can do, then you can pretty much do it whenever you get ready. Once I call the round, I plan what I'm going to do in the fight. Like, you take Archie Moore. He's a better fighter than Sonny Liston. He's harder to hit, the way he bobs and weaves, and he's smart. You get careless and he'll drop you. I guess he knows more tricks in the ring than anybody but Sugar Ray. But he was fat and forty-five, and he had to be looking for a lucky punch before he got tired. I just had to pace myself so as to tire him. I hooked and jabbed him silly the first round, then I coasted the second. Right at the end of the second, he caught me with a good right on the jaw, but it didn't do me no harm. Then I started out the third throwing leather on him, and when I could feel him wearing down, I slowed up, looking for my spots to hit him. And then in the fourth round, when I had said he was going down, I poured it on him again. And he did go down; he was nearly out. But he got up at eight. A few combinations sent him back down, and then the referee stopped it. It was just like I planned.
Haley: After you had scored victories over Archie Moore, Charley Powell, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, how did you go about your campaign to get a match with Liston?
Clay: Well, the big thing I did is that until then, I had just been loudmouthing mostly for the public to hear me, to build up gates for my fights. I hadn't never been messing personally with whoever I was going to fight—and that's what I started when it was time to go after Liston. I had been studying Liston careful, all along, ever since he had come up in the rankings, and Patterson was trying to duck him. You know what Patterson was saying—that Liston had such a bad police record, and prison record and all that. He wouldn't be a good example for boxing like Patterson would—the pure, clean-cut American boy.
Haley: You were saying you had been studying Liston....
Clay: I don't see no harm in telling it now. The first time, it was right after Liston had bought his new home in Denver, and my buddies and me was driving from Los Angeles to New York in my bus. This was Archie Robinson, who takes care of business for me, and Howard Bingham, the photographer, and some more buddies. I had bought this used thirty-passenger bus, a 1953 Flexible—you know, the kind you see around airports. We had painted it red and white with world's most colorful fighter across the top. Then I had liston must go in eight painted across the side right after Liston took the title. We had been driving around Los Angeles, and up and down the freeways in the bus, blowing the horn, "Oink! Oink! Oink!" drawing people's attention to me. When I say I'm colorful, I believe in being colorful. Anyway, this time, when we started out for New York, we decided it would be a good time to pay Liston a visit at his new house.
We had the address from the newspapers, and we pulled up in his front yard in the bus about three o'clock in the morning and started blowing: "Oink! Oink! Oink! Oink!" In other houses, lights went on and windows went up. You know how them white people felt about that black man just moved in there anyway, and we sure wasn't helping it none. People was hollering things, and we got out with the headlights blazing and went up to Liston's door, just about as Liston got there. He had on nylon shorty pajamas. And he was mad. He first recognized Howard Bingham, the photographer, whom he had seen in Los Angeles. "What you want, black mother?" he said to Howard. I was standing right behind Howard, flinging my cane back and forth in the headlights, hollering loud enough for everybody in a mile to hear me, "Come on out of there! I'm going to whip you right now! Come on out of there and protect your home! If you don't come out of that door, I'm going to break it down!"
You know that look of Liston's you hear so much about? Well, he sure had it on standing in that door that night. Man, he was tore up! He didn't know what to do. He wanted to come out there after me, but he was already in enough troubles with the police and everything. And you know, if a man figures you're crazy, he'll think twice before he acts, because he figures you're liable to do anything. But before he could make up his mind, the police came rushing in with all their sirens going, and they broke it up, telling us we would be arrested for disturbing the peace if we didn't get out of there. So we left. You can bet we laughed all the way to New York.
Haley: One doctor described your conduct at the weigh-in as "dangerously disturbed." Another said you acted "scared to death." And seasoned sportswriters used such terms as "hysterical" and "schizophrenic" in reporting your tantrum, for which you were fined twenty-five hundred dollars. What was the real story?
Clay: I would just say that it sounds like them doctors and sportswriters had been listening to each other. You know what they said and wrote them things for—to match in what they expected was about to happen. That's what I keep on telling you. If all of them had had their way, I wouldn't have been allowed in the ring.
Haley: Had you worked out a fight plan by this time?
Clay: I figured out my strategy and announced it months before the fight: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," is what I said.
Haley: Would you be able to give us a round-by-round account of the fight from your viewpoint?
Clay: Yeah, I guess I could. The first round, I beat him out, dancing, to keep from getting hit. He was shuffling that way he does, giving me that evil eye. Man, he meant to kill me, I ain't kidding! He was jabbing his left—but missing. And I was backpedaling, bobbing, weaving, ducking. He missed with a right hook that would have hurt me. I got away from that, but that was when he got me with that right to my stomach. I just kept running, watching his eyes. Liston's eyes tip you when he's about to throw a heavy punch. Some kind of way, they just flicker. He didn't dream that I'd suddenly stop running when I did, if you remember—and I hit him with a good left and then a flurry of lefts and rights. That was good for points, you know. He nearly flipped, and came after me like a bull. I was hitting and ducking at the same time; that's how neither one of us heard the bell, and was still fighting after it. I remember I got to my corner thinking, "He was supposed to kill me. Well, I'm still alive." Angelo Dundee was working over me, talking a mile a minute. I just watched Liston, so mad he didn't even sit down. I thought to myself, "You gonna wish you had rested all you could when we get past this next round." I could hear some radio or television expert, all excited, you know the way they chatter. The big news was that I hadn't been counted out yet.
Then, at the second-round bell, just like I knew he would, Liston come at me throwing everything. He was going to make up for looking so bad that I had lasted one round. This was when he got me on the ropes, where everybody had said he was supposed to kill me. He hit me some, but I weaved and ducked away from most of his shots. I remember one time feeling his arm grazing the back of my neck and thinking—it was like I shouted to myself—"All I got to do is keep this up." And I got out from under and I caught him with some lefts and rights. Then I saw that first cut, high up on his cheekbone. When a man's first cut, it usually looks a bright pink. Then I saw the blood, and I knew that eye was my target from then on. It was my concentrating on that cut that let me get caught with the hardest punch I took, that long left. It rocked me back. But he either didn't realize how good I was hit or he was already getting tired, and he didn't press his chance. I sure heard the bell that time. I needed to get to my corner to get my head clear.
Starting in the third round, I saw his expression, how shook he was that we were still out there and he was the one cut and bleeding. He didn't know what to do. But I wasn't about to get careless, like Conn did that time against Joe Louis. This was supposed to be one of my coasting, resting rounds, but I couldn't waste no time. I needed one more good shot, for some more insurance with that eye. So when the bell rang, I just tested him, to see was he tiring, and he was; and then I got him into the ropes. It didn't take but one good combination. My left was square on his right eye, and a right under his left eye opened a deep gash. I knew it was deep, the way the blood spurted right out. I saw his face up close when he wiped his glove at that cut and saw the blood. At that moment, let me tell you, he looked like he's going to look twenty years from now. Liston was tiring fast in the fourth, and I was coasting. We didn't neither one do very much. But you can bet it wasn't nobody in there complaining they wasn't getting their money's worth.
Then, in the fifth, all of a sudden, after one exchange of shots, there was a feeling in my eyes like some acid was in them. I could see just blurry. When the bell sounded, it felt like fire, and I could just make it back to my corner, telling Angelo, "I can't see!" And he was swabbing at my eyes. I could hear that excited announcer; he was having a fit. "Something seems to be wrong with Clay!" It sure was something wrong. I didn't care if it was a heavyweight title fight I had worked so long for, I wasn't going out there and get murdered because I couldn't see. Every time I blinked it hurt so bad I said, "Cut off my gloves, Angelo—leave me out of here." Then I heard the bell, and the referee, Barney Felix, yelled to me to get out there, and at the same time Angelo was pushing me up, shouting, "This is the big one, daddy. We aren't going to quit now!" And I was out there again, blinking. Angelo was shouting, "Stay away from him! Stay away!" I got my left in Liston's face and kept it there, kind of staving him off, and at the same time I knew where he was. I was praying he wouldn't guess what was the matter. But he had to see me blinking, and then he shook me with that left to the head and a lot of shots to the body. Now, I ain't too sorry it happened, because it proved I could take Liston's punching. He had found some respect for me, see? He wasn't going so much for the knockout; he was trying to hurt my body, then try for a kill. Man, in that round, my plans were gone. I was just trying to keep alive, hoping the tears would wash out my eyes. I could open them just enough to get a good glimpse of Liston, and then it hurt so bad I blinked them closed again. Liston was snorting like a horse. He was trying to hit me square, and I was just moving every which way, because I knew if he connected right, it could be all over right there.
But in the corner after that fifth round, the stuff pretty well washed out of my eyes. I could see again, and I was ready to carry the fight to Liston. And I was gaining my second wind now, as I had conditioned myself, to pace the fight, like I was telling you. My corner people knew it, and they were calling to me, "Get mad, baby!" They knew I was ready to go the next three rounds at top steam, and I knew I was going to make Liston look terrible. I hit him with eight punches in a row, until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like, "Yeah, you old sucker! You try to be so big and bad!" He was gone. He knew he couldn't last. It was the first time in the fight that I set myself flat-footed. I missed a right that might have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before. I knew he wasn't due to last much longer. Then, right at the end of the round, I rocked back his head with two left hooks.
I got back to my stool, and under me I could hear the press like they was gone wild. I twisted around and hollered down at the reporters right under me, "I'm gonna upset the world!" I never will forget how their faces was looking up at me like they couldn't believe it. I happened to be looking right at Liston when that warning buzzer sounded, and I didn't believe it when he spat out his mouthpiece. I just couldn't believe it—but there it was laying there. And then something just told me he wasn't coming out! I give a whoop and come off that stool like it was red hot. It's a funny thing, but I wasn't even thinking about Liston—I was thinking about nothing but that hypocrite press. All of them down there had wrote so much about me bound to get killed by the big fists. It was even rumors that right after the weigh-in I had been taken to the asylum somewhere, and another rumor that I had caught a plane and run off. I couldn't think about nothing but all that. I went dancing around the ring, hollering down at them reporters, "Eat your words! Eat! Eat!" And I hollered at the people, "I am the king!"
Haley: What or who made you decide to join the Muslims?
Clay: Nobody or nothing made me decide. I make up my mind for myself. In 1960, in Miami, I was training for a fight. It wasn't long after I had won the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal over there in Rome. Herb Siler was the fellow I was going to fight, I remember. I put him on the floor in four. Anyway, one day this Muslim minister came to meet me and he asked me wouldn't I like to come to his mosque and hear about the history of my forefathers. I never had heard no black man talking about no forefathers, except that they were slaves, so I went to a meeting. And this minister started teaching, and the things he said really shook me up. Things like that we twenty million black people in America didn't know our true identities, or even our true family names. And we were the direct descendants of black men and women stolen from a rich black continent and brought here and stripped of all knowledge of themselves and taught to hate themselves and their kind. And that's how us so-called "Negroes" had come to be the only race among mankind that loved its enemies. Now, I'm the kind that catches on quick. I said to myself, listen here, this man's saying something! I hope don't nobody never hit me in the ring hard as it did when that brother minister said the Chinese are named after China, Russians after Russia, Cubans after Cuba, Italians after Italy, the English after England, and clear on down the line everybody was named for somewhere he could call home, except us. He said, "What country are we so-called 'Negroes' named for? No country! We are just a lost race." Well, boom! That really shook me up.
Haley: How has it changed your life?
Clay: In every way. It's pulled me up and cleaned me up as a human being.
Haley: Can you be more explicit?
Clay: Well, before I became a Muslim, I used to drink. Yes, I did. The truth is the truth. And after I had fought and beat somebody, I didn't hardly go nowhere without two big, pretty women beside me. But my change is one of the things that will mark me as a great man in history. When you can live righteous in the hell of North America—when a man can control his life, his physical needs, his lower self, he elevates himself. The downfall of so many great men is that they haven't been able to control their appetite for women.
Haley: But you have?
Clay: We Muslims don't touch a woman unless we're married to her.
Haley: Are you saying that you don't have affairs with women?
Clay: I don't even kiss a woman. I'm ashamed of myself, but sometimes I've caught myself wishing I had found Islam about five years from now, maybe—with all the temptations I have to resist. But I don't even kiss none, because you get too close, it's almost impossible to stop. I'm a young man, you know, in the prime of life.
Haley: Are there any active heavyweights whom you rate as title contenders?
Clay: Not in my class, of course....
Haley: Just you?
Clay: Just me.
Haley: Are you the greatest now fighting, or the greatest in boxing history?
Clay: Now, a whole lot of people ain't going to like this. But I'm going to tell you the truth—you asked me. It's too many great old champions to go listing them one by one. But ain't no need to. I think that Joe Louis, in his prime, could have whipped them all—I mean anyone you want to name. And I would have beat Louis. Now, look—people don't like to face the facts. All they can think about is Joe Louis' punch. Well, he did have a deadly punch, just like Liston has a deadly punch. But if Louis didn't hit nothing but air, like Liston didn't with me, then we got to look at other things. Even if Louis did hit me a few times, remember they all said Liston was a tougher one-punch man than even Joe Louis. And I took some of Liston's best shots. Remember that. Then, too, I'm taller than Louis. But I tell you what would decide the fight: I'm faster than Louis was. No, Louis and none of the rest of them couldn't whip me. Look—it ain't never been another fighter like me. Ain't never been no nothing like me.
(The above Cassius Clay interview is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1964 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 Ballantine Books. Muhammad Ali: Ringside © 1999 Bullfinch Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Muhammad Ali: Ringside • Reviews
"If you need to know history, the real story of those before you, then you should go to the library and read newspaper clippings of someone like Muhammad Ali every day, then it might giver you some understanding of the man." - Alex Haley.
"A great book for Ali fans and boxing fans alike. It is a fun trip through the boxing exploits of one of America's, and the Worlds, greatest athletes. A fun table book that you can pick up over and over again. If you want the complete book of Ali's life- this isn't it. What it covers is Ali the Champ fight by fight!" - Austin, Texas.
"This book of fight scenes, interviews and excerpts from larger literary works on Ali, is complete with memorabilia, famous quotes and Ali's own analysis of his key fights. Although only the pictures of Ali in street clothes are in color, the black and white photos of all fight scenes are of professional quality and are ones that we have seen before. But here, we have them all in a package of other complementary materials making up a complete collection of Ali, the erstwhile American hero, all in one place." - Falls Church, Virginia.
"There really is no hero around today quite like Muhammad Ali. Outrageous, courageous, funny, fearless—he was one of a kind. It is just terrific to have this book—part scrapbook, part biography, part record book—all Ali—to keep and to savor!" - Hanover, New Hampshire.
"This briefly went out of print, but thankfully it's back. It's a fantastic book on a popular topic. Anyone who is a fan at all of Ali's career or just of boxing in general should read this. The articles by the likes of Norman Mailer, Alex Haley, and Joyce Carol Oates are priceless, and the photographic recap of his career is stunning. I especially enjoyed the wealth of images of his fight posters. These are an underappreciated little art form, and there have been some great ones for Ali fights. It's not a biography, per se; it's more selective, but it's still a valuable overview of a fascinating career." - Baltimore, Maryland.