It was January of 1964, shortly before I was inducted into the U.S. Army as a 20-year-old, and then-Cassius Clay and soon-to-be Muhammad Ali was going to fight terrifying heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, an ex-con whose scowl in the ring was so menacing several opponents melted before the first punch and folded like accordions.
But here was Clay on our TV, blustering, making horrible threatening faces, shaking his fists at the camera, calling Liston a “big ugly bear” and predicting his demise at his own hands in unparalleled bombast.
Dad, an ex-amateur champion boxer out of Chicago who could have turned pro but instead chose baseball and reached the Big Leagues, said, very sourly, “He hasn’t fought anybody, except Archie Moore, and he’s fifty years old for Chrissake! Moore would’ve made a fool out of him ten years ago. This guy’s all talk, a showboat blowing his own horn, Liston’ll knock him out and shut his mouth.”
Mother, an Eleanor Roosevelt Democrat, said to me, very quietly, but matter-of-factly, “A black man has to blow his own horn in our society, or he’ll never be heard.”
We all watched film of Clay training. He danced and glided around the ring, occasionally going into a frenetic shuffle and throwing punches so rapidly he reminded you of a lightweight, and it was hard to believe anybody could lay a hand on him, much less beat him. He was undefeated and had embarrassed every opponent, and only Doug Jones, who lost in a decision, had come close to beating him. As we continued to watch Clay spout and threaten and predict, making those faces, Gramma, about 4-feet-10, Russian born, who raised seven kids (including my mother) without much help during the Depression piped up, “Oh, that man, look at his eyes, they’re so kind and gentle. He’s a beautiful young man, he’s just putting on an act.”
That was it for me. Gramma had the wisdom, the X-ray insight. Mother nodded. I was all in on Mr. Clay.
A month later, I was in my third week of basic training at Ft. Ord, California, and our company DI announced, to our disappointment, and his sadistic gratification, that we were to clean our barracks and no radios were allowed for us to catch the Clay/Liston fight. Luckily, our platoon DI, a three-striper named Jeffries, a towering scary black man, informed us if anybody found a transistor radio, we could listen to the fight, because he wasn’t going to be around, he would be watching it on closed circuit and didn’t give a goddamn what we were doing as long as the barracks was tip-top in the morning.
So, around 40 of us surrounded a small transistor radio. Almost everybody favored Liston. My dad, with whom I’d gone to fights and watched the Gillette and Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts on TV and listened to his predictions of when and with what punch would end most of these fights, and was almost always right, picked Liston.
I picked Clay as bets were made.
We were glued to the radio, yelling, whooping, and when the fight was called and Clay won, all those who picked Liston yelled “Fix!” The few blacks who had picked Clay were shuffling, throwing punches, gloating, boasting just like Clay. I called dad a couple nights later and the first thing he said was “Fix. Goddamn fix.”
Yeah, sure. Later, when I saw the film during my 15-day leave, and Cassius Clay was now Muhammad Ali, I told dad, “Look at the size of Ali, dad. He’s BIGGER than Liston. Nobody’s gonna beat him. Let’s face it—he is the greatest!”
Dad didn’t want to hear it. “Bullshit,” he muttered. “Joe Louis takes him out in five.”
September of 1966 I had about three months left in the Army, was stationed in Northern Italy, and my first sergeant, a black man who’d been in the Army since 1940, Pastell Gardner, wanted to borrow my car to drive to Frankfurt, Germany, to watch his man, Muhammad Ali, dismantle the German contender, Karl Mildenberger.
At the time, I was a Spec 4, a medic, and owned a VW Beetle I’d managed to buy with black market dealings with Italians, for no GI could afford to buy a car clearing $118 a month. Our company was primarily black, but for some reason Sergeant Gardner, the slickest person I’ve ever known, a bulky Sugar Ray Robinson look-alike with a walk and an attitude right out of a New York Jazz joint (he was originally from South Carolina) took a liking to me, and I have to say I admired him as one of those special characters who come along and show you how life should be lived to the fullest—and with uncommon style.
I asked couldn’t he just take a train? But no, the sergeant wanted some independence, promised to be good to my heap, and so I said yes, and he took off toting his finest silk suit and wide-brimmed hat, and when most of the post gathered in the EM club to watch the fight on TV, if you looked closely, there was Gardner, ringside, a blonde German woman beside him (he was thrice divorced) as he puffed on the biggest cigar he could find.
As most of the white GIs rooted for Mildenberger, representative of a country we’d defeated in a war just 20 years earlier, every black rooted for Ali, who sliced Mildenberger up like beefsteak, and once again every black GI in the room slapped hands, danced and shuffled and threw punches to the wind, while white guys shuffled off in defeat.
No fix here. When Gardner returned, my car in tact with a full tank of gas, he couldn’t stop smiling. “Greatest time of my life,” he said, as I visited him at his desk in the orderly room, a framed, autographed photo of Ali on the wall near the one of President Johnson. “Ali, my God, you got to see the man up close to believe it. Ain’t nobody like him, never has been, never will be. Man is magic.”
He handed me one of his cigars. How he got them from Cuba I’ll never know.
Before the Frazier/Ali match in March of 1971, as I tended bar in a hotspot in Manhattan Beach, California, one of my customers, who knew I was a fanatical fight fan and liked Ali and supported him all during his exile from the boxing world, gave me a poster by Leroy Neiman of the coming fight, and then framed it for me—brown and tan wash depicting sleek Ali, rough charcoal portraying gnarly Frazier, so different from Neiman’s other colorfully gaudy fight posters. I quickly hung it up in my studio apartment—my only (to me) museum piece. Forty-five years later, it’s still the centerpiece among my collected art.
I awaited the fight with dread, having watched Ali against Quarry and realizing he was not the same, he was heavier, slower; rusty from a 3 ½-year layoff. At this point, dad sort of admired Ali, but still insisted Liston took a dive, and I told him I thought Liston probably quit both fights because Ali had him psyched out and terrified of looking embarrassed in the ring in front of millions of boxing fans who once admired him.
Dad picked Frazier over Ali. I insisted Ali would have easily beaten Frazier had he fought him in his prime. As it was, in defeat, Ali stood up from a devastating left hook in the 14th round that would have retired most boxers, showed his courage as he fought gamely on, and humility in this first defeat, and came back to beat Frazier and all the contenders while being half the fighter he had been before they took his championship away. He was also easy to hit, bigger, slower, with only sporadic dancing and electric footwork, but he still had that jab and those hands—and the will of two teams of oxen.
Much later, when he became a human punching bag for Larry Holmes, I refused to watch. Every fighter comes to this point in his career, but Ali? Yeh, Ali. He was mortal, and damaged beyond recovery, and as time passed and he lapsed into the most severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, became largely mute and unrecognizable in his puffiness, there was still that twinkle in his eyes, like he was still putting you on, what my gramma described as “kind and gentle, a beautiful young man.” §