"I’m a little special"
This story originally appeared in the February 24, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
If I were like a lot of guys—a lot of heavyweight boxers, I mean—I'll bet you a dozen doughnuts you wouldn't be reading this story right now. If you wonder what the difference between them and me is, I'll break the news: you never heard of them. I'm not saying they are not good boxers. Most of them—people like Doug Jones and Ernie Terrell—can fight almost as good as I can. I'm just saying you never heard of them. And the reason for that is because they cannot throw the jive. Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody you will probably ever meet anywhere. And right there is why I will meet Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world next week in Miami Beach. And jive is the reason also why they took my picture looking at $1 million in cold cash [see cover]. That's how much money my fists and my mouth will have earned by the time my fight with Liston is over. Think about that. A southern colored boy has made $1 million just as he turns 22. I don't think it's bragging to say I'm something a little special.
Where do you think I would be next week if I didn't know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice? I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, Ky., my home town, washing windows or running an elevator and saying "yes suh" and "no suh" and knowing my place. Instead of that, I'm saying I'm one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, which is true, and that I'm the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public has heard me talk enough and they're saying to me, "Put up or shut up." This fight with Liston is truly a command performance. And that's exactly the way I planned it.
Part of my plan to get the fight has made me say some pretty insulting things about Sonny Liston, but I might as well tell you I've done that mostly to get people to talking about the fight and to build up the gate. I actually have a certain amount of respect for Liston; he's the champion, isn't he? That doesn't mean I think he's going to stay champion. I have too much confidence in my own ability to think I'm beaten before we start. I do mean he is a strong, hard puncher, and he's not a fighter anybody can laugh at. When I walk into a room where he is and see him staring at me with that mean, hateful look, I want to laugh, but then I think maybe it's not so funny. I'm pretty sure the way he acts is just a pose, the same way I have a pose, but that look of his still shakes me. I wonder what's really going on in that head of his, and I wonder what poor, humble Floyd Patterson was thinking when he had to climb into the ring with Liston.
But I am not fooled by what Liston did to Patterson once they started to fight. Liston didn't do anything except hit Floyd while he stood there and took it. Now don't think for even a little bit I'm going to stand around for Liston to do with as he pleases. The way I plan for things to go is to stay out of his way during the early rounds, and I count on him to wear himself out chasing me. I'll circle him and jab him and stick and fake, dogging him most of the time and tying him up when he gets too close. He won't be able to hurt what he can't even hit.
Otherwise, I'll fight him the same as I've fought the others. I've been criticized for leaning away from the other man's punches instead of ducking, but I'm not going to change my style. Leaning away is a faster reflex than ducking and I'll go on doing it until somebody proves it's a mistake—and that somebody has got to be another boxer, not a trainer. They also tell me I carry my hands too low—that it's showoff and dangerous. Well, I just answer have you ever seen a mirage on the desert? You walk along locking for a drink of water, and suddenly you see a lake and you jump in. All you get is a mouthful of sand. Mr. Liston will get a mouthful of leather the same way.
So I'm saying I will win this fight in the eighth round because I think Liston will be worn out by then. If he's not, I sure can go on longer until he is. I'm 22 and he's 34 or 36 and I just don't believe he can outlast me. If I don't win the fight in any round—and "if" is a big word—if I don't win, I still think I will have given Liston a good fight and there is bound to be a rematch. That wouldn't bother me too much, either, because that way I'll be able to have another big payday. I'll just start hollering, "Look out, world, here I come again. I didn't feel too good that night, but now I'm on my way back." I don't think I'd have too much trouble drawing another crowd.
I don't seem to have trouble drawing a crowd anywhere. I can even do it on the sidewalks of New York, where people are used to everything. But when I get a crowd around me, somebody always wants to know if I'm really like the way I act. Well, of course I'm like I act or else I couldn't act this way. But what I have done is to exaggerate the natural way I am. I wouldn't sit around my house shouting and carrying on if it was just me and my folks, but I would if there was anybody else there to hear me. I do that for the reason I've already said: to attract attention and to get rich. I don't really love to fight, you see, but as long as I'm doing it I sure don't want to do it for free. I've been boxing since I was 12 years old and I'm getting mighty tired of training and always having somebody trying to pop me in the mouth. But I probably won't ever get tired of money. I love money and we're going to go on like that for a long, long time. The fame and pride of doing something real well—like being the world champion—is a pretty nice thing to think about sometimes, but the money I'm making is nice to think about all the time. I suppose it's the one thing that keeps me going.
I remember one day in Louisville I was riding a bus reading in the paper about Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. It was right after I had won the Olympic gold medal in Rome and had turned professional, and I was confident then I could beat either one of them if I had the chance. But I knew I wouldn't get the chance because nobody much had ever heard of me. So I said to myself, how am I going to get a crack at the title? Well, on that bus I realized I'd never get it just sitting around thinking about it. I knew I'd have to start talking about it—I mean really talking, screaming and yelling and acting like some kind of a nut. I thought if I did that people would pretty soon hear enough of that and insist I meet whomever was champion. I would be like Georgeous George, the wrestler, who got so famous by being flashy and exaggerating everything and making people notice him.
You can see how it has turned out—just the way I wanted it to. I started off slow because I was feeling my way, but pretty soon I caught on to what reporters like to hear and what would make the public pay attention. I told this man I was going to knock that boy down in the sixth round, and then I did. I said I am the greatest, I am a ball of fire. If I didn't say it, there was nobody going to say it for me. Then people commenced to say, "What's that loudmouth talking about?" and it grew and it grew. And pretty soon other people were saying I'm the greatest, and I said, "Didn't I tell you so in the first place?" And you know what? The more I talked, the more I convinced myself. I believe in myself so much by now it's embarrassing.
All the time I was building myself up, of course, I was fighting and winning. I don't pretend I fought a lot of great boxers in the beginning, because I certainly did not. I fought a bunch of bums exactly like Liston and Patterson did when they were starting out. But every time I won a fight, I also made a lot of fresh enemies. One thing people can't stand is a blowhard, and the more I blew, the more people would come out to see me get beaten. I said I was pretty (I'm not as pretty as I let on), I said I was fast, I said I was terrific and it got so you couldn't keep people away. And those that got in would yell, "Take away his pink Cadillac, the bum," and, "Bash in his pretty nose," and, "Button his fat lip." Well, that's just fine. I don't really care what people say about me personally as long as they buy a ticket to come see me. After they pay their money, they're entitled to a little fun.
After the Doug Jones fight in Madison Square Garden last year, for instance, people who thought Jones should have had the decision got so mad they didn't know what to do. They were booing and screaming and trying to get at me as I walked out of the ring. So I just yelled right back at them to shut up or I'd beat their ears off, and all the way to the dressing room I was thinking, "Cassius, you are even better than Gorgeous George. You have just made a whole lot more enemies and every one of them will be back for your next fight. Only then the tickets are going to cost more."
Of course, the real way I built up my fame was by predicting the round I would knock out some guy. I forget now when I first started doing that and how many times it has worked, but I know it has worked most of the time. How do I do it? I do it by trying extra hard and the other boxer helps by worrying extra hard. Sometimes, though, I tell reporters who don't know me that I hear voices in the night saying, "You'll win in five, no jive," or something. I did that in England when I fought Henry Cooper and the reporters' eyes got big and round and they wrote down every word. Those English were sure I was crazy. The only voices I hear, of course, are people telling me I can't do what I say.
Already they're saying I can't get Liston in eight. Maybe I can and maybe I can't, but you better believe he's wondering about the same thing right this minute. If I do get him like I say, there won't be anybody who will care, because they'll be for Liston anyway. It's easier to like an ugly old man than it is to like a loudmouth kid, and everybody wants him to teach me a lesson. But just as sure as I do the teaching and win, people will say, "Aw, so what? Liston was a nothing anyway." People are hypocrites, if you don't know that already.
Folks ask me what I'll do if I win and what I'll do if I don't win, but I don't have the answer yet. I have to go into the Army pretty soon, and after that I don't know. Maybe I'll build a big housing project and get married and settle down and think about being rich. But I'm not too worried. I think I can make it in something else the same way I've made it in boxing. If things go wrong in the fight, I'll just wait a while. Summertime comes, flowers start blooming, little birds start flying and you wake up, get up and get out. You change with the times.