The clapboard house at 3302 Grand Avenue, Louisville is a commonplace dwelling one story high and four rooms deep. The ornamental frame of the front screen door was curlicued by hand with a scroll saw, and the concrete steps to the gray front porch are painted in stripes, red, white and blue.
"Don't bother your head about that house," says Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 19 going on 20, the lyrical young man, lyrically named, who grew up there."One of these days they're liable to make it a national shrine. Only by that time I'll be long gone, man, living it up on the top of a hill in a house that cost me $100,000. You'll find me out by the swimming pool, and I'll be talking to a bunch of little boys sitting in a circle around my feet. 'Boys,'I'll say to them, 'I was just a poor boxer once, as I reckon you already know.Only I was a very fine boxer, out of the finest that ever lived. And right there's how come I could move out of that little house down there on Grand Avenue and build this big one up here on the hill.' "
For the present,of course, Cassius Clay is still just a boxer, still just an unsophisticated Olympic gold medalist (he won the light heavyweight championship in the Olympic Games a year ago) who has turned professional and hasn't run out of luck. How very fine a fighter he is remains to be seen, but for Cassius, munificently backed as he is by 11 influential businessmen, it is merely a matter of months before he fulfills the prophecy fluorescently and unconventionally spelled out in a sign in a tavern he leases in Louisville's east end. Cassius himself composed it with stick-on letters, and it reads:
September 24, 1961
What the sign refrains from concluding, Cassius is glad to supply: when the epic fight is over, proud Floyd Patterson the Champion will skulk from the ring as poor Floyd Patterson the Ex. Cassius Clay will thereupon settle the world heavyweight boxing crown on his own handsome head, and from that day forward will wear it for all it is worth—which, for him, is everything.
"Like last Sunday," said Cassius, the unashamed, unequivocating materialist, not long ago. "Some cats I know said, 'Cassius, Cassius, come on now and let's go to church; otherwise you won't get to Heaven.' 'Hold on a minute,' I said to them,'and let me tell you something else. When I've got me a $100,000 house, another quarter million stuck in the bank and the world title latched onto my name, then I'll be in Heaven. Walking around making $25 a week, with four children crying at home 'cause they're hungry, that's my idea of Hell. I ain't studying about either one of them catching up with me in the graveyard.' "
Thus freed from the ordinary man's care for life's hereafter, bachelor Cassius Clay is a free spirit swinging through the here and now with an ebullient, epigrammatic personality. When held to the light, the colors dance off that personality as from the imprisoned patterns of a millefiori glass paperweight. "Everything in this life is made to suit the women," says Cassius the social philosopher. "If the women come, the men got to follow, ain't that so? Soto get a good gate, I wear these pretty white shoes and these shiny white trunks, and the women says, 'Land, ain't he nice and neat.' The women don't like the sight of blood either, so I make sure they never see none of mine by not getting hit." Cassius the phrasemaker may say: "It's either get rich in three hours or get poor in eight." He means by this that training to be a boxer may be tedious and inconvenient but it beats working. Cassius the humorist sometimes discusses his ring strategy this way: "I like to hit a guy with two fast left jabs, a right cross and then a big left hook. If he's still standing after that—and if it ain't the referee that's holding him up—I runs." But the most typical Cassius is the boy with the big innocent brown eyes and the monumental, rodomontade conceit. Says this one: "I got the height, the reach, the weight, the physique, the speed, the courage, the stamina and the natural ability that's going to make me great. Putting it another way, to beat me you got to be greater than great."
Putting it that way, it figures that such heavyweight favorites as Patterson and Sonny Liston could easily establish themselves as greater than great against Clay, for Cassius is not the awesomely proficient fighter he says he is. (No one really believes he believes all he says.) But if the over enthusiastic self-appreciation he expresses sounds somewhat precocious at this stage of his career, it must be recognized that he is still physically and mentally immature. He has been boxing (and marveling at his talent) since he was 12 years old, or for a third of his lifetime, but he is still a boy with some growing up to do and still a boxer with some learning to do. Says a friend of his named Archie Moore: "Cassius has quite a bit of hard-knock studying ahead of him."
* * * * *
Cassius has, in fact, fought only eight times professionally, and in every case his opponents were chosen not because they would draw a big crowd but because it could be reasonably concluded in advance that they would either keel over or succumb to the blind staggers after a few fast rounds with the boy wonder. So far the has-beens or never-weres he has fought have accommodated Clay's matchmakers.But the ninth, Alex Miteff, who will fight Clay October 7 on national television in Louisville, may fail to acquit himself the same way."Frankly," says Cassius, whose most creditable victory to date was that Olympic triumph over a bamboozled left-handed Pole, "there ain't one of these professionals has been a real match for me yet and old Miteff don't scare me either. But let's face another fact, I couldn't last one round with any of them if I was fighting like I did as an amateur. That shows I'm learning, and learning fast."
However fast Cassius is learning now, he and his parents, aided by hindsight, tend to embroider the theme that he was marked for heavyweight supremacy from the day he was born, Jan. 18, 1942. "He came into this world with a good body and a big head that was the image of Joe Louis," says his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. (The Cassius Clays inherited their name from forebears who were the slaves of C. M. Clay, a Kentucky politician and a kinsman of Henry Clay.) "That made me real proud. I loved Joe Louis. When he was fighting,all the world stood still to listen to the radio, you dig? It ain't like that no more."
Cassius' mother,Odessa, says, "I remember when people used to say, 'My oh my, your boy sure looks like he's going to be a boxer,' and him only six months old. I'd say,'Aw, go on.' " Young Cassius showed other signs of fulfilling the promise his parents and neighbors saw in him. His first words as a baby were"gee-gee"—which became his nickname—because, says Cassius today, "I wanted to let folks know I was on my way up to the Golden Gloves." Cassius gained weight fast by eating Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions, out of a serving bowl ("Eating and sleeping, that's the hardest work that boy ever did," says his father); he became the neighborhood marbles champion("Where I learned to shoot my right") and an expert rock fighter("where I learned to duck").
One day when Cassius was 12 he reported to a policeman that his new bicycle had been stolen."I betcha we paid almost $60 for that wheel," Odessa Clay still likes to say, tormenting herself. The policeman, whose name was Joe Martin, was giving boxing lessons in a community gymnasium operated by Louisville's Department of Recreation. Martin was sorry about Clay's swiped bike, but, as he confesses today, he felt less like finding it than teaching the powerfully built, aggressive little boy to box. So persuasive was his sales pitch that Cassius practically gave up cycling on the spot and showed up next day at the gym, towing his 10-year-old brother, Rudolph Valentino Clay (who, on the basis of evidence presented on television, considers himself aptly named). "We never saw hide nor hair of that wheel again," says Mrs. Clay, a little disconsolately, "and precious little more of my boys."
Joe Martin, 55,wears Louisville Police Department Badge No. 474 and collects coins from parking meters to earn his monthly salary of $408. (Teen-ager Clay draws a monthly allowance of $400 from his sponsors.) Martin has done more than any other man to develop Cassius' talent, but he is no longer associated with the boy and, should Cassius ever become rich and famous, Martin's chest may swell up but his pocketbook won't. "In the past 20 years I guess I've taught10,000 boys to box, or at least tried to teach them," says Martin."Cassius Clay, when he first began coming around here, looked no better or worse than the majority. About a year later, though, you could see that the little smart aleck—I mean, he's always been sassy—had a lot of potential. He stood out because, I guess, he had more determination than most boys, and he had the speed to get him someplace."
* * * * *
During the six years Cassius fought as an amateur in Louisville, most of that time under the tutelage of Martin, he appeared in 141 fights, an average of close to one match every fortnight. Of these, he lost only seven. Eventually, Cassius won six Golden Gloves titles in Kentucky, and in 1960 won the national Golden Gloves heavyweight title in New York City.
Cassius will half-heartedly admit that his ascension was not all his own doing, but then he adds: "Man, it's like everything else. All the time somebody is telling me,'Cassius, you know I'm the one who made you.' I know some guys in Louisville who used to give me a lift to the gym in their car when my motor scooter was broke down. Now they're trying to tell me they made me, and how not to forget them when I get rich. And my daddy, he tickles me. He says, 'Don't listen to the others, boy; I made you.' He says he made me because he fed me vegetable soup and steak when I was a baby, going without shoes, he says, to pay the food bill, and arguing with my mother who didn't want me eating them things so little. My daddy also says he made me because he saved me from working so I could box—I've never worked a day in my life—and he made me this and he made me that. Well, he's my father and he's the boss, and I have to pay attention. If I had a child who got rich and famous, I know I'd want to cash in too, like my daddy, and I guess more teen-agers ought to realize what they owe their folks.But listen here. When you want to talk about who made me, you talk to me. Who made me is me."
Whoever it was("Let's just say he fell off the Christmas tree, a gift-wrapped champion," says Joe Martin sourly), Cassius was on his own when he proved at the Olympics that he was the best amateur boxer in the business. With the frilly, hands-down, showboat style he affected as an amateur and the elaborate dance patterns he used to flit away from danger, he cha-cha-chaed through three rounds with the Polish boy and reduced him to bloody defenselessness. Given a gold medal and, in his mind, a green light to become an international celebrity, he spent the rest of his time in Rome making himself one of the best-known, best-liked athletes in the Olympic Village. "You would have thought he was running for mayor," said one teammate. "He went around introducing himself and learning other people's names and swapping team lapel pins. If they'd had an election, he would have won it in a walk." Says Cassius: "Don't get the wrong idea about all the handshaking I did over there. I'm not friendly because I want people to help me; I'm friendly because that's how I am."
One day after winning the gold medal (which Cassius has since worn so much, caressed so much and displayed so much that its thin 22-carat gold plate has worn down to the silver core beneath) the champion was interviewed by a Soviet newspaperman."This Commie cat comes up," Cassius relates, "and says, 'Now how do you feel, Mr. Clay, that even though you got a gold medal you still can't go back to the U.S. and eat with the white folks because you're a colored boy?' I looked him up and down once or twice, and standing tall and proud, I said to him: 'Tell your readers we've got qualified people working on that problem, and I'm not worried about the outcome. To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, counting yours. It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes,but anyhow I ain't fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.' This cat said.'You really mean that?' and I said, 'Man, of course I mean it. Who do you think I am?' Poor old Commie, he went dragging off without nothing to write the Russians." (Cassius, who can sometimes be discreet and practical beyond his years, has avoided any discussion of segregation since he became the business property of Southern white men. "I don't join any groups or nothing because it might embarrass my sponsors," he says. One day recently at a root beer stand in New Orleans, he was served in a paper cup while his white companion merited a heavily frosted glass mug. "Only thing I got to say," said Cassius, "is when I get a nightclub someday like I hope to, my ticket taker is going to be color-blind. All he will look at is your money.")
* * * * *
As soon as Clay returned from Rome to his home and the patriotic paint stripes his father had applied to the front steps, he was approached by assorted trainers and manager shoping to take over his professional career. At the time, however, Cassius was thinking about signing a contract with Louisville's Billy Reynolds, a millionaire vice-president of the Reynolds Metals Co. who had known him for two years. Surprisingly, however, Cassius turned down the lucrative 10-year contract Reynolds was offering—mostly because Joe Martin was to figure in Reynolds' plan as a sort of right-hand adviser. For personal reasons—jealousy and so on—Cassius Sr. and Martin nurse a mutual animus, and the senior Clay refused to approve the contract.
In less time than it took to count Reynolds out, a new proposal was made to the Clays. Where before there had been but one rich man, now there were 11, seven of whom had made their first million or better. All Louisville executives with the exception of one New Yorker, the 11 had combined themselves into a syndicate with pooled assets of some 25,000 tax-deductible dollars. Their contract offered Cassius a $10,000 bonus to sign, a $4,000 no-strings guarantee for two years, liberal training allowances and 50% of all earnings.
For a young boxer's first contract, the money offered was singularly impressive, and so were the men putting it up. Principal organizer of the syndicate was Bill Faversham Jr., who had boxed at Groton and Harvard. Faversham, a vice-president of Louisville's Brown-Forman distillery (Old Forester, Jack Daniel's) and a big, bustling man of breezy temperament, sold the syndicate idea to such other Louisville friends as W. L. Lyons Brown, a onetime boxer at the Naval Academy and now the Brown of Brown-Forman; William Cutchins, the president of Brown-Williamson Tobacco Co. (Raleighs, Viceroys); and Vertner D. Smith Jr.,the chairman of a liquor distributing company.
By a most curious set of circumstances, as syndicate members enjoy pointing out, Cassius Clay's mother once cooked for Vertner Smith's wife, and Cassius Clay's aunt,says Lyons Brown, "cooks for my double first cousin." But even without these imponderables, Cassius and his parents were inclined to accept the terms;"the way they talked, the way they carried themselves, the amount of money they had" was enough.
* * * * *
Because none of the syndicate men have had any previous first-hand experience with professional boxing, it is easy to suppose that they have undertaken the development of Cassius' career for much the same reason that other men buy race horses or women buy gold charms for their bracelets. Even Cassius, though somewhat in awe of his sponsors (a few of whom he has never met), speculates cheerfully that all they want "is to get their change back and a chance to impress their friends by saying, 'That's my boy; after the fight I'll take you back to the dressing room to meet the new champ.' " Regardless of motive, it is logical to suppose that nothing much better could have happened to Cassius Clay.
"In Cassius," said Bill Faversham the other day, "we saw a good local boy with a clean background from start to finish. With the proper help and encouragement, he could bring credit to himself and his home town. There are plenty of wolves who would leap at the chance to get their paws on Cassius, to exploit him and then to drop him. We think we can bring him along slowly, get him good fights and make him the champion he wants to be."
In its measured,orderly program to bring Cassius up from the bottom, the syndicate began more or less at the top. For what was described as a "most reasonable fee,"Cassius began his professional training under the direction of Archie Moore,the light-heavyweight champion of 3/50 of the U.S. and the rest of the world.For six weeks last fall, Cassius thrived in the company of the urbane Archie at his San Diego camp. "Then I got homesick," says Cassius. "I was too far away out there." Says Archie: "Well that's the way of a boxer;they're restless types, especially when they're young like that and unmarried,so I didn't stand in his way. He was coming along real good, though."
Marv Jenson, LaMar Clark's manager (and Gene Fullmer's, too) and a reputable critic, has said of Clay, "He has the fastest hands I've ever seen on a heavyweight anywhere." Archie Moore doesn't lay it on so thick. "He's not as fast as Patterson," says Moore, who, unlike Jenson, has seen Floyd's hands banging away at his own face. Angelo Dundee, a Miami trainer next hired to coach Cassius, says, "Clay's fast enough, don't kid yourself."
"In fact," says Dundee, a warm little Italian of protruding eyes and ears,"I can say a lot of nice things about Cassius—but I can also run down a list of 20 things he does wrong, and I'll hold him back until he shakes them off."
Dundee was not impressed, for instance, last winter when Clay came to Miami spouting such slogans as "People say Cassius Clay fights like Sugar Ray," and coupling with that vanity bits and pieces of style he had picked up from Archie Moore. Said Dundee to Cassius one day: "You, my friend, are neither Sugar Ray Robinson nor Archie Moore, and you've got a long way to go before you will even resemble them. Who you are is Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., and that's the man I'm going to teach you to fight like. A guy is never going to get anywhere thinking he's somebody else."
* * * * *
With this solemn pronouncement understood (or accepted, or tolerated) by Cassius, Dundee went to work. "I started to smooth him out and put some snap in his punches,"says Angelo. "I told him to forget the Olympic headhunting and to dig in to the body. I told him to get down off his dancing toes so he could put some power behind his fists." Cassius, serene in his confidence, charitably agrees that "Dundee has done a lot for me," but adds typically,"What has changed the most is my own natural ability."
This summer,after a six-week vacation in Louisville, following a home-town fight with Knockout Specialist LaMar Clark (whom Clay knocked out), Cassius returned to Miami and Dundee, 15 pounds overweight. He checked into the Sir John Hotel, a rambling, pinkish construction that folds itself around a mint-green swimming pool, in Miami's downtown colored quarter. The next morning, in a plaid madras sport coat, starched khaki pants and "ready" yellow shoes, he swaggered out to greet his public.
Nat &Sonny's Downtown Barber Shop comes to animated life when Cassius swings in the door. "Look who the cat dragged in," says Sonny in a bless-my-soul tone of voice, and the man half-asleep under the hot towels starts up in surprise.Cassius gives the collected company the big wave, and when asked whom he'll fight next, his answer is "Johansson in a couple of weeks, and Floyd Patterson, I guess, this winter."
"Sure enough?" says a gullible soul.
"Get him out of here before Floyd walks in and hears him carrying on," says the manicure girl, and Cassius tosses a wink in her direction and waltzes out the door,turning down the sidewalk, laughing, laughing.
"Here comes a boxer, look at that," says a little boy by the curb to his sister."How you know that?" says Cassius Clay. "I see you skipping along,shadowboxing," says the boy proudly. "What's your name?" he asks Clay. "Sonny Liston, that's me," says Cassius, "and I'm liable to getcha if you don't watch out."
Three blocks along he struts into The Famous Chef café, where he is accustomed to eating his meals. "Don't you come in here, Cassius Clay, showing off and acting silly.Say now, you hear what I told you?" This is Dorothy, the boss's daughter,says Clay, and it's plain she has his number. "How you like that," says Cassius. "I ain't opened up my mouth yet, and she stands there telling me to hush. Let me have orange juice, four eggs and grits, honey." Over the top edge of the editorial page of his airmailed New York Times, another customer looks up and says, "Well, if it isn't yon Cassius: lean no, hungry yes."
Cassius lopes over to the jukebox and drops in the dime that stimulates rock-'n'-roller Dee Clark to unleash Clay's favorite tune, Your Friends. "When you are down and out," laments Dee Clark, "there's not a friend in this world to help you out. But when you, when you get on your feet again, everyone will want to be your friend."
"I like to sit here eating and wait for somebody to come up and want to borrow money,"Cassius explains. "I don't have to wait long. They'll say, 'Cassius, let me have 10 till payday, my brother.' I don't say nothing, just go over and play that record. Then the cat will say, You trying to tell me something?' and I'll say, 'Oh, no, my brother, I just wanted to hear that pretty tune. I think there's so much truth in the words, don't you?' "
After his breakfast Cassius wants to go shopping for a new suit and shoes. He takes a cab. "I wonder what my mother is doing with my Cadillac this morning,"he says in a loud voice. The cab driver doesn't hear. "How much did that watch cost you?" he asks his companion. Cassius confides that when a wristwatch was given him recently by a Negro civic club in Atlanta he found a concealed price tag. It cost only $49.50. He mentions it because, gift or not,it didn't cost enough. He rambles on in a loud voice for the driver's benefit:"Sure is a pretty day; day just like this I won that gold medal in Rome last summer.... Reminds me of the day they had the parade for me in Louisville,too. The mayor, everybody was there, man, to welcome me home. Then I went up to Frankfort to see the governor." When Cassius still gets no rise from the driver, he tries a joke he has heard from another boxer. "One day I was fighting Sugar Ray Robinson. Man, I had him scared silly for two rounds. He thought I was dead." The driver is silent and Cassius looks out the window, glumly.
* * * * *
Because he gets his hotel room on a special rate through Angelo Dundee, a friend of the management, Cassius does not get an air conditioner. Sometimes at night, in the stifling heat of his room and in the dim light of an economy-watted lamp, he becomes restless and reflective. "The hardest part of the training is the loneliness," he says. "I just sit here like a little animal in a box at night. I can't go out in the street and mix with the folks out there 'cause they wouldn't be out there if they was up to any good. I can't do nothing except sit. If it weren't for Angelo, I'd go home. It's something to think about. Here I am, just 19, surrounded by showgirls, whisky and sissies, and nobody watching me. All this temptation and me trying to train to be a boxer.It's something to think about.
"But it takes a mind to do right. It's like I told myself when I was little. I said,'Cassius, you going to win the Olympics some day, and then you're going to buy yourself a Cadillac, and then you're going to be the world champ.' Now I got the gold medal, and I got the car. I'd be plain silly to give in to temptation now when I'm just about to reach out and get that world title."