Angelo Dundee's Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach is an inelegant establishment on the second floor of a two story building. It is small, hot and, these days, crowded with spectators who will endure almost any hardship to watch Cassius Marcellus Clay prepare himself, mentally as well as physically, for his February 25 challenge for the heavyweight championship of the world. It costs a dollar to get in. For the same price you can watch Sonny Liston preparing to defend his title at the Surf-side Civic Auditorium some 90 blocks north. The Civic Auditorium is air-conditioned, its decor is Miami modern and its seats are comfortable. But the better dollar's worth is at the Fifth Street Gym.
The real fight nuts hang out there and Clay, whatever his talents as a fighter, is clearly 10 times Liston's superior as a showman. Liston plods through his workouts at Surfside with all the sparkle of a piece of wet liver; Clay bubbles with the exuberance of a boy playing cops and robbers.
"You looking at the fastest heavyweight in the world," he informed the spectators the other day as he shadow-boxed. He moved quickly from side to side, feinted and sprayed the air with a flurry of blows. He is a big man—about 218 pounds at this stage in his training—with a magnificent build. Wide, thick shoulders taper to a small waist and his legs are long and thick. On top of the big man's body is set the handsome, guileless face of a child.
"Ain't no light heavyweight fast enough to catch me," he said, letting go another combination of punches, his hands open, looking more like a man grabbing at flies than a puncher. "The fastest heavyweight that ever lived," he said, so that no one would miss the point.
February 17, 1964
The bell rang, ending his shadowboxing, and he walked to the corner away from the spectators and glared at a tall, dark man with the face of a lynx and the soft brown eyes of a cocker spaniel.
"I am the greatest," he said and widened his eyes and pursed his lips the way a small boy does when he is defying his mother. "You are the best that ever lived," the man said. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Clay and his friend sang out in unison. They paused a minute and stared into each other's eyes, then opened their mouths wide and roared inarticulate defiance at Sonny Liston. The spectators applauded.
Clay submitted to having his hands wrapped and gloves put on. Once he half turned to the spectators and yelled in a voice rich with contempt: "Six-to-one odds. I'm gonna get rich on them odds. I saved the fight game. I'd throw in the towel before I'd faint at the Liston scowl."
The bell rang again and Clay began working with Harvey Cody Jones, a massively muscled young heavyweight who weighs as much as Liston but resembles him in no other way. Clay's spaniel-eyed friend watched him closely, then came down from the side of the ring. His real name is Drew Brown, but everyone in the Clay camp calls him Budini.
"I got the name in India," he said softly. "I have traveled around the world maybe 20 times. Nothing fleshes a man out like traveling. A little girl in India, she was madly in love with me and she used to sit outside my door an' holler, "Budini, Budini.' Later I heard the word means lover in Hindu." (It does not, but the name still has a fine ring to it.)
He turned to watch intently as Clay, fighting flatfooted and not moving much, peppered Jones with punches.
"I got him in the best condition," he said. "He never been in condition like this before. You know how I can tell if he in condition? It's the sweat. If it taste good and salty, that mean he in condition. Of course, that isn't the only way. I can smell a champion, too. He got the smell of a champion. He young, but he's learning. I wish he could be in the merch for a few years. The merch washes out all the complexes, and it make a man of a boy."
The merch? "Merchant marine," Budini said. "I sailed 13 years in the merchant marine. I spent four years with Sugar Ray Robinson, too. This Cassius, he's as good as Sugar. I got him in as good condition."
Clay had finished another round with Jones, and Budini returned to the ring apron where he again went through the antiphonal responses, howling in unison with Cassius, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," followed by the short pause and then a drawn out "aaaargh"—the roar of defiance.
"I been to the other man's camp," Budini said when he came off the apron. "They is things beside the physical that make a man a champion, and he ain't got them. A champion's mark is he is humble, and Clay is a humble man. He don't release his bitterness on people when he is getting fine and mean and edgy. No, he is a courteous man, always ready to answer your question. He doesn't drain himself with taking out his meanness on just anyone. He keeps it inside so it strengthens him for the fight."
The small crowd watched Clay and paid no attention to a thickset, powerfully built man working the speed bag. He was Willie Pastrano, the light-heavyweight champion of the world. He came away from the bag, stripped off the small punching gloves and looked up at Clay, who was having his face mopped dry by a solicitous Budini.
"He don't look so good, does he?" Pastrano said. "But, man, he is a deceiving fighter. I never forget the first time I see him. I was fighting a man named Johnny Holman in Louisville back in—was it '57 or '58?" He thought a moment. He has a wide, handsome face, and the accent of New Orleans, which is a combination of Brooklyn and the deep South.
"It was '57," he said. "So this cat, he is 15 and fighting amateur, and he calls up Angelo and says he is going to be the Olympic heavyweight champion and he would like to go a little with me. So he did and he put me down. He put me down real bad. Two times I spar with him and he puts me down bad each time. Guts. All guts. Don't hit too hard then—he's maybe two, three inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than he is now—but a very irritating man and he hit me many times. I didn't like being put down by an amateur."
"You mean he knocked you down?" someone asked.
"No, man," Pastrano said. "He didn't knock me down. He made me look bad. He put me down. He don't look so good from outside the ring, but when he's up there in front of you he throws them long jabs. They come out so easy and so fast. Pop, pop, pop. Don't look like it's any effort for him. Makes me glad I ain't a heavyweight."
Through working out, Clay went back into the shabby dressing room and showered, then lay down on a rubbing table in a small room the size of three telephone booths while Luis Sarria, a coal-black Cuban, worked him over, the old fingers dry and stiff as charcoal sticks but curiously tender.
"You may have noticed me fighting flatfooted," Clay said. "Who knows? Maybe this fight is going to go 13 rounds or so. Maybe I won't be able to move all the time. Maybe I have to save something." Apparently he had forgotten that he had predicted he would knock Liston out in five rounds.
Clay lives with 10 members of his entourage and three cooks in a big house in northwest Miami. Later, at the house, he said, "Has there ever been anything like this? This championship? All these people comin' to see it? I been talking and saying things and building up and now I'm getting nervous. I worked hard and talked fast and now I got what I wanted. Think of all them planeloads of pretty foxes flying in to see me. Now the time has come for training and fighting."
The next day he took off from training, but the day was not wasted. He gathered his cohorts and repaired to Surfside, where he stood outside Liston's training quarters and put on much the same show he stages at the Fifth Street Gym. He and Budini howled, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," and roared, and Cassius made a dramatic attempt to break loose and go up to the second-floor auditorium where Liston was working. He was restrained—easily—before being persuaded by the courteous and long-suffering Surfside police to leave.
Upstairs, Liston went stoically about his training.
"This boy is getting under his skin," Angelo Dundee had said earlier. "It bugs Liston, all these things he does." If Dundee is right, Liston hides his pique well. Leotis Martin, a reed-thin light heavy who has the painful job of sparring with Sonny every day, says, "He's not mad at people the way he used to be. He doesn't try to kill us every day."
Said Liston, "Clay needs a lesson in manners. Maybe I can help him by beating his brains out. If I can, who am I to stand in the way of progress?"
It may be progress, but it seems a shame.