In the shadowy green gloom of Recovery Room 7-E in Boston's 100-year-old City Hospital, yellowish fluids dripped into and out of tubes connected to the large supine body of Cassius Clay. What little morning light penetrated the frosted glass windows was turned back by dense, drawn shades, and the morose atmosphere was deepened more by the circle of hangdog men that stood, heads bent forward, in mournful silence. But Clay, whose self-possession is a formidable thing, was not undone by the singular misfortune that had befallen him. He had undergone major surgery and his heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston had been called off, but he bade his sorrowing friends cheer up. "They finally got to the Lip," he said, waving his right hand limply, "but it's only for a little while. I'll come out of this at a hard 200 pounds, ready to go again."
Clay had been ready to go 16 hours earlier when that same body had been stretched out on the pink chenille counterpane of his bed in room 611 of the Sherry Biltmore Hotel. It was Friday the 13th and he had broken a glass in the bathroom ("Does that mean something?" he had wondered), but the day—five miles of road work and rest—had gone well. And, although it was a day of fasting for other members of his Black Muslim movement, Clay, by dispensation, had just finished a boxer's hefty supper of steak, potatoes and greens. Now, taking his digestive ease, he was watching a rented movie on a rented projector. With no warning, nausea welled in his throat and he just reached his bathroom before he was sick. "Oh, something is awful wrong," he said anxiously to his brother, Rudolph Clay. "You better do something."
Rudolph, whose instincts run in antisocial channels, and who must have considered the hundreds of reporters in town, said, "I'll call a doctor up here so the press won't find out." "Damn the press!" said Cassius Clay through clenched teeth. "Get me to a hospital, man. I am real sick."
Clay was sick indeed. A loop of his intestines had suddenly popped through the wall of muscles lining his abdomen and had descended, inside the hernial sac, into his scrotum. The pinched loop, raising a painful lump the size of a peach on his right groin and causing him to vomit, had also become trapped—an incarcerated inguinal hernia, it is called—and immediate surgery was imperative. As soon as brother Rudolph had collected himself and given up the idea of avoiding publicity, he called the Boston police who arrived within moments at a rear door of Clay's hotel. Then, because Cassius is too valuable a property to entrust to mere police officers, Rudolph and a Muslim chieftain named Samuel Saxon (and affectionately known, behind his back, as Cap'n Sam) personally bore Clay's stretcher along 310 feet of angulating corridor and loaded him onto a dented service elevator. On the ground floor, Clay, twisting in pain and his face covered by a white towel in Rudy's last vain try for anonymity, was carried past the hotel laundry and out into the night. The Boston police department's no-nonsense ambulance, which looks like a cross between a grocery truck and an armored car, was nevertheless met at the hospital emergency entrance by a Boston Herald photographer, but he was so intimidated by Clay's Muslim bodyguards that he took no pictures.
November 23, 1964
Because the emergency coincided with the cocktail hour—the police recorded Rudy's call at 6:56 and Cassius reached the hospital at 7:15—the news spread around the world faster than around the city of Boston. Scores of reporters, for instance, were unwinding from the tensions of the day in the bar of the fight's press headquarters or had gone to dinner—completely ignorant of the news that was breaking and completely unaware that their home offices, having read a 7:37 p.m. Associated Press bulletin, were desperately trying to find them. One Englishman, unwound to the point of reeling, was so befuddled by the time he got the word that his friends were obliged to write his story for him. Another man, just back from the Olympics, became so excited he jammed a pay phone with Japanese coins left over in his pocket.
No better informed were Clay's Louisville managers and his trainer. Manager William Faversham and Attorney Gordon Davidson had eaten supper in the Ritz-Carlton dining room and had gone to the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. The game was being played in Boston Garden where the fight was to take place Monday. Faversham's secretary, Shirley Reiss, however, was in her hotel room before going out to see My Fair Lady. The phone rang and it was a Louisville television station with the hospital news. But the Boston Garden refused to page Faversham for her, and he did not find out about Clay until another member of his group went to a rest room and ran into the sports editor of the Louisville Times. "When I got to Faversham and told him," says Dean Eagle, "his face turned—well, I guess you'd call it ghastly white."
Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, meanwhile, was watching a closed-circuit telecast from Florida of a football game between the University of Miami and Boston College. Miamian Dundee was so transported by Miami's early 2-0 lead over favored BC that he did not hear when the announcer in Florida reported that Clay was in a Boston hospital. Not until a reporter at Dundee's elbow repeated what had been said in Dundee's ear did he react. His reaction then was instantaneous. He says, "I didn't care that the fight was off. I was worried about the boy."
By that time the hospital waiting room was filling with reporters arriving on the run. Upstairs a nurse tried to soothe Cassius Clay. "Remember, you're the greatest," she purred, but Clay could not rally enough to agree. "Not tonight I'm not," he muttered before he went under the anesthesia. The operation that followed lasted 70 minutes and the doctors who performed it—Boston City's 33-year-old chief resident surgeon called in reinforcements when he found out who the patient was—assured everyone afterward that it had been highly successful. The incision had been but three inches long—"It was such a marvelously developed stomach I hated to slice it up," said one physician—and the hernia was the result of a lifelong congenital defect. Clay had undergone a prefight physical five days before, but such a condition, attending surgeons said, might not be detected in a hundred examinations. "Any man here tonight may have a similar fault," one of the doctors said, "and he may never find out about it. Clay, in fact, might very well have gone ahead and boxed on Monday night with nothing whatever happening. It is fortunate it occurred tonight, perhaps, but what made it occur I can't say. It may have been a cough or a big meal."
Such an on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that explanation did not go down with everybody, particularly those who seek to develop murky, conspiratorial theses whenever they talk about any aspect of boxing. "Those Muslims—they slipped him a Mickey," ventured one. Another man said maybe Clay induced the hernia himself because 1) he was afraid of Liston or 2) he didn't think the gate looked promising. (The fight promoters were optimistic about the prospects of a good house.) Still others suggested that Clay's supper had disagreed with him, had made him vomit and had caused his hernia. But the doctors believe the nausea was a result—not a cause—of the rupture. Somehow these excursions into what could have been made their proponents look less shrewd than they hoped.
Plain or fancy, Clay's stomachache will still go down as the most expensive in history, surpassing even Babe Ruth's, which was brought on by too many pops and hot dogs and partly precipitated Ruth's dismal 1925 season. Because Boston City is a public hospital, Clay got the emergency operation for free and will only be billed $45 a day. But other people's losses and expenses total about $400,000—none of it insured. The bulk of the loss will be sustained by New York's Fred Brooks, who has sunk about a quarter-million into the closed-circuit television promotion, and who, apart from all else, got stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes shortly before the Clay calamity. Since he may use the telephone lines he has leased within a period of 30 days, Brooks might be able to put on another fight. He would like to pair the upcoming Giardello-Carter middleweight title fight with a Patterson-Chuvalo heavyweight match, but if he cannot it is unlikely that he will ever recover his investment. Inter-Continental, the fight promoter, estimated a loss of $75,000; Clay went through some $50,000 in training expenses, Liston some $25,000. To put up with such reversals takes a good deal of philosophical calm and, with the exception of a few demonstrative people (Mrs. Liston and Clay's assistant trainer, Drew Brown, both gave themselves up to weeping Friday night), most of those involved smiled through. Liston, for example, had just come in from a stroll near his motel in Plymouth when he was told the fight was off. So, packing for Denver, he said, "Well, let's all put our aprons on and go to work to pay the bills," which, from Liston, is almost poetry. Faversham and Gordon Davidson, a little later, broke the seal on a bottle of whisky whose label read, "Especially for William Faversham, Clay-Liston fight, November 16, 1964, Boston," and toasted one another's long life and success. As for Cassius Clay, who will spend about 10 days in the hospital and two months in convalescence, he cheerfully said: "By the time I'm back in the ring, it'll be next year. And that means I'll be in a new tax bracket." Better than that, he may also have a new exemption next year. His summer bride, Sonji, he believes, is pregnant.