Will he or won't he? That was the question last week as Muhammad Ali, perhaps for the first time, began to accept as fact the only two choices open to the heavyweight champion of the world: induction into the armed forces of the U.S., or jail. Just days before, few people had actually believed the time would come when Cassius Marcellus Clay—as he is known to his draft board—would ever really have to make the decision. For one thing, it had looked as though the induction would be delayed for a long time. When Ali's selective service records were transferred from Louisville to Houston, the old April 11 induction date had been called off. But then Wednesday morning the Houston board announced that Ali would be inducted April 28, and a few hours later a federal district judge in Louisville threw out the plea of Ali's lawyer that he was the victim of discrimination.
Suddenly it became clear that Muhammad Ali, one of the most bizarre figures in the history of sport, might shortly leave the scene. So Ali himself flew into Chicago to consult with Herbert Muhammad, his manager and Muslim spiritual adviser, and while the headlines screamed about the draft, the two began scrambling around for one last opponent. They found him—Floyd Patterson, who is apparently ready to meet the champ April 25 in Las Vegas. That fight may well mark Muhammad Ali's final appearance in the ring. After that it could be the pen.
"We have one more fight, make me $100,000 and bank it for the future," Muhammad Ali said as he drove from the airport to the South Side to meet with Herbert. "I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah, God. I'd rather die a Muslim. Six hundred million Muslims are with me to see if I am punished in this land of religious freedom. [Officials in Cairo appealed to President Johnson to stop the induction.] I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my own beliefs. I'll go down in history. So we've been in jail for 400 years. I'm a 1,000% religious man. If I thought goin' to war would bring freedom, justice and equality to 22 million Negroes, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I'm paying $1,500 a month for 10 years in alimony just for my beliefs. I divorced a beautiful Negro woman. I want to be in good standing with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I'm not a slave. I'm free! I've heard the truth!"
Muhammad Ali seemed resigned to jail. He still played it cozy, claiming he had not yet revealed his decision on what to do when D-day finally comes, and both he and Herbert insist that the champ will make his decision on his own. But as a Muslim minister anxious to remain in the good graces of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—who himself did three years in a federal prison during World War II for failing to register for the draft—the martyr's role is Ali's. In recent months black voices, both Muslim and infidel, have grown more bitter about the draft and the war in Vietnam. Last Wednesday in Louisville, Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, once considered improbable bedfellows, publicly embraced as King prepared to declare his own opposition to the U.S.'s "morally unjust" involvement in Vietnam. Among his people, Muhammad Ali appeared to be threatening even Adam Clayton Powell as a symbol of defiance to the "white power structure."
"Man, he is a beautiful cat," said Chuck Walker, an O'Hare Airport porter who came to tote Ali's bags. "He gives you the nitty-gritty," meaning that Ali gives you "the bottom, man, the essence. He tells you as it is." Dick Gregory, who was running as a write-in candidate for mayor of Chicago, was at the airport, too, and he was quick to close with the champion. He had forsaken entertainment, Gregory said, "to fool around with the social system."
It is fashionable to write off the Muslims, and Herbert Muhammad in particular, as fools as well as knaves. Herbert is often portrayed as a pudgy little black man who is in over his head in boxing, but the truth is that Herbert is a very astute cat, and he knows just what is doing in boxing all the time. The Muslims may have a racket, but their officials are not dumb. "Herbert's wise, wise, wise, one of the wisest men on earth," says Muhammad Ali with emphatic nods of his head. "If it weren't for Herbert, I'd be in a lot of trouble sayin' the wrong things." A white man in boxing, who has done business with Herbert, says, "When I met him, I stopped worrying about the Muslims. With Herbert you can make a deal."
This is not to imply that Herbert is as soft as his appearance. After becoming Ali's manager, he chose to exert a firm, calming, even civilizing influence on the brash young champion.
Far from the fire-breathing thug people imagine a Muslim to be, Herbert presents himself as an affable sort whose favorite hobby is portrait photography. When in Chicago he can usually be found in his storefront studio or a few doors up on East 79th Street at the office of Muhammad Speaks, the Muslim paper with a circulation of 250,000 a week. One of six sons of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, soi-disant Messenger of Allah and Leader and Teacher to the American So-called Negro, Herbert started the paper for his father and runs the operation today.
It was not until after he had won the title from Sonny Liston that Muhammad Ali met Herbert Muhammad. Herbert had photographed James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Kwame Nkrumah, Prince Faisal, Nasser, Jomo Kenyatta and other celebrities, and Muhammad Ali came into the studio on 79th Street to have his portrait done. "He was going on a trip to Egypt," Herbert recalls, "and he needed someone to guide him. I had been there four or five times, and I had been to Mecca with my father and younger brother, Akbar. I had contact with orthodox Muslims." Herbert and Ali became friends on the trip, and when the contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group—for which, incidentally, Herbert has high praise—lapsed, Muhammad Ali asked Herbert to become his manager.
"I had to fight with him and beg him to be my manager," Muhammad Ali says. Herbert was wary. "I'm not a sports figure," he says. He consulted with his father, who warned him of the pitfalls in boxing, but Herbert finally gave in to Muhammad Ali's pleas.
There were several considerations. "He was the champion of the world," says Herbert. "I didn't have to get him matches." Then Herbert adds blandly, "Ordinarily we do not enter into commercial sports or entertainment. However, inasmuch as a member of our group was already making his living there, it was necessary to provide him with the best protection and guidance so that we could enable him to better project the kind of image he was interested in projecting, both as a sports hero and as a Muslim minister.
"Of course we were aware of some of the sordid history of boxing as well as some of its better aspects. We knew we would have to offer a program contrasting with previous programs of backdoor deals, 'fixes,' gamblers, gangsters, etc. We have eliminated these aspects entirely. Sports in America is a multi-billion dollar business. Negro athletes furnish the best material. Yet, with the exception of the world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, there is almost no sports enterprise that is owned or managed by a Negro. We wish to provide, through the proper managership of Muhammad Ali, inspiration and encouragement for black entrepreneurs to go into sports ventures. Only through this method can some of the revenue be returned into the hands of the Negro people who produce these superstars. We think this aspect of Muhammad Ali's enterprises is one of the healthiest."
Upon becoming manager, Herbert immediately resigned as president of Main Bout, Inc., a promotional company that bids for (and does not always get) the ancillary rights of the champion's fights. "I have to be careful in my management of Muhammad Ali so that nothing reflects on the Muslims," muses Herbert. John Ali, National Secretary of the Muslims, succeeded Herbert as president. Outspoken, John Ali is dismayed by the press view of the Muslims. "They picture the Muslims as taking over boxing," he says. "We're just a couple of people out of thousands in boxing. We don't have the networks, we don't have control of the arenas, we don't have the ball parks. They don't say Teddy Brenner, the Jewish Matchmaker, or Angelo Dundee, the Catholic Trainer who goes along with the head of his church, or Goldie Ahearn, the Jewish Promoter who adheres to the Orthodox thinking of his leader, Rabbi Rubenstein. But they say Herbert Muhammad, the Black Muslim, son of Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger."
It is true that the Ali-Herbert arrangement seems more on the up-and-up than many others of the recent past. No particular secret has been made of Muhammad Ali's or Herbert Muhammad's earnings from boxing. Herbert gets 40% of each purse and pays all training expenses. For the Cleveland Williams fight, Muhammad Ali got $243,256, and Herbert $162,170. For the Terrell fight, Muhammad Ali's share was $333,793, and Herbert's $222,500. Shares from the Folley fight were $157,198 for the champion and $104,800 for Herbert. "Herbert's going to see to it that I don't wind up like Joe Louis," says Muhammad Ali. "Since I've been with him, I've earned a lot more money, I've saved a lot more money and I get paid the day after the fight."
When the champion was short of cash in a court action in Miami, the Muslims lent him $27,000. He repaid it. Last year he borrowed $100,000 from the Muslims and promised them a donation of $100,000. As of last week he had contributed close to $50,000 of the donation but still owed the $100,000 loan. With Herbert's guidance, Muhammad Ali recently invested $50,000 in Texas oil, and he gave $10,000 to the United Negro College Fund. "We plan to donate even more to aid Negro education," Herbert said the other day, hoping that Ali still has paydays ahead of him. "This is only possible with Negro managership with a conscious program to see that black people benefit from this championship."
Under Herbert's management, Muhammad Ali's image was revised and some of his antics curbed. The Ali shuffle was forbidden. "Herbert said it didn't add anything," Muhammad Ali says. When the champion called Ernie Terrell an Uncle Tom, Herbert made him stop. And it was at Herbert's urging that Muhammad Ali fought often; when the champion worried about taxes from increased earnings, Herbert told him, "Standard Oil doesn't try to sell a small amount of oil each year."
Explaining his reasoning, Herbert said, "We instituted an entirely new approach. We deliberately seek the top-rated fighters in any country. We are confident of the champion's ability, and we believe the public would appreciate the contests more if they know we backed down from no challenger. Contrast the selection of opponents for Muhammad Ali with the selection of opponents made during the time Floyd Patterson was champ, or Rocky Marciano, for that matter. We have discarded the old 'return clause' contracts and offered the championship freely to any challenger who could successfully beat Muhammad Ali in the ring. This is like a trapeze artist walking the tightrope high above the ground with no strings attached to 'save him' for a second walk should he slip. What other fighter did this?"
Herbert claimed last week that he was very pleased with Angelo Dundee as the champion's trainer, but after he became manager he installed a Lebanese Muslim, Salameh Hassan, as assistant trainer. Hassan, an Akim Tamiroff type, kept an eye on the champ when Herbert wasn't around. Hassan had been in boxing in Chicago. He met Herbert 16 years ago when Hassan's sister was hired to give lessons in cooking at private Muslim homes. Short and fat and a prodigious eater, Hassan sometimes wears a thermometer tie clip. He sat down to lunch in Chicago one day last week with the temperature on his tie at 70°. By the time he had finished, the mercury was in the 80s.
To hear Hassan tell it, watching over Muhammad Ali for Herbert is nerve-racking. The champ likes to shadow box wherever he can see his reflection, and he is forever punching away at washroom mirrors and car windows. "Watch those billion dollar hands, champ!" Hassan tells Ali.
Twice in the last six months, Hassan reports, Muhammad Ali has come close to death. He flipped a rented speedboat in the Atlantic off Miami. Unable to swim, he clung to the boat and was rescued by a chance passer-by. "Of course, this upset Herbert," Hassan says. The second time, Muhammad Ali, two friends and Hassan flew down to Houston from Chicago and the jet ran into clear turbulence. "The plane was out of control," Hassan says. "It was horrible. When it was not dropping, the plane was bouncing like a rubber ball. The champ started to call out, 'Oh, Allah, save us! Oh, Allah is God! Allah be with us!' After the plane came down all right, all the passengers, especially the little old ladies, thanked the champ for praying."
The champ's prayers about the draft remain to be answered in the weeks ahead. After the Patterson fight, it could be jail, bail, trial and conviction. At this point it is fortunate for Ali's peace of mind that he has faith in the will of Allah.