Read Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight Online

Authors: Howard Bingham,Max Wallace

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

 

MUHAMMAD
ALI’S
GREATEST FIGHT

Cassius Clay vs.
the United States of America

 

MUHAMMAD ALI’S
GREATEST FIGHT

CASSIUS CLAY
VS.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Howard Bingham
and
Max Wallace

 

 

 

M. EVANS
Lanham • New York • Boulder • Toronto • Plymouth, UK

 

Published by M. Evans

An imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706
www.rowman.com

10 Thornbury Road, Plymouth PL6 7PP, United Kingdom

Distributed by National Book Network

Copyright © 2000 by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace
First paperback edition 2013

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available

The hardback edition of this book was previously cataloged by the Library of Congress as follows:

Bingham, Howard L.

Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America / by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace.
      p. cm.
1. Ali, Muhammad, 1942- 2. Boxers (sports)-United States-Political activity. 3. Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975—Conscientious objectors. 4. Boxers (Sports)—United States—Biography. I. Wallace, Max. II. Title. GV1132.A44 W24 2000

99-050269

ISBN 978-1-59077-208-9 (pbk.: alk. paper)

ISBN 978-1-59077-210-2 (electronic)

Printed in the United States of America

 

 

 

To all those with the courage to take a stand

FOREWORD

I
NEVER THOUGHT OF MYSELF
as great when I refused to go into the army. All I did was stand up for what I believed. There were people who thought the war in Vietnam was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted just as brave as I did. There were people who tried to put me in jail. Some of them were hypocrites, but others did what they thought was proper and I can’t condemn them for following their consciences either. People say I made a sacrifice, risking jail and my whole career. But God told Abraham to kill his son and Abraham was willing to do it, so why shouldn’t I follow what I believed? Standing up for my religion made me happy; it wasn’t a sacrifice. When people got drafted and sent to Vietnam and didn’t understand what the killing was about and came home with one leg and couldn’t get jobs,
that
was a sacrifice. But I believed in what I was doing, so no matter what the government did to me, it wasn’t a loss.

Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war. Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the army until he was too old to be drafted. So what I did was for me, but it was the kind of decision everyone has to make. Freedom means being able to follow your religion, but it also means carrying the responsibility to choose between right and wrong. So when the time came for me to make up my mind about going into the army, I knew people were dying in Vietnam for nothing and I knew I should live by what I thought was right. I wanted America to be America. And now the whole world knows that, so far as my own beliefs are concerned, I did what was right for me.

—Muhammad Ali

CHAPTER ONE:

Louisville and the Lip

T
HE GOLD MEDAL HADN’T LEFT
his neck since he had received it at the 1960 Summer Olympics awards ceremony the day before. He ate with it, he slept with it, he showered with it, he lay on his back so it wouldn’t stab him during the night. Cassius Clay strutted around the Olympic Village in Rome showing off the medal to anybody he passed. “I’m the king, I’m the king,” he declared in the brash style that would soon become so familiar to so many. His fellow athletes from all over the world smiled and congratulated him—he had long since won them over with his infectious personality. “If there had been an election for mayor of the Olympic Village, Cassius would have won in a landslide,” remembers one teammate.

Heading to the cafeteria, the eighteen-year-old boxer ran into a Russian reporter who decided Clay was worth a story, despite having vanquished a Soviet contender on his way to the title. But unlike those of the hundred or so reporters to whom the new champion had already granted interviews, the Russian’s questions had nothing to do with boxing. He wanted to know how Clay felt as a Negro representing the United States, where he was still treated as a second-class citizen.

“The U.S.A. is the best country in the world, including yours,” came the response.

Undeterred, the Russian proceeded to lecture his subject about one of the most popular topics in the Soviet media during that period. He reminded the young athlete about racial inequality and segregation in America. Clay refused to rise to the bait.

“We have our problems, sure, but tell your readers we got qualified people working on that, and I’m not worried about the outcome.”

Millions of words have been written by what journalist Robert Lipsyte calls “Ali-ologists” analyzing, puzzling over, and attempting to explain how the boxer involved in that three-minute exchange of patriotism could within a decade become a national pariah, labelled a traitor and almost sent to prison—all because at some point he started to worry about the outcome.

The most logical and most facile explanation is supplied by Muhammad Ali himself in his 1975 autobiography,
The Greatest
.

Long before even going to Rome, Clay had dreamt about the homecoming he would receive returning to Louisville, Kentucky, as Olympic champion. By the time of the Games, he had already begun to compose the doggerel that would become his trademark. On the flight across the Atlantic he penned a little poem anticipating the greeting he had fantasized about for so many years.

HOW CASSIUS TOOK ROME
BY CASSIUS CLAY JR.

To make America the greatest is my goal

So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole

And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.

Italians said, “You’re greater than the Cassius of old.

We like your name, we like your game

So make Rome your home if you will.”

I said I appreciate kind hospitality

But the USA is my country still

Cause they’re waiting to welcome me in Louisville.

The welcome, when it finally occurred, didn’t disappoint. It included marching bands, red-white-and-blue streamers and, eventually, a reception by the mayor. “I was deeply proud of having represented America on a world stage,” Ali would later write. “To me the gold medal was more than a symbol of what I had achieved for myself and my country; there was something I expected the medal to achieve for me. And during those first days of homecoming it seemed to be doing exactly that.”

At the city hall reception, the mayor put his arms around the returning hometown-hero-made-good and declared, “He’s our own boy, Cassius, our next world champion. Anything you want in town’s yours. You hear that?” Afterwards, he told reporters, “If all young people could handle themselves as well as Clay does, we wouldn’t have juvenile problems.”

The mayor’s promise echoing in his head, Clay and a friend decided to grab a bite to eat later that evening at a local diner. Like many establishments in Louisville at the time, the diner was for “whites only.” But the gold medal would solve that, Cassius told his friend as they sat at the counter and placed their order: two hamburgers and two vanilla milkshakes.

It wasn’t the first time they had eaten at the diner. Once for Halloween, they’d had a seamstress make a couple of African turbans and flowing gowns. They paraded downtown, talking “foreign English” and getting themselves admitted to “whites only” establishments. Once they were stopped at a movie house by a suspicious doorman until the white manager intervened, saying, “It’s all right. They ain’t Negroes.”

But this was the first time they had entered a segregated establishment as “homegrown” Negroes, and the reaction was swift. The waitress bent down and whispered in Clay’s ear, “We can’t serve you here.”

“Miss,” he responded politely, believing she didn’t recognize him. “I’m Cassius Clay. The Olympic champion.” His friend proudly pulled the medal from under Clay’s T-shirt and adjusted the red-,white-, and-blue- ribbon. He turned the medal around to show the Italian word
PUGILATO
embossed on the back.

Impressed, the waitress walked over to the owner and spoke in a hushed whisper.

“I don’t care
who
he is. We don’t serve no niggers!”

The other diners kept their heads down. The only eyes that would meet his were those of the old black woman working in the kitchen, who looked at him sadly.

His friend stared in disbelief. “They don’t really know who you are,” he kept saying. “They just don’t know you’re the champion. I ain’t scared to tell them.” Like an announcer in the ring, he said, “Folks, this is the champion! Louisville’s Olympic champion. Just back from Italy.”

“Ronnie, shut up,” Clay urged. “Don’t beg! Don’t beg!”

He walked out the door and headed for the nearby Jefferson County Bridge. Walking to the middle of the span, Cassius removed the gold medal from around his neck and dropped it into the dark depths of the Ohio River.

This incident would neatly encapsulate Ali’s sense of betrayal at the contradictions of the American dream. How could he have pride in representing a country in which he couldn’t even order a hamburger where he wanted?

Unfortunately, it never happened. The diner episode was concocted by a ghostwriter named Richard Durham who was looking for just such an anecdote to explain in a thousand words the enigma of a man not easily explained. The truth was somewhat more complicated.

For the black community of Louisville in the 1940s and’50s when Ali was growing up as Cassius Clay, Jim Crow was not as pervasive as it was in the deeper South—places like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where lynchings were an ever-present threat. Kentuckians served their racism with a gentler touch. But it was always on the menu.

“We were immersed in discrimination,” recalls Ali’s first cousin Coretta Bather. “Louisville was a very segregated town. The whites never let you forget your place. I had a friend in Georgia who used to talk about how she was afraid to look white folks in the eye. It was never
that
bad for us, but it was everywhere. There were a lot of shops we couldn’t even go in downtown. We could mop their floors but we couldn’t buy anything. The ones who would take our money still let us know what they thought of us. I remember Sears, Roebuck had two water fountains labeled ‘whites only’and‘colored only.’”

Blacks sat in the back of the bus and in the balcony of the movie theater if they were allowed in at all. The best movies showed at the Loews, the Brown, the Strand. They were for whites only, as were the prettiest parks and the public swimming pools.

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