The Passion Of Muhammad Ali
The ex-heavyweight champion of the world fools around in Chicago these days, more or less in exile, because he won't go.
BY Leonard Shecter | Jun 6, 2016 | Culture
The ex-heavyweight champion of the world fools around in Chicago these days, more or less in exile, because he won't go. He isn't kidding.
It was Chicago, September, 1962, the week of the first Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston heavyweight championship fight. The nature of the match, evil (Liston) vs. good (Patterson), had attracted an impressive delegation of the nation's literati, among them Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. Gathering place was press headquarters, a windowless meeting room in a Loop hotel full of busy typewriters, empty glasses and chatting groups of reporters from places like Quincy, Illinois, London and Sydney. Into this gabbling scene, one late afternoon, a time when the room was usually filled, walked a large, handsome, collegiate-looking young man dressed in sport shirt, sweater and tight pants. "Gentlemen," he shouted. "Your attention please, gentlemen." His voice was strident, his eyes glittered and he smiled. "Is the A.P. here?" he said. He did not have to stand on his toes in order to see over everybody's head. He just lifted his chin and looked around the crowded room. "Is the U.P.I. here? Very good. Reuters? Anybody here from Time? Nobody from Time? What about Newsweek? Fine. Very good. Gentlemen, I have a poem. But first I have to tell you that Mr. Archie Moore shook me up by inventing a new punch which he called 'the lip-buttoner.' I had to invent myself a new punch, too. I call it the old-age pension punch.”
There was a rumble of laughter.
"Now my poem."
It was that night in the Coliseum That's when I annihilated him,I gave him a lot of sand The one they call the old man;You could tell by the bombs I threw,I had left jabs to fire like pistons They were twice as rough as Liston's;The people cry "Stop the fight!"Before Clay put out the light,He was trying to remain the great Mr. Moore For he knew Clay had predicted four;I swept that old man clean out of the ring For a good new broom sweeps up anything, Some say the greatest was Sugar Ray But they haven't seen Cassius Clay.
He hung around the press room for a while, chatting, shouting, mugging and bragging. And when he left, it was as though somebody had cleaned out the ashtrays, cleared the cigar smoke and left the place with a feeling of open windows. He would do the same for boxing, I thought, and he would have a good time doing it.
And that's the way it seemed to go. He knocked out old Archie Moore in the predicted four rounds and he went on to win the title. Everywhere he went there was noise and laughter and people. Once he went on television with a new poem:
Then he added: "I'm very modest."
Before his second fight with Liston he showed up with the largest entourage since King Saud brought his harem to the Waldorf Astoria. There were four sparring partners, three cooks, a valet, a chauffeur, a personal photographer, a secretary, a masseur and Stepin Fetch it (the only movie star who ever made two million dollars in Hollywood and frivoled away five million; Cassius Clay understood flamboyance). And then, of course, there was always Drew (Bundini) Brown, the man who invented Clay's fighting slogan: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
And the bus. It was fire-engine red and in letters four feet high on both sides was painted the legend: Heavyweight Champion of the World. (In this bus, he said, all the white men rode in the back.) Before his fight with George Chuvalo he drove the bus—Big Red, he called it affectionately—up to Chuvalo's Catskill training camp and as he arrived he managed to drive it off the road. This made all the wire services, including Reuters. Anywhere he was, it was like a seventy-five-piece band had arrived.
Even after he cut back some of the noise, having won his campaign for the title, fun-and-games was all around him. Children followed him wherever he went and all over the world adults adulated him. "The only difference between me and the Pied Piper," he once said, "is he didn't have no Cadillac."
And another time: "I'm so popular I have to hide. I get everything free, invitations to countries. I get letters from all kinds of kings. They want me to live in their castles. Don't no Negro get better treatment than me. If I retired tomorrow, I can say I've had my fun."
Muhammad Ali, shirtless, dressed in jeans and chukka boots, sat in the corner of his blue velvet couch. He ran his hands over his milk-chocolate torso, caressing, slapping, pinching the new flesh around his middle. The colour television, set into a marble fireplace opposite him in this narrow living room, was tuned to a morning game show. He had used the remote-control gadget to turn the sound off but the animated lollipops on the screen continued their mindless charade. His eyes, big and brown, kept drifting back to the screen. He was talking about how busy he was.
"And tonight they're having this big musical and they want me to say a few words about whatever I want to talk about. Then I got a call from this college in Hartford—I forget the name of it—and they want me up there. And some old Negro lady group in New York is going to give me an award and they want me up there on Sunday to accept that. There's always something. Everybody wants me."
The expression on his face turned to one of bemused pain. His handsome face, unmarked but for a thin white scar in his left eyebrow (the result of a childhood accident), is as mobile as that of a rubber puppet and he tugs and twists at it to underline emotion. When he is surprised his eyes pop out of his head and show white all around the pupil. When he is sad, his face collapses and one can almost see the tears forming. When he is happy his face glows like a pinball machine and his even white teeth gleam free games. He uses his voice the way he does his face; he never merely quotes anybody, he imitates. He drops it and whispers, he raises it to sound like a woman. He straightens up and tightens his throat and enunciates his g's and d's and he sounds like a white man. He is a performer and he glances often at the mirrored wall behind the fireplace to see how he's coming across.
"It's impossible for me to dry up and have nothing to do," he is saying. "I mean I just don't represent boxing. I'm taking a stand for what I believe in and being one thousand percent for the freedom of the black people. Naturally those who have the same fight, but on a smaller scale, they come to me," and here he whispers, "'You speak for me, too, brother, you speak for me too. I make my money from Charley but I'm with you. Man, I just jump and shout every time I see you tell them.'" Now he raises his voice again. "So I got hundreds of places to go and talk and I'll always have them as long as I'm talking for freedom.”
Ah, freedom. He now is free to talk. He used to be free to fight and he was something to see, the speed of him and the beauty of his motion, his huge, smooth body gliding in a ballet of boxing, his white ring shoes becoming a furry flurr. He was perhaps the best anybody has ever seen, because he had the modern athlete's body, as swift as it was large, and no boxer ever had one like it before. But then a sergeant in a Houston Selective Service office asked him to take a step forward and he refused because, he said, he was a minister of the Muslim faith in the Nation of Islam. The boxing commission revoked his title as heavyweight champion of the world. Rumours started, around the fight business first and then in newspapers. Rumour: he was stony-broke, living on heaven knows what, and what had happened to his money? Rumour: he had earned more than two million dollars in the ring—his gross earnings as a champion were probably twice that, except that fifty percent is conceded to his managers—but his co-religionists had stolen it, extorted it, conned him out of it. Rumour: and guess who put up the USD135,000 for a mosque in Miami?
"I'll tell you one thing about that," Muhammad Ali said. Then he told a lot of things. They poured out of him like one of his sermons, most of which he excerpts from Message to the Blackman by Elijah Muhammad, the self-anointed Messenger of Allah. "Many reporters and many people ask me, they say, 'Champion, how you gonna live? Champion, how you eating? How you gonna make it?' I have this to say to all the reporters and all the critics who want to know why I don't fall and when I'm gonna fall. They seem to want to see that. The power structure seems to want to starve me out. I mean the punishment, five years in jail, ten-thousand-dollar fine, ain't enough. They want to stop me from working, not only in the country but out of it. Not even a license to fight an exhibition for charity. And that's in this twentieth century. You read about these things in the dictatorship countries where a man don't go along with this thing or that and he is completely not allowed to work or to earn a decent living. So this is my position. I rely on Allah. I leave it up to Allah. I believe that there is no God but Allah and I believe Elijah Muhammad is his own true messenger and I'm standing up for my religion and my salvation. If it means suffer, if it means get out of the house, give up the cars, I'll do it. Just give me a pair of blue jeans and a leather jacket, give me a stick with a rag on the back with some food in it and say, Get on the railroad tracks, and I will do it. I believe that Allah would lead me to a gold mine on the train. I might find a million-dollar bill."
When he is happy his face glows like a pinball machine and his even white teeth gleam free games.
He has been saying this sort of thing for years and finally it is apparent that he believes it. He is burning with fervour. He might even believe that Allah, if not the judicial system, will save him from prison. "I am looking for Allah to do something," he says. "I am his servant. Allah, they're punishing your servant."
Not all the Muslims are this fervent. Says Herbert Muhammad, one of Elijah Muhammad's eight children and a man who acts as Muhammad Ali's manager: "Yes, we believe Allah will provide. We also believe that Allah helps those who help themselves.”
In fact, Allah will not be called on to step in immediately, not about the money anyway. There was a sum deposited in his name by the group of Louisville businessmen who managed him when he was Cassius Marcellus Clay that now amounts to USD76,000. He cannot touch this until he is thirty-five or has retired. He is twenty-five years old now. (Hard to believe he is not much more. "I'd be dead by now if I was a Christian under this much pressure.") By the time he is thirty-five that money should have grown to USD125,000, perhaps more. In the meantime, Herbert Muhammad pointed out, he owns sixty percent of an oil well near San Antonio and receives monthly royalty checks. He has been offered USD50,000 for a book about his life. But Herbert Muhammad added: "I think we all have to worry about money. He has to worry. But he still has a little, and he don't owe nobody. [A New York lawyer named Covington says he owes him USD284,000 in legal fees, but this is being disputed in court.] He's in no immediate danger unless he overspends himself."
Not likely. He has become downright frugal and he enjoys it. "Everybody is cutting down, not just me," he says. "America has to cut down on her space program. America has to cut down on this and that. But you'll never see me hungry. When I get to a city there's a hundred Muslims waiting for me. 'Get in my car, brother.' 'No, get in my car, brother.' I go to their house. They have prepared dinner. 'This house is yours,' that's what they tell me. 'You need a hundred dollars?' What I need money for? I don't spend no money. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't go nowhere, don't go running with women. I take my wife out and we eat ice cream. My wife is such a good cook I never go to a restaurant. I give her USD20 for a whole week and it's enough for her. We can eat on USD3 a day. She just came off a three-day fast. How can you look at a man like me, a son of Allah, and ask how you gonna eat? Who feeds the birds? Who feeds the tigers? Who feeds the fish? Who feeds the ants?"
Who gave Elijah Muhammad USD135,000 for his Miami mosque?
"That's a joke," Muhammad Ali said. "They went and made a special law for boxers like me, the Joe Louis Law. The group in Louisville made an agreement with the American Government that I could get none of my money until I paid ninety percent of the maximum tax to the government first, just because they feared me helping my religion. You write that. They feared me helping to educate black children and take them out of the slums. I made in my boxing career two million dollars and ten percent of two million is two hundred thousand. What's two hundred thousand to Elijah Muhammad? He has a newspaper that costs USD80,000 a week to keep going. He's all over America. He's got six or seven hundred thousand followers. What's my money gonna do for a whole nation? Man, I could fight for the rest of my life and not pay for one block of his property. It's so vicious the way they talk, trying to make people think I've been robbed. Elijah Muhammad has turned down my money. He said, 'No, brother, you need it. You ain't got no money after taxes.' They say he stole my money and they say he told me not to go to the Army. But they got to let one of them go. I could make ten million dollars if I went to the Army. If he's out to rob me he wants me to go. But he never said a word, either way. And I would never ask him.”
By now it was twelve-thirty and he said he had to leave to pick up his wife in the Loop. He put on a striped shirt, open at the neck, and a black leather jacket and we went out the back door and through the two-car garage. The house is modest, long and narrow with the dining room at one end of the living room and the kitchen beyond that. Off the dining room there is a bathroom and two bedrooms. The house was newly furnished in comfortable modern pieces, thick, sculptured wall-to-wall carpeting, and a few posh touches, like a false fireplace of marble and a dining-room buffet with a top that lights up. That was all of it, except that the basement was being made over into two more bedrooms and a bath. This house is pink brick on the outside and sits on a tiny corner plot, close to all the other homes; when you look down the street they appear to be attached. "They say Muslims hate," Muhammad Ali said. "If I hated would I live in this neighbourhood? There are only three Negro families living here." Still, there are a lot of visible For Sale signs on the little lawns and the taxicab driver who brought me said the neighbourhood was "going down, like all the rest of South Chicago."
The garage was empty, but he rolled up one of the doors to let us out. When he closed it I could see that someone had written on it in large letters with a purple marking pen: White Power. He laughed when he saw I had noticed it. "That don't bother me none," he said.
The car at the curb was a sparkling tawny Cadillac, a palomino Eldorado, he said. It had a white leather top. "This is America's best," he said. "Caaadillac Eldooooraaado. I've always had one of these since I was nineteen. I should do a commercial for Cadillac."
Ali drove north on Lake Shore Drive at forty miles an hour, five less than the posted limit. "Look at all the po-lice," he said every time a police car went by, which was often. "There is more po-lice in this town than anything. You ever see so many po-lice?" He shook his head and laughed. "I lost my license here three times. I won't do it no more. Elijah Muhammad teaches us to obey the laws of the land. As long as they don't conflict with your religion."
As he drove, adjusting his record player from time to time—the car has everything, including air conditioning and a forty-five-r.p.m. record changer—he talked again about how little time he had. He said he wished he had more time for study. "Just the other day," he said, "I found out what holy means. And I found out the Bible is not holy. Holy means never changed. And the Bible has been changed lots of times. You see, I'm a minister and I have to know these things because of the questions they ask me."
There are many things Muhammad Ali cannot be relied upon for. He wears a watch only occasionally because, one suspects, time has little meaning for him. He shows up hours late for an appointment, or hours early, or not at all. He says he will call and then he does not. He is very surprised if this upsets you. But he was precisely on time to meet his wife.
There are many things Muhammad Ali cannot be relied upon for. He wears a watch only occasionally because, one suspects, time has little meaning for him.
Her name is Belinda and she is his second wife. He divorced his first wife not, he says, because he didn't love her, but because she insisted upon wearing mini-skirts rather than the long gowns Muslim women affect. Belinda is tall and lovely and eighteen years old and her skin is the same marvellous colour as her husband's. ("People sometimes take us for brother and sister," he says, chuckling.) She is attending secretarial school so she can, he says, help him answer letters, keep up with some of the demands put upon him. Each morning Muhammad Ali drives his wife to school. Each afternoon he picks her up. She was wearing a standard uniform, a two-piece dress with a skirt that flowed to her ankles. Although she was expecting a child in six months he insisted that she climb into the rear of the two-door car while we remained seated in front. He did not get out of the car to help her.
He dropped his wife at the house, instructing her to cook steak and vegetables for lunch. "We got something important to do," he said, and we drove off again. What he had to do was have his already sparkling palomino Eldorado washed. As we tooled around the South Chicago streets Muhammad Ali talked about the music he was playing. "James Brown," he said. "He's a good buddy. I know all the Negro entertainers. They come over to the house all the time. Makes you feel good to know these people on top. You know, James Brown, he makes so much money he's got a bus for his group to travel in and he's got a jet for himself. An eight-passenger Lear jet. I was gonna get me one of those. I mean lease it. It costs too much to buy. And I was gonna build a new house after the Terrell fight. I had it all designed, with a movie theatre in the basement and everything. But with the Army and all…." He shrugged his massive shoulders, shook his head, sighed, reached down and turned over the stack of records.
The car-wash place—he patronises Muslim-owned establishments whenever possible—was closed and he drove home. Belinda had turned the FM radio on and the speakers in the living room were blaring. Muhammad Ali went to the couch, picked up the remote control, turned on the television, raised his voice and answered some questions about his refusal to take that step forward in Houston.
I wondered if anybody had encouraged him, offered him a deal perhaps, told him if he would just go into the Army he could spend two years entertaining troops, fighting exhibitions and the like.
"Every day," he said. "Everybody. Wherever I go. Businessmen. Black and white. They all tell me that. But we don't take part in no war regardless of who America is fighting."
I pointed out that pacifism could hardly be part of his religion. Moslems had been fighting, often fiercely, for centuries.
"Well, if it was their country at war, like if I was an Egyptian or Arabian or Sudanesian and I lived there and it was under attack, well naturally you'd fight.”
He added that he had been urged to protest on grounds other than his religion. "Every day people call me and say, 'Why don't you make a protest?' Joe Namath ain't in. He's playing football on TV every weekend. George Hamilton ain't in. He has to support his mother and he has twelve bathrooms in the house. Negroes want me to say these things. Why should I? If two men rob a bank and I get caught, how come I should say, Well, you didn't get George. We roll the dice, we'll finish the game.
"Look, the government is nice enough to let me out on bond and travel the country. They could confine me to Houston if they want to. So I'm not going to get up and talk against the country and do all that protesting. I'm at their mercy."
If this sounds contradictory, it's only because it is. On the one hand, he says the government is nice to let him travel. And on the other he adds: "You got airplanes worth eight million dollars apiece taking off every minute on the minute. You're just loaded with wealth and bus lines and farmland, and one little Negro, who wasn't nothing, you fix it now he can't make a dollar or two. Imagine, because he don't go along with your way, and he's not an Uncle Tom for you, the whole nation takes more press time with him than a plane crash with a hundred of your white people on it. See how devilish this makes this race look?"
On the one hand he says he has lost interest in boxing. "It's a barbaric European sport," he says in his haughtiest manner. "The more religious I get, the more I don't miss it." And on the other hand, when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he walks by, he'll whirl, strike a fighting pose, and start throwing his lightning punches. "Pow, pow, pow!" he says. He likes the way it looks and the way it feels and he does roadwork to keep his belly in bounds. If he looks forward to anything at all, it's climbing into the ring with the winner of the heavyweight elimination now being staged to replace him as champion. "Look, there's the championship belt." It was at the bottom of a small china cabinet in the dining room. "It ain't worth a quarter. But it say I won the championship from Sonny Liston. What is it going to say on the belt of the other champion, that this title was taken from Muhammad Ali with a ink pen?"
On the one hand he says he has lost interest in boxing. "It's a barbaric European sport," he says in his haughtiest manner. "The more religious I get, the more I don't miss it."
On the one hand he says, "What's the use complaining? One man complains because he got no shoes. One man complains because he got no feet." But he complains that the U.S. Government is trying to starve him into being an Uncle Tom and he complains about not being accepted as a minister of his faith. "My leader has recognised me as his minister," he says. "It's not for the white man to say this is not your servant, Allah. If Pope Paul wrote a letter over here tomorrow that said this man is my priest, what you think would happen? What you think would happen?”
He shouted into the kitchen now to ask if the food were ready. His wife said the vegetables were cooked but the steak wasn't. He said he'd start on the vegetables. We moved to the table and, following Muslim custom, Belinda did not eat with us. She served the vegetables, boiled cabbage and okra, liberally peppered. He shook more pepper on them.
"Belinda, bring me some diet cola."
"Belinda, bring the steak."
"Belinda, bring me some brown sugar."
He grumbled to his wife that he didn't like the way the vegetables were prepared. He said the okra was too runny. He said the steak, cooked au poivre and really quite good, was too tough.
"Bring me some chicken."
"Bring it anyway.”
"What's the use complaining? One man complains because he got no shoes. One man complains because he got no feet."
He ate quickly, noisily, complaining mildly, chatting furiously. ("And the day after they took my title away I got an oil well, ain't that something?") When he was through he leaped from the table and began changing his clothes. I lifted my plate to carry it into the kitchen but Belinda whispered, "No, no. Don't do that. I'll do it."
I went back to the couch and watched television while Muhammad Ali dressed. He was singing a song to his wife, something the Temptations do called Ain't too Proud to Beg.
I don't mind, 'cause you mean that much to me. Ain't too proud to beg and you know it, Please don't leave me, girl….
This was followed by some cooing sounds from around the corner.
When he emerged, Muhammad Ali was dressed elegantly in a shiny black suit, white shirt, dark tie, neat handkerchief. He may not spend much money on food, but his clothes have to cost.
"C'mon," he said to me. "I'll show you what I do."
We went through the basement again, the champion pausing to show me two large trunks which, he said, were full of unanswered mail from all over the world. "Someday I got to answer all of that," he said. "Maybe when my wife learns to type."
We went through the White Power door again and climbed into the palomino Eldorado. We were headed for South Drexel and LaTees Beauty Parlour and Barber Shop. "I come here a lot," Muhammad Ali said. "We just sit around and talk."
This was a slow day at LaTees. The only customer was a dazzlingly dressed young man who was combing his conked, or straightened, hair (Muslims frown mightily on this process), and after a desultory exchange of as-salaam-alaikum, alaikum-salaam, and Hello, soul, there was a shout of "That you, soul?" from a back room. Muhammad Ali disappeared, there was a quick and kidding conversation, he reappeared, removed his coat, combed his hair, put his coat back on and left.
The next stop was at Seventy-ninth and Champlain where Muhammad Ali parked illegally in front of the Muhammad Speaks office. He carefully introduced me to each of the half-dozen people working at their desks, took me in back where he showed me Herbert Muhammad's dusty office, asked a man to open the cabinet drawer where thousands of pictures of him were filed. He took out a fistful and reminisced about them for a while. Then we left.
We drove to a nearby cleaning shop and when he got out of the car he was spotted by kids in a passing school bus. "There's the greatest," one of them shouted. He waved and smiled. "That's the people every day," he said. "They act like they can't read." This was a reference to the press which, with certain exceptions, has been hostile to him for years. When he was campaigning for a title shot he was called a loudmouth who couldn't fight. When he proved he could he was charged with being an un-American braggart. And when he announced his membership in the Black Muslims, a group which counts as it membership less than three percent of a ten percent minority, he was considered a menace to the American way of life. His refusal to be drafted set off a series of self-righteously patriotic editorials all around the country.
When he was campaigning for a title shot he was called a loudmouth who couldn't fight. When he proved he could he was charged with being an un-American braggart.
Muhammad Ali carried an armful of clothing into the shop. "Hello, soul sister," he said to one of the pretty girls behind the counter.
"Hello, soul brother," she said.
Then she recognised him and laughed. The first thing people do when they spot him is laugh. Perhaps it's a reaction to his own broad and friendly smile, perhaps a certain embarrassment at not having recognised him sooner, perhaps merely a response to the warmth he projects.
He watched with what seemed deepening shock as the cleaning bill was totalled. "Would it be cheaper somewhere else?" he asked rather plaintively. The girl said no.
He folded the cleaning tickets, put them in his pocket and started searching for his car keys. He does this every time. They always seem to be in a different pocket. Often, he says, he locks them in the car. It is one of the minor signs of the disorganisation of his life.
There are others. In the space of less than an hour he told me he had decided to fly to California Friday to see the Floyd Patterson-Jerry Quarry fight (he had not been invited, although his presence certainly would have caused excitement and helped the promotion), that he would set out instead for New York by car the next day (Wednesday) if I would help him drive, that he would go Thursday instead and stop off to see friends in Pittsburgh, and that maybe he would get to Los Angeles after all. Then he added: "I don't have to go. I done been everywhere, seen everything, whipped everybody. I don't have to prove nothing."
As we drove through the Negro district again, passing what seemed to be a particularly run-down block, crumbling, unpainted houses with tilted porches and broken windows, he said, "I wanted to get me an apartment in a poor district, the poorest I could find, and just live there for a while. Just to get the feel of being poor. You know, that's one of the reasons we fast. It keeps us in contact with the poor people."
He pulled the palomino Eldorado in to a parking space almost in front of the Shabazz Restaurant, on Seventy-first Street, small, neat, and clean with a long counter down one side separated by a partition from the table section. A mirror lines the wall opposite the counter so that the restaurant looks much bigger than it is. There is a No Smoking sign over the counter and a pile of Muhammad Speaks at one corner. There is one customer. He is eating soup and crackers.
Muhammad Ali's huge body seems to fill the restaurant. He sits at the counter and orders "a piece of that chocolate cake" and a glass of milk. He kids with the waitresses.
"This sugar isn't brown, it's integrated.
"How you drink your coffee, sister, black or integrated?
"Would you believe you're on television? Look, the camera's right back there. This man here," pointing to me, "is the director.
"How old are you, sister?"
"Fourteen," she says in a tiny voice.
"You know my wife used to work here. I stole her."
The girl giggles.
He turns to me, laughing. "I love to do that. I walk up to a man on the street and I tell him I'm looking for a fight. First he's scared, then he sees who I am, then I tell him, 'You're on television.'" He imitated a man in shock, and laughed out loud.
A young man comes out of the kitchen and they talk about the new car.
"Man, that's out of sight," the young man says. "I heard you had a black top on it, but I said naw, not him."
"Well, I did have a black top on it. But I didn't like it. I changed it."
"I got to go to the bank. Can I drive it?"
Muhammad Ali hesitated. Then he said, "Sure. But it's fast. Don't let it jump away." He fumbled through his pockets for the keys.
He put away the large piece of chocolate cake in five bites, turned to me again and said, "This is one of my hangouts. I can sit here two, three hours, read the papers, talk to people. Hey, what time is it? I got to be there at seven-thirty."
"I got to give that little talk. It's like that all the time. Somebody always wants me."
After another fifteen minutes he began to scan the street anxiously for his car. "I hope he didn't dent it," he said. "Those dents are expensive to fix. I mean expensive."
I wondered if I could hear him make his speech. I was somewhat uncomfortable about it. I had had a strange experience in New York with him. We had arranged to meet at the Americana Hotel where he was staying and go to the "Armoury on Forty-second Street" together. This turned out to be the 369th Artillery Armoury at Fifth Avenue and One Hundred Forty-second Street in Harlem. Muhammad Ali was led to a side room when we arrived—almost two hours early—and as I walked into the room with him a heavyset man stopped us, whispered in his ear. "Um," Muhammad Ali said. "They have to, um, search you."
I was led out into the corridor where there was a long row of perhaps twenty-five hard-eyed young men, each dressed in a somber business suit, each seeming to have been stamped out on an assembly line: medium height, medium weight, hair closely cropped. One of them stepped out of line to accommodate me. "Please take all large objects out of your pockets," he said, "and hold your hands up."
I removed the notebook, pencils and card case. The search was quick, thorough, professional; up the insides of my coat, along the seams, into the shoulder pads, then around the belt, the hands moving lightly and swiftly, down the sides of my trousers.
"Uh, money clip, I guess."
"Remove it, please."
Juggling a handful of my ragged possessions, feeling undignified, I dug it out.
Another quick brush of the hands. "Fine. That's it," hard-eyes said.
I wondered if I should say thank you. Decided against it.
When I went back into the room where Muhammad Ali was making notes for his speech, I sat opposite him across a large table. He was silent for a few minutes, then, without looking up, he tried to explain the frisk. "It's very bad," he said, "but we as a people carry guns, we carry switchblades, some of us take dope and some try to get another man's girl. So when a lot of our people get together there are fights and somebody gets hurt. There are no fights when Elijah Muhammad has a meeting."
Maybe so. But there was no search when Malcolm X, who split with Elijah Muhammad, was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom not long ago and there have been rumours since that one day Malcolm X's supporters were going to make somebody in Elijah Muhammad's camp render bloody payment. (The rumours were particularly strong when Muhammad Ali fought Liston the second time, in Lewiston, Maine, and a press agent-inspired report had it that Muhammad Ali was the target. Frantic Lewiston police settled for searching ladies' handbags.)
The purpose of this gathering was to raise money for a mosque Elijah Muhammad was building on One Hundred Sixteenth Street. Muhammad Ali was just one of a large group of performers and speakers who would take part. His speech would again be a reworking of a set pattern he had developed. "…In the past you supported the Red Cross, the Blue Cross and the White Cross. And all you got was the double cross…. The truth shall make you free, not sitting in or laying in…. What is a Negro? Negro comes from the Greek word nekro, meaning death…."
He turned to Louis Farrakhan, a thin, slight, light-skinned man who is Elijah Muhammad's New York minister, and said, "I don't have too much to say."
Farrakhan laughed. "You never do till you get up there."
I asked Muhammad Ali if I could have his notes after he was through with his talk and he said, "I'd give them to you, but I'm ashamed. I don't spell so good. I'll read them to you if you want." Then he got up to go out to the floor of the armoury, although it was still early. I trotted out behind him, but somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and looked into another pair of hard-eyes. "You wait here," the man said. I waited there. Before I turned back, though, I was treated to a strange sight—perhaps twenty-five men lined up with their hands in the air, their legs spread wide, being searched by the assembly-line men. It was a scene out of an old James Cagney movie.
There were two pairs of hard-eyes in the room with me, who resisted when I tried to strike up a conversation. They were there to frisk certain of the customers who showed up packing heat. Their pistols were taken and the serial numbers recorded before being put behind an unused bar for safekeeping. I didn't keep count of how many guns were checked that way, but after a while I had the distinct feeling the room was beginning to tilt in the direction of the hardware.
I sent word via one of the hard-eyes that my only interest in the proceedings was to hear Muhammad Ali speak. After two hours, leafing through Message to the Blackman which Muhammad Ali saw to it I was able to purchase, I came to the conclusion that no white man would see any part of the meeting and I said I wanted to leave. I was courteously escorted to the door.
Later Muhammad Ali said he was sorry, that he had not been informed I was waiting and that there was no reason I couldn't have witnessed the affair. Perhaps so, but I went through much the same thing when I tried to catch him in Hartford some weeks later.
So I wondered now what would happen at this Chicago meeting. I need not have.
His car was returned without any dents and we started to leave the Shabazz. Muhammad Ali's bill was fifty-five cents. Mine was fifteen. I put down a dollar bill. "I'm not gonna pay," he said. "I don't have to pay. I'm the heavyweight champion of the world. What you do if I don't pay?"
The girl was embarrassed. She shrugged.
At last he gave her a dollar. "Keep it," he said. Then he pointed to my dollar. "Keep that, too," he said. "Big men are big tippers."
As we were about to leave he stopped and said to me, "See that pie? What kind of pie is that?" I said I didn't know. Custard pie maybe. "How much is that pie?" he said to the girl. "Thirty-five cents," she said. "You got thirty-five cents?" he said to me. I had thirty-five cents.
He demanded I taste the pie. It was rich and delicious. He demolished most of the rest of it with two huge bites. "That," he announced, "is bean pie." He was glowing with pride. He seemed to count the bean pie as a personal accomplishment of Elijah Muhammad.
Back in the palomino Eldorado again, we drove north and then west. "I do like to drive this car," Muhammad Ali said. "Look at this," he said, pointing to the speedometer. "I got it six days and I got a thousand miles on it. I average eight hundred miles a week just driving around town. Know what I do sometime? Drive up to Milwaukee. When I get there I turn around and come back."
I asked if there was anything else to keep him busy. He said, Oh, so many things. He watched television a lot. "Sometimes I'll go rent a film and show it in the basement. I'll go out and sell Muhammad Speaks. The garbage needs putting out. I go to the store to buy the food. Go to the cleaners. I study about three hours a day, too. I'm sorry I didn't learn to read like I should. That's all a man needs, reading and spelling. He can learn anything if he can read and spell."
We found ourselves going over some old ground about why he had decided to refuse to be drafted. He groped for a new analogy. "You're Jewish," he said, "right? Well, suppose you was the heavyweight champion of Germany and Germany was going to war against Israel and you had a chance to make ten million dollars leading the Germans against Israel. What would you do?"
Although it was a thoughtful, even disturbing analogy, I did not believe it quite held together. He would not, I said, could not, identify with the Vietnamese as closely as a German Jew would identify with Israel. He cheerfully conceded this was true and then went on to explain what he had told a delegation of well-known Negro athletes who had come to discuss his views with him and perhaps prevail upon him to accept military service. When they met, Muhammad Ali said that he would talk first and then he would answer questions. He talked for an hour. This is some of what he said: "I love my people. The little Negroes, they catching hell. They hungry. They raggedy. They getting beat up, shot, killed, just for asking for justice. They can't eat no good food. They can't get a job. They got no future. They was nothing but slaves and they the most hated people. They fought in all the wars, but they live in the worst houses, eat the worst food and pay the highest rent, the highest light bill, the highest gas bill. Now I'm the one's catching hell, too. I could make millions if I led my people the wrong way, to something I know is wrong. So now I have to make a decision. Step into a billion dollars or step into poverty. Step into a billion dollars and denounce my people or step into poverty and teach them the truth. Damn the money. Damn the heavyweight championship. Damn the white people. Damn everything. I will die before I sell out my people for the white man's money."
Muhammad Ali turned toward me, taking his eyes off the road. They were clear and luminous. His face was tight-lipped, serious. "They cried," he said. "They put their head down and they said, 'You're right, we're with you.' And one of them said, 'One day we might have to do the same thing. Would we be man enough to stand up for what we believe?’"
The important thing for Muhammad Ali, despite the hate he manages to engender, is to be loved. On the night before a fight he will walk through the Negro district, stopping to chat with people on stoops, sit on a garbage can and hold court for a large group of open-mouthed little boys and giggling girls. "My people love me," he says, "because they know I gave up all I had for them." But it's equally true that Muhammad Ali needs their love. That was apparent when we arrived at the theatre where he was to speak. It was on the West Side, in another and even poorer Negro section. "This is the worst," Muhammad Ali said, looking around. "You can see just by looking at the people's faces that they ain't eating good." It was not yet six o'clock, almost two hours before he was due. He found the doors to the theatre locked, so he went across the street into a sporting-goods shop and bought some sweat suits. ("You got five dollars?" he said to me. I had five dollars.)
"Nobody will believe me when I say you were here," the small, bustling woman in the shop kept saying.
"Why don't you take a picture?" Muhammad Ali said.
She told him that she didn't have a camera.
The sweat suits stowed in the trunk of the palomino Eldorado, Muhammad Ali stood in the middle of the sidewalk and started shouting. "I'm looking for a fight," he said. "Who's the baddest man around here?" It was cold and dreary, just turning dark, and the few people in the street were hurrying. Some recognised him and started smiling. Soon there was a crowd, women searching purses for scraps of paper for him to sign.
"Good luck, champ."
"I'm not the champ no more.”
"I'm not the champ no more."
"Don't you worry what they say. You still the champ."
When the crowd deserted him, he went into a busy drugstore, announced he was looking for a fight, and the performance began again. Outside in the street, it was repeated.
"It sho is!"
"Look at him. Not a mark on him."
At the fringes of the little crowd he caught my eye and said: "If this was summertime they'd have to call the po-lice."
They didn't have to call the police. The crowd started drifting away in the cold and Muhammad Ali, who wore no coat, danced to keep his blood moving and then made a run for the theatre. By now there was somebody to let him in.
This was not a Muslim meeting. It was a musicale, run by a Muslim entrepreneur. The music consisted of local rock groups, and Muhammad Ali was asked to show up, presumably to hypo the gate. The ploy did not work.
The few people who did show up drifted in slowly. Muhammad Ali sat on a table near the door and greeted the ticket holders as they arrived. When little boys flattened their noses against the glass doors to get a glimpse of him, he signalled the doorman to let them in. An older lad got a USD5 bill from him for two tickets. (What's he doing with USD5, I wondered.)
Soon he was surrounded by little boys, and he staged one impromptu boxing match after the other. He was begged to do the Ali Shuffle. He did the Ali Shuffle, a quick dance for the ring, designed more for showmanship than strategy. "I'm the baddest man in town and I want to whup somebody." The boys came up to punch him in the shoulder.
He mentions Elijah Muhammad and the kids want to know who he is and he explains that he is the leader. He goes into a proselyting speech, but keeps it short because he loses the attention of the kids very quickly. "Cleanliness, no smoking, no drinking, no stealing, and love for one another," is the credo of the Muslims, he tells them. For the benefit of the children he has edited out the rest of the dogma: "No prostitution, no fornicating, no homosexuality, no adultery."
One of the kids asks when he is going to jail. He says he doesn't know. That it is up to Allah. Allah, he explains, is God.
"What you wanna go to jail for?"
"They're railroading me, hoping you won't follow in my path."
"What's your path?"
"Religion. The Muslim religion."
He decides to be less serious. "I'd rather be in jail fed, than in Vietnam dead."
The kids laugh. "You gonna fight Patterson again?"
"He'd rather go through hell in a gasoline sport coat."
"What about Liston?"
"He'd rather shave a wild animal with a dull razor."
He moved to the orchestra of the theatre and there were a dozen or more kids around him.
"They're schoolboys," he said to me. "And I fit right in with them." He seemed delighted by this.
After a while he started making loud clucking noises with his tongue and was joined by the other kids. "What time is it?" he said. "I'm getting sleepy." It was seven-forty-five.
It was an hour more before the entrepreneur gave up waiting for more people to come in and started the show. During that time, Muhammad Ali continued to kid with the little boys. One of them said, "You know what that nigger said to me…." Muhammad Ali interrupted, much shock in his voice. "Don't call anybody nigger. Not with a white man sitting here." The boy said, "You know what that dude said to me…."
Muhammad Ali leaned toward me. "See how they trained? I tell them not to do something because there's a white man here and they obey me right away."
There were perhaps a hundred people in the audience when Muhammad Ali got up to do his bit. "You all must not have been told I was coming," he said. "Why don't you all open your mouths so I can see you."
They did, in laughter.
"Who's the baddest cat out there? I want the baddest dude out there to come up here and fight me."
A thin young man sitting near the front stood up.
Muhammad Ali looked down at him. "Boy, if you dreamed of coming up here you'd apologise." The thin young man sat down.
Muhammad Ali did not preach the Muslim faith. He chatted briefly and said, "Anything supporting black folks, I'm there." Applause. "I was offered ten million dollars, but I couldn't be an Uncle Tom Negro." Loud applause.
"Who's the baddest cat out there? I want the baddest dude out there to come up here and fight me."
Later, on the way back to the South Side, he recited Muslim prayers for me. "None deserves to be worshiped besides Allah…. He is one and has no associates. His is the kingdom and for him is praise and he has power over all things.... I bear witness that none deserves to be worshiped besides Allah and I bear witness that the honourable Elijah Muhammad is his last servant and greatest apostle. Amen."
He said he and his wife arose every morning at sunup, washed, wrapped their bodies in shawls, kneeled on their prayer rug and recited this prayer.
I said: "Every morning?"
He said: "Got to, or I'll feel bad all day."
There were two more things I wanted to discuss with him. I asked him what he wanted out of his life. He said that was easy. "All I want is to be a well-versed minister in the Islamic faith. I'd rather be that than have ten million in cash or be the greatest fighter in history. I'd rather live in one room with just enough food to eat and drive a Volkswagen and be a minister."
The other thing had to do with something I remembered from a cold, grey morning while he was training to fight Zora Folley in New York. We had taken a taxi to the Central Park reservoir where he did his roadwork. Then, coming back to the hotel, his steamy bulk filling the front of the cab, he turned around suddenly. I was sitting in the back with James Ellis, his sparring partner, and Drew Brown, who had the unofficial title of assistant trainer. "They let you read the papers in jail?" he asked. It was then I knew for certain, although he had not yet announced it, that he would not accept induction, that he had made up his mind. And now I wanted to ask him how he felt, what he thought, now that he was faced with the reality of prison again, as he must have been, suddenly, on that cold morning.
"Who wants to go to jail?" he said. "I'm used to running around free like a little bird. In jail you got no wife, no freedom. You can't eat what you want. I know I'll get sick. Because I'm used to eating a certain way every day for six years. And now, being in prison every day, looking out of the cell, not seeing nobody. After getting so used to traveling around the country, different countries, eating good every day and sleeping good." A slight pause. "And going off by yourself if you want. A man's got to be serious in his beliefs to do that."
We arrived at the motel where I was staying and I asked him if he would like to stop at the restaurant for something to eat. "No," he said. "I think I'll go home and talk to my little wife."
I got out of the palomino Eldorado and watched him drive away. The red taillights blinked as he applied the brakes at the next corner. I blinked back at them and felt overwhelmingly sad.
From: Esquire US April 1968 issue.