Ali vs Liston
In February, 1964, eleven days before a brash young boxer from Louisville KY fought to – and succeeded in becoming – the heavyweight champion of the world, another young man, born 364 days after Cassius Clay, was working an overnight shift at an answering service in New York City. When calls died down, he picked up a newspaper. In one, he saw a short ‘gossip’ item mentioning that Cassius Clay was visiting New York and was staying at the Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue.
The latter young man, an aspiring journalist, had ‘almost’ met Clay some time earlier when he visited the Louisville Times/Courier Journal for a promotional phone interview with Archie Moore – once Clay’s trainer, soon to be his in-the-ring competitor.
On a whim, at around 8 a.m. – near the end of his shift – he called the Americana, and asked to be put through to Clay’s room. He was.
He told Clay that we’d been pretty much in the same place back at the newspaper’s office when he was doing than promotional bit. Clay, who’s long been known – particularly during the decades he was known as Muhammad Ali – as one who’s always up for talking to people – invited the young man to join him for breakfast in his hotel suite.
I did so – and spent nearly 2.5 of the most incredible hours of my life sitting side by side with a man who would, very shortly, become amazingly famous, very wealthy and, more important, be recognized as one of the most important sportsmen of his – or any – generation.
Pre-fight security was nothing then like it would be for all his later battles. Still, my ability to even reach him by phone, never mind getting a private invitation to his suite less than two weeks before he would start to become the most famous person in the world, was pretty amazing. And it is more than likely that I was the very last person beyond his own retinue to spend private time with him before that game-changing fight.
When I met him, Cassius Clay was among the nicest, gentlest-speaking, open-hearted people I’d ever met. He’d grown up in a ‘Jim Crow’ environment where, as one person put it on a website about him, there were “two Louisvilles – the White and the Black one.” And seldom if ever did the two cross the paths.
We were, for most of the time we were together, alone – one on one. His brother Rudy popped in once, and one of his friends did, too. But other than that, it was just me, with a kid hardly like me, because he about to become heavyweight champion of the world, chatting over pastry and coffee like old friends.
Some of the things he said to me were surprising, almost alien, in that day and age. I had little
understanding of the ‘issues’ that been and continue to be affecting African Americans. But he was not only aware of those issues – as any Black man then would have been – he also was an advocate for change. More so than any other sports figure of the time was.
He talked to me about ‘the blacker the berry the sweeter the fruit,’ and similar sentiments he’d espouse, a few months later, when he cast off his ‘slave name’ and became, as he remained until his death earlier this month, the Muslim known as Muhammad Ali.
I remember him as, above all, a cool guy to hang out with.
His bluster, his public persona, his silly but truth-telling poems were all part of the ‘game’ he had to play to differentiate himself from all other fighters – particularly black ones, who were expected to walk softly and not carry any kind of stick.
We all know what happened to Clay, nee Ali, who is the only man to win a boxing world champion three times, whose defiance of the draft cost him one of those titles and four years when he should have entertaining boxing fans as he did before and for many years thereafter.
But what happened to his young visitor after that February morning? Eventually, not only did he become a journalist, serving as editor of more than two publications in the U.S. and as many others in the U.K., he also took his show on the road, reporting from more than thirteen countries over the course of the next 45 years.
And now, though semi-retired, he writes regularly for two weekly newspapers in Central Virginia and produces the blogs YouSayWhat.info and FoodTradeTrends.com.
Main Entrance, Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville KY
Muhammad Ali was buried Friday, June 10, in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where a few of my ancestors have been ‘resting’ more than 100 years. (Col. Harlan Sanders, of KFC fame, also is interred there.)