The making of Muhammad Ali

When Ali was still Clay, the old white sportswriters didn’t know what to think [Sally Jenkins – The Washington Post]

Sportswriters were uncomfortable with reports that young Cassius Clay was flirting with Islam, and even more uncomfortable with his boxing style, which they interpreted as afraid.

The sportswriters were convinced that champ Sonny Liston, who had Mafia ties, would make quick work of the black upstart.

… at the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, they said Clay looked scared. He had to be held back by his camp as he yelled at the baleful Liston, “Chump! Chump!” When the fight doctor checked his blood pressure and heart rate and reported it had elevated to 120, the writers took it as evidence that he was terrified. There were rumors that he fled to the airport.

But then they were in the ring and the bell rang — and the revolution was on and the militant-spiritualist-rhyming-sage-charismatic was born, with his hands flying and tassled feet dancing. [Sportswriter Jimmy] Cannon was converted by the end of the first round after watching Clay reduce Liston to “an aged chophouse waiter with bad feet carrying a heavy tray.” By round three, there were cuts on Liston’s face. By round seven, the former champion sat on his stool refusing to come out with a shoulder injury to try to find the elusive Clay, and the new champion was screaming at the writers, “Eat your words!” Red Smith began to write, with “a mouth still dry from excitement,” admitting in print that “the words don’t taste good.” [Robert] Lipsyte, too, began typing. Incredibly, he wrote, Clay hadn’t been bragging, or huckstering; he had been “telling the truth all along.”

The next morning at his press conference, Clay said, “I’m through talking. All I have to be is a nice, clean gentleman.” And then he publicly acknowledged that he attended Black Muslim meetings.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he announced. “I’m free to be who I want.”

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