Of all the ledes in all the stories inspired by the Ali-Liston “Phantom Punch” fight, I liked best the one by my late friend Barbara Long wrote for The Village Voice fifty years ago this week, “I loved the minute of it!”
Her timing, though, was a little off. It was at precisely 1:44 that the Phantom Punch either did or didn’t land and Sonny Liston went down. At 1:56 he got up, at which point Ali began bombarding him with punches, and it was 2:12 when the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, stepped in to inform the participants that the fight was actually over 16 or 17 seconds earlier.
If you think that’s confusing, then you know how everyone in the crowd of 4,000 (the smallest ever to witness a heavyweight title fight) felt. Watch the fight and judge for yourself.
Three days after the fight, the cover of Life magazine hit the stands with Neil Leifer’s famous photograph on the cover. A defiant Ali stands over a down and dazed Liston. It’s probably the most instantly recognizable photo in boxing history and may well be the most famous single shot in all of sports.
For many, Ali’s pose seemed staged, adding fuel to the rampant rumors that the fight was fixed. Liston had been one of the most fearsome champions the heavyweight division had ever seen; he had never been knocked down and most members of the old boxing establishment simply refused to believe that Ali could have knocked him out so easily.
Leifer’s picture, therefore, came to symbolize the fight itself. Or as Kelefa Sanneh wrote in last week’s (May 25) New Yorker: “The famous 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali shouting at the limp body of Sonny Liston records not a great triumph but a great fiasco: the fight, hurriedly staged in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, ended with a first round knockout that many still believe was fraudulent – the result of a ‘phantom punch’ and evidence, purportedly, that Liston had been paid to lose.”
Indeed, there were many rumors that Sonny was paid to take a dive, though everyone seemed to have a different theory as to who paid him and why. (You can hear several of the conspiracy theories on YouTube.) But no one has ever been able to explain why it would be worth a lot of money for anyone to pay Liston to lose, or, if he was intimidated by some of the angry black Muslims that surrounded Ali, why he couldn’t have used his well-known mob connections for protections.
In their first fight, Liston was a huge favorite, and anyone who bet on Cassius Clay cleaned up. But in the second fight, the odds were a slim 6-to-5 favor Liston, so there was no big money to be made betting. The real money was in having the heavyweight title or in owning the man who held it. How much money could Liston possibly been paid to throw away the most valuable prize in sports? And who would have paid him since what the mob surely wanted was for Liston to win back the title?
At the risk of destroying boxing’s most cherished conspiracy theories, it’s time to put to rest the notion that either fight represented anything but total domination by Muhammad Ali. Ali went on to become the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Sonny Liston, who was likely much older than the 31 years he claimed – some said as old as 38 — suddenly got much older when facing the fastest heavyweight who ever lived. As the late, great Ring and Boxing Illustrated editor Burt Randolph Sugar put it, “At his best, Sonny couldn’t have hit Clay with a handful of stones.”
What happened in their second fight is that Liston walked right into a punch – two punches really. And the recent spate of Phantom Punch anniversary stories have left out one key fact: not everyone who saw the fight agreed that there was no punch.
In a story in Slate on May 22, Dave Mondy wrote that Leifer’s photo “was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a ‘phantom punch’ as it would later be known – a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed.”
A piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2000 on the 35th anniversary of the fight has been quoted by writers on several sites, but, interestingly, no one has the people I talked who did see the Punch. For instance, the Village Voice’s Barbara Long, who was seated behind Ali’s corner and told me that Liston, when hit, had reacted “Like a man on a bicycle hitting a low-lying branch.”
In a column printed two days after the fight, The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, probably the most respected sportswriter in the country at the time, wrote, “I’ll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened. This time I was looking for it and I saw it: an old man groping his way into a speedy insolent reckless kid … Cassius could have beaten him in high heels.”
Former heavyweight champ and future New York State Athletic Commissioner Floyd Patterson was the man Liston had beat to win the title. Like Long and Murray, he was seated to Ali’s back when the punch was thrown. In an interview for a book several years later, he told me, “Liston got hit hard … Liston was leaning toward him and about to throw a left jab. Suddenly Clay threw a short right hand that I thought hit Liston on the chin. Liston was rocked. And when he started to get up, he was bewildered. I could see it in his eyes.”
The best analysis of the knockout was offered by Tex Maule in the June 7, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated: “Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning, right-hand punch to the side of the head. And he won without benefit of a fix.
“Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing’s still-too intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach …
“The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay” – interesting that both Murray and Maule, two of the leading sportswriters of their day, were still referring to Ali by the name he had discarded – “from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw.”
Let’s do a forensic examination of the evidence and see if, fifty years after the fact, we can reach a conclusion.
If you watched the fight at regular speed, try looking at the knockout in slow motion.
In slow-mo, it’s easy to see the impact of the punch: Liston’s head shakes like a bobble head doll’s. So much for the “wispy, theoretical mini-hook.”
In their fight issue, SI ran a four picture sequence of the punch, noting that “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.” You can even see the shadow of Liston’s left shoe on the canvas.
Simply put, Liston walked – lunged, actually – right into it, doubling the force of the blow.
And yet, that might not have been the punch responsible for Liston’s destruction. Watch the fight one more time. At a little more than a minute, 1:07 after the bell by my count, Ali connects a short chopping right directly to Sonny’s jaw. The punch is almost identical to the “Phantom Punch,” which comes about thirty seconds later. If that first punch doesn’t look so hard, look at it from another angle, the one on the cover of the June 7 SI:
From this angle, Liston looks as if he’s just taken a two-by-four to the face. Such blows landed early in a bout, before a boxer gets untracked, can scramble his senses, leaving him dazed though still standing. The first right was a set-up; you can see it because of the angle it’s thrown. The second was the coup de gras which couldn’t be seen clearly because Liston’s body obstructed the only camera angle.
Today, there would be three or four different angles and no mystery about the punch. Ali’s right was on target, but even The Greatest couldn’t KO a myth. No doubt we’ll be going all this again in another fifty years.
Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.
Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster,as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.
Dig in, this is a treat.
The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.
He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”
A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.
“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.
Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.
You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.
Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.
Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.
“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.
There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.
But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”
“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”
Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.
Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.
“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn Eagle. Just the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”
We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.
Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.
Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.
So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”
“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”
For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spinmagazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spinmagazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!
“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”
Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.
Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.
Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.
“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”
Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.
Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.
“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.
‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”
The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.
Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.
Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”
Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eagle, where they set the box score on the front page by hand.
It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).
The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.
Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.
“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘
Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”
You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.
Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.
It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”
Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”
But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”
So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.
“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”
Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.
Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”
About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”
Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.
Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the Mirror. She was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.
The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spinmagazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.
“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”
In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”
He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.
The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.
A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.
After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘
This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.
A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Timeshas a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.
As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.
Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.
The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”
So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”
We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”
Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.
Great Men Die Twice
By Mark Kram
There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”
Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”
The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?
Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.
Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.
“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him “the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”
The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.
“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”
Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.
Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.
Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”
Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.
Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?
At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.
For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.
Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.
The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?
“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.
“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.
“To politicians, this past summer.”
“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”
“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”
“Were you used?”
“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”
“Were you used?”
“To influence your lawsuit.”
“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.
“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”
He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”
“You like politics now?”
“Politics put me to sleep.”
“You were at the Republican National Convention.”
“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”
“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”
His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”
But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”
If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.
His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?
That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.
Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”
Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.
Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”
It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.
Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.
He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”
Is he kidding?
“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”
Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”
The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.
Everybody’s searching for a hero,
People need someone
To look up to,
I never found anyone who
Fulfilled that need;
A lonely place to be,
So learned to depend on me.
I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I lived as I believe,
And no matter what
They take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity;
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all.
“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”
The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?
This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here. It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.
Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to Playboy, Esquire, and GQ. Ghosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.
Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire.Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.
The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.
He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.
At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:
“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”
“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”
“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”
“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”
“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.
He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”
One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.
In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.
“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”
Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.
“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’
“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.
“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .
“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”
Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.
Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.
His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.
“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.
“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and I smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.
“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.
Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.
The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.
“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”
“How old are they?” he was asked.
“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”
Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.
“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”
Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.
D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.
“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”
Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.
But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.
Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.
Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .
“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .
“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’
“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’
“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.
“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .
“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .
“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”
“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”
“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”
Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.
Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.
“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”
Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.
Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.
He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.
Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.
But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”
Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.
“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.
“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”
When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”
“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”
“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”
Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”
“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, I have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . . .”
She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.
“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.
“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”
The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.
“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”
Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.
“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”
All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.
“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.
“Nope,” the boy said, casually.
“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.
“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”
Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.
“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.
“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”
A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.
“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”
“Nope,” the boy said.
“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.
“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:
“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”
The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”
Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.
It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.
The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.
“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”
It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.
While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.
He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”
Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.
“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”
“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”
“Quinn?” Patterson asked.
“Quinn doesn’t like me.”
“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
“In his forties.”
“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.
“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”
“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.
“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”
“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”
“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”
“Could Liston be a coward?”
“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”
“Have you no hate left?”
“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”
“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”
Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”
“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”
“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”
“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’
“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.
“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”
Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.
He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!
The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.
And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.
As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”
She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”
Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, come up here!”
“No,” he cried.
Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”
He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”
“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.
“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”
“To get it out of my mouth.”
He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.
Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.
And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.
Adapted from the original, which was published in 1989 in the Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine. A postscript from Glenn Stout, editor of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Sports Writing series, follows. The story is the basis for a new opera, Approaching Ali, which debuts this weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
I’d been waiting for years. When it finally happened, it wasn’t what I’d expected. But he’s been fooling many of us for most of our lives.
For six months, several of his friends had been trying to connect me with him at his farm in Michigan. When I finally got to see him, it wasn’t in Michigan and I didn’t have an appointment. I simply drove past his mother’s house in Louisville.
It was mid-afternoon on March 31, three days before Resurrection Day. A block-long white Winnebago with Virginia plates was parked out front.* Though he hadn’t often been in town lately, I knew it was his vehicle.
I was sure it was him because I know his patterns and his style. Since 1962, when he has traveled unhurried in this country, he has preferred buses or recreational vehicles. And he owns a second farm in Virginia. The connections were obvious. Some people study faults in the earth’s crust or the habits of storms or of galaxies, hoping to make sense of the world and of their own lives. Others meditate on the life and work of one social movement or one man. Since I was 11 years old, I have been a Muhammad Ali scholar.
I parked my car behind his Winnebago and grabbed a few old magazines and a special stack of papers I’d been storing under the front seat, waiting for the meeting with Ali I’d been certain would come. Like everyone else, I wondered in what shape I’d find The Champ. I’d heard all about his Parkinson’s syndrome and had watched him stumble through the ropes when introduced at recent big fights. But when I thought of Ali, I remembered him as I’d seen him years before, when he was luminous.
I was in my early 20s, hoping to become a world champion kickboxer. And I was fortunate enough to get to spar with him. I later wrote a couple of stories about the experience and had copies of those with me today, hoping he’d sign them.
Yes, in those days he had shone. There was an aura of light and confidence around him. He had told the world of his importance: “I am the center of the universe,” he had said, and we almost believed him. But recent reports had Ali sounding like a turtle spilled onto his back, limbs thrashing air.*
It was his brother Rahaman who opened the door. He saw the stack of papers and magazines under my arm, smiled an understanding smile, and said, “He’s out in the Winnebago. Just knock on the door. He’ll be happy to sign those for you.”
Rahaman looked pretty much the way I’d remembered him: tall as his brother, mahogany skin, and a mustache that made him look a little like a cross between footballer Jim Brown and a black, aging Errol Flynn. There was no indication in his voice or on his face that I would find his brother less than healthy.
I crossed the yard, climbed the couple of steps on the side of the Winnebago, and prepared to knock. Ali opened the door before I got the chance. I’d forgotten how huge he is. His presence filled the doorway. He had to lean under the frame to see me.
I felt no nervousness. Ali’s face, in many ways, is as familiar to me as my father’s. His skin remained unmarked, his countenance had nearly perfect symmetry. Yet something was different: Ali was no longer the world’s prettiest man. This was only partly related to his illness; it was also because he was heavier than he needed to be. He remained handsome, but in the way of a youngish granddad who tells stories about how he could have been a movie star, if he’d wanted. His pulchritude used to challenge us; now he looked a bit more like us, and less like an avatar sent by Allah.*
“Come on in,” he said and waved me past. His voice had a gurgle to it, as if he needed to clear his throat. He offered a massive hand. He did not so much shake hands as he placed his in mine. His touch was as gentle as a girl’s. His palm was cool and uncalloused, his fingers were the long, tapered digits of a hypnotist, his fingernails look professionally manicured. His knuckles were large and slightly swollen, as if he’d recently been punching the heavy bag.
He was dressed in white, all white: new leather tennis shoes, over-the-calf cotton socks, custom-tailored linen slacks, thick short-sleeved safari-style shirt crisp with starch. I told him I thought white was a better color for him than the black he often wore those days.
He motioned for me to sit, but didn’t speak. His mouth was tense at the corners; it looked like a kid’s who has been forced by a parent or teacher to keep it closed. He slowly lowered himself into a chair beside the window. I took a seat across from him and laid my magazines on the table between us. He immediately picked them up, produced a pen, and began signing. He asked, “What’s your name?” and I told him.
He continued to write without looking up. His eyes were not glazed as I’d read, but they looked tired. A wet cough rattled in his throat. His left hand trembled almost continuously. In the silence around us, I felt a need to tell him some of the things I’d been wanting to say for years.
“Champ, you changed my life,” I said.* It’s true. “When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn’t even talk to people. No kind of life at all.”
He raised his eyes from an old healthy image of himself on a magazine cover. “You made me believe I could do anything,” I said.
He was watching me while I talked, not judging, just watching. I picked up a magazine from the stack in front of him. “This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated when I was in college,” I said. “It’s about the ways you’ve influenced my life.”
“What’s your name?” he asked again, this time looking right at me. I told him. He nodded. “I’ll finish signing these in a while,” he said. He put his pen on the table. “Read me your story.”
“You have a good face,” he said when I was through. “I like your face.”
He’d listened seriously as I’d read, laughing at funny lines and when I’d tried to imitate his voice. He had not looked bored. It was a lot more than I could have expected.
“You ever seen any magic?” he asked. “You like magic?”
“Not in years,” I said.
He stood and walked to the back of his RV, moving mechanically. It was my great-grandfather’s walk. He motioned for me to follow. There was a sad yet lovely, noble and intimate quality to his movements.
He did about 10 tricks. The one that interested me the most required no props. It was a very simple deception. “Watch my feet,” he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he’d just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice said, “I’m a baadd niggah,” and gave me the old easy Ali smile.
I laughed and asked him to do it again; it was a good one. I thought I might like to try it myself, just as 15 years earlier I had stood in front of the mirror in my dad’s hallway for hours, pushing my worm of a left arm out at the reflection, wishing mightily that I could replicate Ali’s cobra jab. And I had found an old cotton laundry bag, filled it with socks and rags and hung it from a ceiling beam in the basement. I pulled on a pair of my dad’s old brown cotton work gloves and pushed my left hand into that 20-pound marshmallow 200, 300, 500 times a day: concentrating on speed: dazzling, crackling speed, in pursuit of godly speed, trying to whip out punches so fast they’d be invisible to opponents. I got to where I could shoot six to eight crisp shots a second—”Shoe shinin,” Ali called it—and I strove to make my fists move more quickly than thought (like Ali’s), as fast as ionized Minute Rice; and then I’d try to spring up on my toes, as I had watched Ali do: I would try to fly like Ali, bounding away from the bag and to my left.
After the levitation trick, Ali grabbed an empty plastic milk jug from beside a sink. He asked me to examine it. “What if I make this jug rise up from the sink this high and sit there? Will you believe?”
“I’m not much of a believer these days, Champ,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, sit this high off the ground, then turn in a circle?”
“I’m a hard man to convince,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, float over here to the other side of the room, then go back to the sink, and sit itself back down. Then will you become … one of my believers?”
I laughed and said, “Then I’ll believe.”
“Watch,” he said, pointing at the plastic container and taking four steps back. I was trying to see both the milk jug and Ali. He waved his hands a couple of times in front of his body, said, “Arise, ghost, arise,” in a foggy-sounding voice. The plastic container did not move from the counter.
“April Fools’,” said Ali. We both chuckled and he walked over and slipped his arm around my shoulders.
He autographed the stories and wrote a note on a page of my book-length manuscript I asked him to take a look at. “To Davis Miller, The Greatest Fan of All Times,” he wrote, “From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing.”
I felt my stories were finally complete, now that he’d confirmed their existence. He handed me the magazines and asked me into his mother’s house. We left the Winnebago. I unlocked my car and leaned across the front seat, carefully placing the magazines and manuscript on the passenger’s side, not wanting to take a chance of damaging them or leaving them behind. Abruptly, there was a chirping, insect-sounding noise in my ear. I jumped back, swatted the air, turned around. It had been Ali’s hand. He was standing right behind me, still the practical joker.
“How’d you do that?” I wanted to know. It was a question I’d find myself asking several times that day.
He didn’t answer. He raised both fists to shoulder height and motioned me out into the yard. We walked about five paces, I put up my hands, and he tossed a slow jab at me. I blocked and countered with my own. Many fighters and ex-fighters throw punches at each other or at the air or at whatever happens to be around. It’s the way we play. Ali must still toss a hundred lefts a day. He and I had both thrown our shots a full half-foot away from the other, but my adrenal gland was pumping at high gear from being around Ali, and my jab had come out fast—it had made the air sing. He slid back a half-step and took a serious look at me. I figured I was going to get it now. A couple of kids were riding past on bicycles; they recognized Ali and stopped.
“He doesn’t understand I’m the greatest boxer of all times,” he yelled to the kids. He pulled his watch from his arm, stuck it in his pants pocket. I slipped mine off, too. He’d get down to business now. He got up on his skates, danced to his left a little, loosening his legs. A couple of minutes before, climbing down the steps of his RV, he’d moved so awkwardly he’d almost lost his balance. I’d wanted to give him a hand, but knew not to. I’d remembered seeing old Joe Louis being “escorted” in that fashion by lesser mortals, and I couldn’t do that to Muhammad Ali. But now that Ali was on his toes and boxing, he was moving fairly fluidly.
He flung another jab in my direction, a second, a third. He wasn’t one-fourth as fast as he had been in 1975, when I’d sparred with him, but his eyes were alert, shining like black electric marbles, and he saw everything and was real relaxed. That’s one reason old fighters keep making comebacks: We are more alive when boxing than at almost any other time. The grass around us was green and was getting high; it would soon need its first cutting. A blue-jay squawked from an oak to the left. Six robins roamed the yard. New leaves looked wet with the sun. I instinctively blocked and/or slid to the side of all three of Ali’s punches, then immediately felt guilty about it, like being 14 years old and knowing for the first time that you can beat your dad at ping-pong. I wished I could’ve stopped myself from slipping Ali’s jabs, but I couldn’t. Reflexive training runs faster and deeper than thought. I zipped a jab to his nose, one to his body, vaulted a straight right to his chin, and was dead certain all three would have scored—and scored clean. A couple of cars stopped in front of the house. His mom’s was on a corner lot. Three more were parked on the side.
“Check out the left,” a young-sounding voice said from somewhere. The owner of the voice was talking about my jab, not Ali’s.
“He’s in with the triple greatest of all times,” Ali was shouting. “Gowna let him tire himself out. He’ll get tired soon.”
I didn’t, but pretended to, anyway. “You’re right, Champ,” I told him, dropping my hands. “I’m 35. Can’t go like I used to.”
I held my right hand to my chest, acting out of breath. I looked at Ali; his hand was in the exact same position. We were both smiling, but he was sizing me up.
“He got scared,” Ali shouted, conclusively.
Onlookers laughed from their bicycles and car windows. Someone blew his horn and one yelled, “Hey, Champ.”
“Come on in the house,” Ali said softly in my ear.
We walked toward the door, Ali in the lead, moving woodenly through new grass, while all around us people rolled up car windows and started their engines.
“Gowna move back to Loovul, just part-time.”
The deep Southern melody rolled sleepily in Ali’s voice. His words came scarcely louder than whisper and were followed by a short fit of coughing.
Back to Loovul. Back to hazy orange sunsets and ancestors’ unmarked graves; back to old, slow-walking family (real and acquired), empty sidewalks, nearly equatorial humidity, peach cobblers made by heavy, round-breasted aunts wearing flowered dresses; back to short, thin uncles with their straw hats, white open-collar shirts, black shiny pants, and spit-shined black Florsheims—back to a life that hadn’t been Ali’s since he was 18 years old.
We were standing in the “family room,” a space so dark I could not imagine the drapes ever having been drawn, a room furnished with dented, gold-painted furniture, filled with smells of cooking meat, and infused with a light not dissimilar to that of a fireplace fire.
Ali had introduced me to his mother, Mrs. Odessa Clay, and to Rahaman, then suddenly he was gone.
Ali’s family easily accepted me. They were not surprised to have a visitor and handled me with ritualistic charm and grace. Rahaman told me to make myself at home, offered a root beer, went to get it.
I took a seat on the sofa beside Ali’s mother. Mrs. Clay was in her early 70s, yet her face had few wrinkles. Short, her hair nearly as orange as those Louisville sunsets, she was freckled, fragile-looking, and pretty. Ali’s face is shaped much like his mother’s. While he was fighting she was quite heavy, but she had lost what looked to be about 75 pounds over the past 10 years.
Mrs. Clay was watching Oprah Winfrey on an old wooden floor-model TV. I was wondering where Ali had gone. Rahaman brought the drink, a paper napkin, and a coaster. Mrs. Clay patted me on the hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Ali hasn’t left you. I’m sure he’s just gone upstairs to say his prayers.”
I hadn’t realized that my anxiety was showing. But Ali’s mother had watched him bring home puppies many times during his 46 years. “He’s always been a restless man, like his daddy,” she said. “Can’t ever sit still.”
Mrs. Clay spoke carefully, with a mother’s sweet sadness about her. The dignified clip to her voice must once have been affected, but after cometing all over the globe with Ali, it now sounded authentically British and old-money Virginian in its inflections.
“Have you met Lonnie, Ali’s new wife?” she asked. “He’s known her since she was a baby. I’m so happy for him. She’s my best friend’s daughter. We used to all travel to his fights together. She’s a smart girl, has a master’s degree in business. She’s so good to him, doesn’t use him. He told me, ‘Mom, Lonnie’s better to me than all the other three put together.’ She treats him so good. He needs somebody to take care of him.”
Just then, Ali came back to the room, carrying himself high and with stately dignity, though his footing was unsteady. He fell deep into a chair on the other side of the room.
“You tired, baby?” Mrs. Clay asked.
“Tired, I’m always tired,” he said, rubbing his face a couple of times and closing his eyes.
He must have felt me watching or was simply conscious of someone other than family being in the room. His eyes weren’t closed 10 seconds before he shook himself awake, balled his hands into fists, and started making typical Ali faces and noises at me—sticking his teeth out over his lower lip, looking fake-mean, growling, other playful cartoon kid stuff. After a few seconds he asked, “Y-y-you okay?” He was so difficult to understand that I didn’t so much hear him as I conjectured what he must have been saying. “Y-y-you need anything? They takin care of you?” I assured him that I was fine.
He made a loud clucking noise by pressing his tongue across the roof of his mouth and popping it forward. Rahaman came quickly from the kitchen. Ali motioned him close and whispered in his ear. Rahaman went back to the kitchen. Ali turned to me. “Come sit beside me,” he said, patting a bar stool to his right. He waited for me to take my place then said, “You had any dinner? Sit and eat with me.”
“Can I use the phone? I need to call home and let my wife know.”
“You got kids?” he asked. I told him I had two. He asked how old. I told him the ages.
“They know me?” he asked.
“Even the 3-year-old. He throws punches at the TV whenever I play your fights.”
He nodded, satisfied. “Bring ‘em over Sunday,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’ll do my magic for ‘em. Here’s my mother’s number. Be sure to phone first.”
I called Lyn and told her where I was and what I was doing. She didn’t seem surprised. She asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. I knew she was excited for me but we had a lot of history, some of it rough, and she wouldn’t show emotion in her voice simply because I was hanging out with my childhood idol. In September 1977, when Lyn and I were in college, we skipped class, took all of the money out of our bank accounts, drove from North Carolina all the way to New York, and attended the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout at Madison Square Garden.
As we were arriving in Manhattan the morning of the bout, we ran into Ali on the street in front of the Waldorf-Astoria. Traffic stopped in all directions. Thousands of us followed him as he walked to Madison Square Garden for the weigh-in. Although several people near Ali were taller and weighed more than he, he looked bigger than anyone I had seen in my life. There was a silence around him. As if his very skin were listening. There was pushing and shoving near the outside of the circle of people around Ali. Lyn and I stood on a concrete wall above and away from the clamor and looked down on him. There was a softness, a quietude, near the center of the circle; those closest to Ali were gentle and respectful.
That night in the Garden was the first time I’d seen 20,000 people move as one organism. The air was alive with smells of pretzels and hot dogs, beer and marijuana. It was Ali’s last good fight. He was regularly hurt by Shavers and would later say that Shavers had hit him harder than anyone ever. So resounding were the blows with which Shavers tagged Ali that Lyn and I heard them, the sound arriving what seemed a full second after we saw the punches connect, as we sat a quarter of a mile from the ring up in the cheap-seat stratosphere. In the 15th round, we were all standing and not realizing that we had stood. I was trembling and Lyn was holding my hand and thousands of us were chanting, “Ahh-lee, Ahh-lee,” his name our mantra, as his gloves melded into vermilion lines of tracers and the leering jack-o’-lantern opponent finally bowed before him.
We had spent all but $40 of our money on fight tickets. We could barely buy enough gas to make it back to North Carolina. For the rest of the year we had to live off of what little money I was able to make modeling for art classes at the university. Every weekend, to pay our electric bills, we filled a laundry bag (the same one I’d used as a boxing bag) with returnable soda bottles we picked up beside highways. But, all these years later, I think we’d both do it the same way to see Ali in one of his last fights.
Now Rahaman brought two large bowls of chili and two enormous slices of white bread from the kitchen. Ali and I sat at our chairs, took spoons in our hands. He put his face down close to the bowl and the food was gone. Three minutes tops. As I continued to eat, he spoke easily to me. “I remember what it was like to meet Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano for the first time,” he said. “They were my idols. I’d seen their fights and faces so many times I felt I knew them. Want to treat you right, don’t want to disappoint you.
“Do you know how many people in the world would like to have the opportunity you’re getting, how many would like to come into my house and spend the day with me?” he said. “Haven’t fought in seven years and still get over 400 letters a week.”
I asked how people got his address.
He looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” he answered, shaking his head. “Sometimes they come addressed ‘Muhammad Ali, Los Angeles, California, USA.’ Don’t have a house in L.A. no more, but the letters still get to me.
“I want to get me a place, a coffee shop, where I can give away free coffee and doughnuts and people can just sit around and talk, people of all races, and I can go and talk to people. Have some of my old robes and trunks and gloves around, show old fight films, call it ‘Ali’s Place.’”
“I’d call it ‘Ali’s,’” I said, not believing there would or ever could be such a place but enjoying sharing his dream with him. “Just ‘Ali’s,’ that’s enough.”
“‘Ali’s’?” he repeated, and his eyes focused inward, visualizing the dream. “People would know what it was,” I said.
I asked if he had videotapes of his fights. He shook his head no.
“Well, look,” I said, “why don’t I go to a video place and see if I can rent some and we can watch them tonight. Would you like that? You want to ride with me?”
“I’ll drive,” he said.
There was a rubber monster mask in the Winnebago and I wore it on my hand on the way to the video store, pressing it against the window at stoplights. A couple of times people in cars saw the mask, then recognized Ali. Ali wears glasses when he reads and when he drives. When he saw someone looking at him, he carefully removed his glasses, placed them in his lap, made his hands into fists, and put them up beside his head.
Ali was the worst driver I’d ever ridden with—other than my alcoholic grandfather near the end of his life. Ali careened from lane to lane, sometimes riding down the middle of the highway, and he regularly switched lanes without looking or giving turn signals. I balled my fists in my lap and pretended to be relaxed. A group of teenage boys became infuriated when he pulled in front of their old, beat-up Firebird and cut them off. Three of them leaned out the windows, shooting him the finger. Ali shot it back.
At the movie store, we rented an old Godzilla movie Ali wanted to see and a tape of his fights and interviews called Ali: Skill, Brains and Guts that was written and directed by Jimmy Jacobs, the international handball champion and fight historian. Jacobs had recently died of a degenerative illness. Ali hadn’t known of Jacobs’s death until I told him.
“He was a good man,” Ali said. His voice had that same quality that an older person’s takes on who daily reads obituaries. “Did you know Bundini died?” he asked, speaking in the same tone he’d use with a friend of many years. I felt honored by his intimacy and told him that I’ve heard.
In the Winnebago on the way back to his mom’s, he said, “You’re sincere. After 30 years, I can tell. I feel it rumblin’ up from inside people.”
“I know a lot of people have tried to use you,” I said.
“They have used me. But it don’t matter. I don’t let it change me.”
I stopped by my car again on the way into Mrs. Clay’s house. There was one more picture I hoped Ali would sign, but earlier I’d felt I might be imposing on him. It was a classic head-shot in a beautiful out-of-print biography by Wilfrid Sheed that featured hundreds of wonderfully reproduced color plates.* I grabbed the book from the car and followed Ali into the house.
When we were seated, I handed him the book and he signed the picture on the title page. “To Davis Miller, From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing,” he wrote, “3-31-88.”
I was about to ask if he’d mind autographing the photo I especially wanted, but he turned to Page 2, signed that picture, then the next page and the next. He continued to sign for probably 45 minutes, writing comments about opponents (“Get up Chump,” he wrote beside a classic photo of the fallen Sonny Liston), parents, Elijah Muhammad (“The man who named me”), Howard Cosell, spouses (“She gave me Hell,” he scrawled across his first wife’s picture), then passed the book to his mother and brother to autograph a family portrait. He even signed “Cassius Clay” on several photos from the early ’60s. He flipped twice through the book, autographing nearly every photo, pointing out annotations as he wrote.*
“Never done this before,” he said. “Usually sign one or two pictures.”
As he turned from page to page, he studied, then chose not to autograph, a youthful picture of himself with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the collective of rich white businessmen who owned his contract (and reportedly those of several race horses) until he became Muslim. He also hesitated over a famous posed shot taken for Life magazine in 1963, in a bank vault. In this photo a wide-eyed and beaming Cassius Clay sits atop one million one-dollar bills. Ali turned to me and said, “Money don’t mean nothin,” and leafed to a picture with Malcolm X, which he signed, then posed his pen above the signature, as if prepared to make another annotation. Suddenly, though, he closed the book, looked at me dead level, and held it out at arms’ length with both hands. “I’m giving you somethin’ very valuable,” he said, handing me the biography as if deeding me the book of life.
I stared at the book in my open palms and felt I should say something, should thank him in some way. I carefully placed it on a table, shook my head slightly, and cleared my throat, but found no words.
I excused myself to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. A pair of Ali’s huge, shiny black dress shoes was beside the toilet. The toe of one had been crushed, the other shoe was lying on its side. When I unlocked the door to leave, it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t even turn the handle. After trying several times, I tentatively knocked. There was laughter from the other room. I distinctly heard Mrs. Clay’s and Rahaman’s voices. I yanked fairly hard on the door a few times. Nothing. Just when I was beginning to think I was stuck in Odessa Clay’s bathroom for the millennium, the door easily opened. I caught a glimpse of Ali bounding into a side room to the right, laughing and high-stepping like some oversized, out-of-shape Nubian leprechaun.
I peeked around the corner. He was standing with his back flat against the wall. He saw me, jumped from the room, and tickled me, a guilty-little-kid smile splashed across his features. Next thing I knew, he had me on the floor, balled up in a fetal position, tears flowing down both sides of my face, laughing. Then he stopped tickling me and helped me to my feet. Everybody kept laughing. Mrs. Clay’s face was round and wide with laughter. She looked like the mom of a Celtic imp.
“What’d you think happened to the door?” Rahaman asked. I told him I’d figured it was Ali. “Then why you turnin red?” he wanted to know.
“It’s not every day,” I said, “that I go to Muhammad Ali’s, he locks me in the bathroom, then tickles me into submission.”
Everyone laughed again. “Ali, you crazy,” Rahaman said.
Suddenly I recognized the obvious, that I’d been acting like a teenage admirer again. And that Muhammad Ali had not lost perhaps his most significant talent—the ability to transport people past thoughts and words to a world of feeling and play. Being around Ali, or watching him perform on TV, has always made me feel genuinely childlike. I looked at his family: They were beaming: Ali still flipped their switches, too.
After helping me up, he trudged off to the bathroom. Rahaman crept over from his seat on the sofa and held the door, trying to keep Ali in. The brothers pushed and tugged on the door and, when Ali got out, laughed and wrestled around the room. Then Ali threw several feathery punches at Rahaman and a few at me.
We finally slipped the Ali tape into the VCR.* Rahaman brought everyone another root beer and we settled back to watch, he to my left, Ali beside me on the right, and Mrs. Clay beside Ali. The family’s reactions to the tape were not unlike those you or I would have looking at old home movies or high-school yearbooks. Everyone sighed and their mouths arced at tender angles. “Oh, look at Bundini,” Mrs. Clay said. “Hey, there’s Otis,” Rahaman offered.
When there was footage of Ali reciting verse, everyone recited with him. “Those were the days,” Rahaman said several times, to which Mrs. Clay responded, “Yes, yes, they were,” in a lamenting lilt.
After a half-hour or so, she left the room. Rahaman continued to watch the tape for a while, pointing out people and events, but then said he was going to bed. He brought a pen and piece of paper. “Give your name and number,” he said, smiling. “We’ll look you up.”
Then it was just Ali and me. On the TV, it was early 1964 and he was framed on the left by Jim Jacobs and on the right by Drew “Bundini” Brown. “They both dead now,” he said, an acute awareness of his own mortality in his tone.
For a time, he continued to stare at the old Ali on the screen, but eventually he lost interest in peering at distant mountains of his youth. “Did my mom go upstairs? Do you know?” he asked, his voice carrying no further than mine would if I had my hand over my mouth.
“Yeah, I think she’s probably asleep.”
He nodded, stood, and left the room, presumably to check on her. When he came back he was moving heavily. His shoulder hit the frame of the door to the kitchen. He went in and came out with two fistfuls of cookies, crumbs all over his mouth. He sat beside me on the sofa. Our knees were touching. Usually, when a man gets this close, I pull away. He offered a couple cookies, yawned a giant’s yawn, closed his eyes, and seemed to go dead asleep.
“Champ, you want me to leave?” I said. “Am I keeping you up?”
He slowly opened his eyes and was back to our side of The Great Mystery. The pores on his face looked huge, his features elongated, distorted, like someone’s in an El Greco. He rubbed his face the way I rub mine when I haven’t shaved in a week.
“No, stay,” he said. His tone was very gentle.
“You’d let me know if I was staying too late?”
He hesitated slightly before he answered. “I go to bed at 11,” he said.
With the volume turned this low on the TV, you could hear the videotape’s steady whir. “Can I ask a serious question?” I said. He nodded OK.
“You’re still a great man, Champ, I see that. But a lot of people think your mind is fried. Does that bother you?”
He didn’t hesitate before answering. “No, there are ignorant people everywhere,” he said. “Even educated people can be ignorant.”
“Does it bother you that you’re a great man not being allowed to be great?”
“Wh-wh-whatcha you mean, ‘not allowed to be great?’” he said, his voice hardly finding its way out of his body.
“I mean … let me think about what I mean … I mean the things you seem to care most about, the things you enjoy doing best, the things the rest of us think of as being Muhammad Ali, those are precisely the things that have been taken from you. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“You don’t question God,” he said, his voice rattling in his throat.
“OK, I respect that, but … aw, man, I don’t have any business talking to you about this.”
“No, no, go on,” he said.
“It just bothers me,” I told him. I was thinking about the obvious ironies, thinking about Ali continuing to invent, and be invented by, his own mythology. About how he used to talk easier, maybe better, than anybody in the world (has anyone in history so enjoyed the sweet and spiky melodies of his own voice?); about how he sometimes still thought with speed and dazzle, but it took serious effort for him to communicate even with people close to him. About how he may have been the world’s best athlete—when walking, he used to move with the grace of a leopard turning a corner; now, at night, he stumbled around the house. About how it was his left hand, the same hand from which once slid that great Ali snake-lick of a jab—the most visible phenomenon of his boxing greatness—the very hand with which he won more than 150 sanctioned fights and countless sparring sessions, it’s his left hand, not his right, that shook almost continuously. And I was thinking how his major source of pride, his “prettiness,” remained more or less intact. If Ali lost 40 pounds, in the right kind of light he’d still look classically Greek. The seeming precision with which things have been excised from Ali’s life (as well as the gifts that have been left him) sort of spooked me.
“I know why this has happened,” Ali said. “God is showing me, and showing you“—he pointed his shaking index finger at me and widened his eyes—”that I’m just a man, just like everybody else.”
We sat a long, quiet time then, and watched his flickering image on the television screen. It was now 1971 and there was footage of him training for the first Frazier fight. Our Most Public Figure was then The World’s Most Beautiful Man and The Greatest Athlete of All Times, his copper skin glowing under the fluorescents, secret rhythms springing in loose firmness from his fingertips.
“Champ, I think it’s time for me to go,” I said again and made an effort to stand.
“No, stay. You my man,” he says, and pats my leg. He has always been this way, always wanted to be around people. I take his accolade as one of the greatest compliments of my life.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says, and leans close. “I’m gowna make a comeback.”
“What?” I say. I think he’s joking, hope he is, but something in his tone makes me uncertain. “You’re not serious?” I ask.
And suddenly there is power in his voice. “I’m gowna make a comeback,” he repeats louder, more firmly.
“Are you serious?”
“The timing is perfect. They’d think it was a miracle, wouldn’t they?” He’s speaking in a distinct, familiar tone; he’s easy to understand. It’s almost the voice I remember from when I met him in 1975, the one that seemed to come roiling up from down in his belly. In short, Ali sounds like Ali.
“Wouldn’t they?” he asks again.
“It would be a miracle,” I say.
“Nobody’ll take me serious at first. But then I’ll get my weight down to 215 and have an exhibition at Yankee Stadium or someplace, then they’ll believe. I’ll fight for the title. It’ll be bigger than the Resurrection.” He stands and walks to the center of the room.
“It’d be good to get your weight down,” I say.
“Watch this,” he says and dances to his left, studying himself in the mirror above the TV. His clean white shoes bound around the carpet; I marvel at how easily he moves. His white clothing accentuates his movements in the dark room; the white appears to make him glow. He starts throwing punches, not the kind he’d tossed at me earlier, but now really letting them go. I’d thought what he’d thrown in the yard was indicative of what he had left. But what he’d done was allow me to play; he’d wanted me to enjoy myself.
“Look at the TV. That’s 1971 and I’m just as fast now.” One second, two seconds, 12 punches flash in the night. This can’t be real. Yet it is. The old man can still do it: He can still make fire appear in the air. He looks faster standing in front of me than do the ghostlike Ali images on the screen. God, I wish I had a video camera to tape this. Nobody would believe me.
“And I’ll be even faster when I get my weight down,” he tells me.
“You know more now, too,” I find myself admitting. Jesus, what am I saying? And why am I saying this? This is a sick man.
“Do you believe?” he asks.
“Well …” I say. God, the Parkinson’s is affecting his sanity. Look at the gray shining in his hair. The guy can hardly walk, for Christ’s sake. Just because he was my boyhood idol doesn’t mean I’m blinded to what his life is now like.
And Ali throws another three dozen blows at the gods of mortality. He springs a triple hook off of a jab, each punch so quick it trails lines of light. He drops straight right leads faster than (most fighters’) jabs, erupts into a storm of uppercuts, and the air pops, and his fists and feet whir. This is his best work. His highest art. The very combinations no one has ever thrown quite like Muhammad Ali. When he was fighting, he typically held back some; this is the stuff he seldom had to use.
“Do you believe?” he asks, breathing hard.
“They wouldn’t let you, even if you could do it,” I say, thinking, There’s so much concern everywhere for your health. Everybody thinks they see old Mr. Thanatos waiting for you.
“Do you believe?” he asks again.
“I believe,” I hear myself say.
He stops dancing and points a magician’s finger at me. Then I get the look, the smile, the one that has closed 100,000 interviews.
“April Fools’,” he says, and sits down hard beside me again. His mouth is hanging open and his breath sounds raw. The smell of sweat comes from his skin.
We sit in silence for several minutes. I look at my watch. It’s 11:18. I hadn’t realized it was that late. I’d told Lyn I’d be in by 8.
“Champ, I better go home. I have a wife and kids waiting.”
“OK,” he says almost inaudibly, looking into the distance, not thinking about me anymore, yawning the kind of long uncovered yawn people usually do among family.
He’s bone-tired, I’m tired, too, but I want to leave by saying something that will mean something to him, something that will set me apart from the two billion other people he’s met, that will imprint me indelibly in his memory and make the kind of impact on his life he has made on mine. I want to say the words that will cure his Parkinson’s.
Instead I say, “See you Easter, Champ.”
He coughs and gives me his hand. “Be cool and look out for the ladies.” His words are so volumeless and full of fluid that I don’t realize what he’s said until I’m halfway out the door.
I don’t recall picking up the book he signed, but I must have: It’s beside my typewriter now. I can’t remember walking across his mom’s yard and don’t remember starting the Volvo. But I recall what was playing on the tape deck. It was “The Promise of Living” from the orchestral suite to Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.
I don’t forget Lyn’s gallon of milk. Doors to the grocery store whoosh closed behind me. For this time of night, there are quite a few customers in the store. They seem to move more as floating shadows than as people.
An old feeling comes across me I almost immediately recognize. The sensation is much like going out into the day-to-day world after making love for the first time. It’s that same sense of having landed in a lesser reality. And of having a secret that the rest of the world can’t see. I’ll have to wake Lyn and share the memory of this feeling with her.
I reach to grab a milk jug and catch a reflection of myself in the chrome at the dairy counter. There’s a half-smile on my face and I hadn’t realized it
Glenn Stout, author, series editor for the Best American Sports Writing, and contributing editor at SB Nation Longform: I first read Davis Miller’s “My Dinner with Ali” in Sport magazine, where it was published in 1989. I loved everything about it; guy drives by Ali’s mother’s house in Louisville, sees Ali’s RV in front of his house, stops in … and is transformed. From the first word, it came off as a very genuine, uncontrived piece. A couple years later, when I was approached to put together a sampler for a proposed new Best American title featuring writing about sports, I immediately recalled Miller’s story, and it was one of 12 or 15 stories I submitted as examples of the kind of story I would be looking for. Nearly a decade later, when Houghton Mifflin decided to do a Best American Sports Writing of the Century, I again remembered Miller’s story, sent it forward to guest editor David Halberstam, and he liked it as much as I did. Halberstam was a huge Ali fan, thought the writing about him was particularly important, and chose the story as one of six in the volume that focused on Ali (the others were by Murray Kempton, Dick Schaap, Norman Mailer, Mark Kram, and Jim Murray—pretty good company. Miller’s story is the last in the entire collection). It was then, while securing rights, that I got to know Miller a bit. I learned that the story first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Sunday magazine, and before landing at Sport it had also been re-printed in a number of other Sunday magazines. More remarkably, it was the author’s first published story. Miller, whose life was changed by his embrace of martial arts and boxing as a child, went on to write books about both Ali and Bruce Lee, deftly merging his personal stories with theirs. In our interactions he was as genuine and unassuming as the character who knocked on Ali’s door. Every year or two, I re-read it and still like it as much as the first time.
Davis Miller is the author of The Tao of Muhammad Ali, which has been developed into the opera Approaching Ali, premiering this weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Miller is at work on two books, a memoir titled High Old Love Way and a collection titled Approaching Ali: The Muhammad Ali Stories.
[Color photo via Getty Premium; picture on the couch byHoward Bingham]
When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.
I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.
The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.
I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.
YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.
Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.
AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.
Standing because he would not let himself go down.
When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.
An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”
It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”
The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”
He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”
In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.
But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.
For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.
King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.
“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”
Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.
GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.’” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.
After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.
“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”
On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.
AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”
I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.
“I like him now,” he said.
By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.
He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.
“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”
He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”
An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.
This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?
Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”
By Pete Dexter
“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”
“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”
“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews
Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.
Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”
I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”
A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.
The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.
“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”
Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”
Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.
Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.
Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.
Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”
The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Holmes shuts it off.
“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.
Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”
The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.
At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”
In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.
He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.
“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.
“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”
And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”
Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.
Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.
They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.
Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.
“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.
The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.
Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38′s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.
“These are close,” he says.
The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.
“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”
The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.
Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.
“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”
Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.
“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”
It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.
“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”
I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.
“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”
The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”
Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.
Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”
The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.
He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”
There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”
Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”
The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”
He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”
The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.
Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.
Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.
The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.
Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”
Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”
The biggest one says, “I did.”
Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”
Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.
“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”
Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.
In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.
The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”
“I never understood it myself,” she says.
He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”
Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”
Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.
Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.
Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”
Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”
“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.
“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”
Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”
“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.
The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.
“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”
Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”
A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.
And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”
Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.
The band arrives in a helicopter.
On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.
Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.
Ali wipes at his forehead.
The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”
And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”
That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”
Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”
And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.
Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”
Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.
It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.
A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.
But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”
A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.
The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.
The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.
In our chat over at Sports on Earth, Stratton–who goes by the name Kip–and I talk about Patterson’s relationship with Muhammad Ali. But there’s far more to Patterson’s career than his two fights with Ali.
So, dig in, and please enjoy the rest of our conversation.
Bronx Banter: Patterson has long been a favorite of writers like W.C. Heinz and especially, Gay Talese. Yet there haven’t been so many major biographies on his life. What drew you to writing about him?
KS: Oh, yeah. I was a boxing fan since I was a kid. Boxing was in a kind of golden age, which probably started around the time of the Patterson-Johansson rivalry and lasted until, say, the Leonard-Hagler fight–which, incidentally, I believe Hagler won–a quarter of a century later. Although Muhammad Ali is the best known there were many terrific boxers were during that time, including Patterson. But I didn’t know how complicated Patterson was until I read that Talese piece. After that, I picked up more and more about Patterson here and there over the years, all of it interesting. In 1988, I met him, briefly, at a celebration marking the centennial of Jim Thorpe’s birth. Something about him in person seemed compelling and that increased my fascination with him. Eventually I read his autobiography, Victory Over Myself, which appeared at the peak of his career and I was blown away by what I read. Then, Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography of Ali appeared, which included a quote from Ali in which he listed Patterson with Liston, Foreman, and Frazier as the best he ever fought. Patterson, but not Ken Norton. Patterson, but not Larry Holmes. Patterson, but not Archie Moore. Ali said Patterson had the best boxing skills of any fighter he met in the ring. That pretty well cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to write about him someday.
BB: Can you talk about the work Talese did on Patterson, both for The New York Times and Esquire and how that influenced your thinking on the fighter.
KS: Talese joined The Times as a sportswriter after he served a hitch in the Army; earlier, he’d had a job on the Times as a copyboy following his graduation from the University of Alabama. As I recall, he told me he intentionally targeted a job in the sports department because it would allow him to employ more stylistic freedom than other sections of the paper, which were very much locked into “Old Gray Lady” rules of writing. He said he admired what was going on in the pages of some of the other newspapers in the city at the time, in particular The New York Herald-Tribune. The sports pages of the Times would give him the same leeway writers at these other papers had. I read many articles he wrote for the Times’ sports section. They were experimental as hell for that paper. I remember one about the future light heavyweight champion, and future author, José Torres. The profile did not give Torres’ name until the last sentence! So Talese was doing this wonderful sort of creative nonfiction for the Times. To be sure, much of it was immature compared to the masterpieces he would later write. But it was interesting. So, here you have Talese, interested in taking this whole new approach to sports writing and he runs into Floyd Patterson, a whole different sort of boxing champion.
BB: It was as if they were made for each other.
KS: Gay wrote more than four dozen bylined Times pieces about Patterson that I found. I’d never met Talase prior to starting research on the book, but he was nice enough to offer me some time for an interview after I approached him via a mutual acquaintance.
BB: You went to his brownstone here in New York?
KS: I arrived at Gay’s house on the Upper East Side on a day when he suddenly had crushing deadlines of his own. But he granted me time. I think he was impressed that I had dug up all those old Times articles. He was an absolute gentleman–of course attired in finely tailored clothes. He presented me with an inscribed copy of his newest book, which I totally did not expect. We talked and talked, not just about Patterson and D’Amato and company, but about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and John Gregory Dunne and two of Gay’s great friends, David Halberstam and Ben Gazzara.
BB: Wow, I knew he’d been friends with Halberstam but not Gazzara.
KS: Yeah, Talese and Halberstam were friends from when they came to know each other as young reporters on the Times. Gay thought Halberstam was the greatest reporter of their generation, and I think he’s undoubtedly right about that. Gay told me that he and Gazzara followed the fights together, among other things. I also read a quote of Talese’s in which he said something like Gazzara, once he became prominent as an actor, let a whole generation know it was okay to be Italian-American. Something like that. It would have been great to have hung out with Talese and Gazzara to listen to them talk about boxing.
BB: And women. Where’s Casavetes when yo need him?
KS: Talese invited me downstairs to his basement office and showed me his archives. Like Mailer, he’s kept everything. Using large sheets of paper, he storyboards his articles as if they are three-act dramas. He showed me his actual storyboard for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which some of us think is the best magazine article ever written by an American. And he showed me the storyboard for “The Loser,” that piece I studied in Harry’s class all those years before. I was flabbergasted to actually see that relic from all those years ago. Talese and I also talked about his collaboration with Patterson for the Esquire article in which Floyd called for people to try to understand Muhammad Ali, not just jeer him, one of the first sympathetic Ali articles to run in a mainstream magazine. So I felt as if I had Talese looking over my shoulder the whole time I worked on this book. You know, this notion of, You better not fuck this up because there are high expectations whenever you take up the subject matter of Patterson.
BB: And he wasn’t alone, right?
KS: Talese, yes, but also Heinz, Mailer, Baldwin, Hamill, Oates, Schulberg–writers of that caliber. So I felt as if I had a standard to meet. Beyond that, Gay gave me a lot of insight into the Patterson saga through his comments in the interview, in particular about D’Amato, a character who merits a great deal of examination.
BB: Patterson had an unusual sensitivity and honesty for a fighter of his caliber, didn’t he?
KS: Let’s start with the instructions given by the referee before the opening bell. Nowadays, this is the time for the absurd exercise in posturing known as the stare-down. It wasn’t quite like it is now in Patterson’s day, but it was still expected that a fighter look the man he was going to battle in the eye. Patterson never did that. He stared at the other guy’s feet. He couldn’t look into the eyes of someone he was getting ready to hurt. If he did that, he wouldn’t be able to fight. He cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head after he knocked Ingo out. He helped an opponent recover his mouthpiece after he, Floyd, knocked it out.
BB: He was also candid, especially with Talese.
KS: Patterson was perhaps the most eloquent champion ever when it came to mining deep feelings and expressing them. He spoke honestly about fear, about cowardice — he described himself as a coward once. At the same time, he was reclusive and seemed to like to stay silent most of the time. He was not comfortable around people, an introvert, yet he did as much charitable work as any champion in history. He lived a conservative lifestyle in that he didn’t drink or do drugs or make the party scene very much, and he held conservative stances about other things, yet he was an early and outspoken liberal when it came to the civil rights movement. He lent his name and gave money to desegregation causes. He went to Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was often, to quote Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.
BB: Patterson’s accomplishments in the ring tend to be overlooked these days. How much of that is due to the huge impression that Ali left?
KS: Patterson was the bridge between Rocky Marciano and Ali. The year Patterson won the heavyweight title, you had Humphrey Bogart appearing in The Harder They Fall. The year Patterson fought his last pro fight, you had Ron O’Neal appearing in Super Fly. Because of this, it’s hard to really associate Patterson with an era in the way you can a Dempsey or a Louis, and I think that’s allowed him to slip through the cracks to a certain extent.
BB: He gets lost.
KS: Absolutely, the light of Patterson gets lost in the glare of Ali. Patterson brings speed into the heavyweight ring that no one had ever seen before, revolutionizing the possibilities for a heavyweight fighter. But then Ali shows up with hand speed that matches Floyd’s and has even faster ring mobility and is taller and weighs more. Makes it easy to overlook Patterson. Floyd is good in interviews, eloquently giving well thought out answers. Ali takes control of interviews, makes them his own, makes them funny, makes them memorable for years to come. Patterson’s a good looking guy. Ali has movie-star good looks, one of the handsomest men to grace the public stage during the 20th century. Patterson has great wins over Moore and Johansson, but Ali has monumental victories over Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, and, indeed, Floyd himself. Mailer writes a significant article about Patterson but writes a significant book about Ali. On and on. The Greatest was and is The Greatest. But I think enough — or more than enough — has been written about him. I think it’s time to look at some of these other figures. Patterson. Joe Frazier. And so on. You go to a bookstore, and often the only boxing titles you see are about Ali. That’s not right. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean that Buddy Holly and Little Richard aren’t damned significant figures. So be it with Floyd Patterson.
BB: What is it about stars of the 1950s and early ’60s being forgotten?
KS: Well, again, I think Ali has something to do with it. People became so fixated with him. We’ve now had a couple of generations of American boxers come along, many of whom don’t know how to keep their hands up or are otherwise lacking in boxing fundamentals because Ali didn’t do it that way. But they’re pretty good at pulling off ring antics of some sort. This is part of the downside of the Ali legacy. Ali became sloppy about staying in shape–of course I’m talking about fighting shape here–in the second part of his career, and that became part of the negative legacy too. And one thing Ali did was that he made the fight be something more than the fight. Often it seemed that the sideshow was more important to the fans than the fight itself. That’s carried over to subsequent generations of fighters.
BB: How so?
KS: Floyd Mayweather is a brilliant boxer, but it seems that his fans are more interested in the gangsta production surrounding the fight than the fight itself. Well, Mayweather understands that expectation and delivers time after time. The fights of the pre-Ali era was something entirely different. Flourishes occurred here and there among the boxers, and fairly often when you talk about Archie Moore, who was a different sort of character for the 1950s, but the fight itself was the thing. Beau Jack headlined the Garden 21 times during the 1940s and ’50s and brought no show except his boxing skills. That was enough for the time. Fighting well. And the fans would stream in to see it. Now there has to be more. Showbiz. Glitz. Outrageous haircuts. Bling glittering off trunks. That’s the expectation. Modern fans don’t resonate with many of those older, pre-Ali fighters who did nothing more in the ring than just fight. In order to have resonance with modern fans, the older boxers have to have a hell of a back story, like Floyd Patterson.
BB: I think it’s interesting that Ali mentioned Patterson over Norton who fought well against Ali, arguably better than Patterson did.
KS: Floyd had a great trainer in Dan Florio. It is doubtful that any heavyweight champion had better instruction in and subsequent competency at the rudiments of boxing than Patterson. You know, how to set up a right cross with a left jab. How to set up a right uppercut. So I think in part what Ali was saying is that Patterson was the best schooled of any boxer he faced. Beyond that, if you watch the film of the first Ali-Patterson fight, you see that Floyd’s hand speed was something Ali was unaccustomed to encountering. Ali lived and died by his jab, but Patterson had the speed to catch a lot of Ali’s jabs in that first fight. Now, don’t get me wrong: The fight was a mismatch from the get-go. Ali was bigger and younger; Floyd was injured and shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place. But in those early rounds, Floyd does a very respectable job taking Ali’s jab away from him by blocking them with his right hand. I think those are the reasons Ali had so much respect for him.
BB: Since Ali has cast such a large shadow over Patterson, and a host of other fighters, can you talk about how Patterson stands up on his own, without comparing him in any way to Ali.
KS: First, let’s talk about Floyd the amateur. Pete Hamill has said that Patterson was one of the great amateur boxers in the history of American sports. Hamill’s right. Patterson’s record in the Golden Gloves and the AAUs is very impressive, especially when you consider he was 16 and 17 years old when he was scoring all those victories. Then he went to the Olympics. The 1952 US boxing team at the Helsinki games is a great story. The United States had never performed particularly well in Olympic boxing prior to 1952; our teams were dominated by white collegians before that. But in 1952, you had a team whose dominate fighters were inner city guys who were tough and talented. That team brought back five gold medals to America. Five! And all five of the gold medalists were African American. This was at a time when big league baseball and pro football were barely integrated. It would be twenty years before some Southwest Conference football teams integrated. This was a huge event in the history of sports in America. And Floyd Patterson was the star of that team. To the end of his life, Floyd said that winning a gold medal in the Olympics was his proudest accomplishment.
BB: And that’s all before he went pro.
KS: That’s right. He won the heavyweight title at age 21, the youngest man to do so. His record stood for around three decades before Tyson won it at an even younger age. Patterson won the title, lost it, then regained it. He was the first person in history to win the title twice. This was something that boxers the likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis couldn’t do. He came damned close to winning the title a third time in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. At around the halfway point of his pro career, he, an African American fighter, fired his white manager and became his own manager. He did all these things showing a high level of fair play and honor. For instance, everything was set up for him to be able to avoid fighting Sonny Liston. Many people inside and outside the boxing world believed Liston’s extensive criminal background was justification for keeping him from competing for the crown. Floyd could have bought into that argument and every sanctioning body would have supported his decision. But Patterson believe Liston had earned a shot at the title, that he deserved it, and Patterson gave it to him, even though he knew it would spell his doom as champ. Remarkable, just remarkable.
BB: And he had a complicated relationship with the trainer Cus D’Amato.
KS: Patterson had to paired with just the right mentor if he was ever going have any success fighting. I believe it could not have been anyone else other than Cus D’Amato. I spend a good deal of time in a boxing gym and I hear the same thing over and over: Boxing is mostly mental. Boxing is 75 percent psychological. My friend Anissa Zamarron, a two-time world champion female boxer, says that a successful boxer has to take on the mind-set of a rooster in a cockfight whenever the bell rings. Well, getting Floyd to be a rooster psychologically took some doing. I’m not sure anyone other than D’Amato could have taken Floyd that far. He was a very talented amateur psychologist, I believe, especially when dealing with young boxers, teenaged boxers. Floyd came from a large family and his father was usually absent, out working, holding down two or more jobs, and because his father worked so much, I got the feeling that Floyd didn’t receive very much fathering from him. Floyd was closer to his mother. D’Amato became this sort of surrogate father figure.
BB: Your portrait of D’Amato could be a book on its own.
KS: D’Amato was pretty messed up himself. He was regarded as a mystery figure during his prime–some writers wrote that he had no family, stuff like that. But I dug up quite a bit about him. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, lost his mother at a very early age, had a beloved brother, a boxer and a talented artist, shot and killed by a New York cop. D’Amato went through serious depression as a kid, obsessed with funerals and all that. He also told stories about himself as being some sort of vicious street tough, which were probably exaggerated or made up entirely. He was a ne’er-do-well who couldn’t keep a job, a dabbler in city politics but not too successful in that either. But then he stumbled into the world of boxing, and though he was no athlete himself, certainly never boxed, he found himself in this world of prizefighting. Boxing was completely mobbed up in New York at the time, and D’Amato willing “did business,” in his early days when called upon to do so. But then he eventually very publicly set out to expose the mob’s reign in boxing with an attempt to dislodge; at the same time, he continued to associate himself, secretly, with some powerful organized crime figures. Complicated man. He had no interest in making money for himself, but I think he was a kind of publicity hound. He always wanted it known that he was the brains behind Patterson. He brought Floyd along brilliantly through the amateur and early pro days. No one could have done a better job. He and Dan Florio were able to pick fighters that stretched Patterson, helped him grow from a middleweight to light heavyweight and then to a heavyweight contender. Cus was great at building up Patterson’s confidence. So a father figure, a confident, an adviser, a spokesman–all those things. But there were also problems.
BB: Was Patterson’s break from D’Amato necessary in him becoming his own man?
KS: Once Patterson won the world title, it became apparent that D’Amato was a bit in over his head in handling a champion at that level. He made mistakes on contracts that ended up costing Floyd money. That sort of thing. Just making a fight was a tortuous process for him. The business decisions were what Patterson pointed to when he eventually talked about why he fired D’Amato and took over his own career. But there was more. I think part of it was the need for a son to break away from his father, figuratively speaking, for Floyd to prove that he was his own man. D’Amato’s hesitancy to match Patterson with some of the ranking contenders of the late 1950s made it almost seem as if Floyd were afraid to fight them. Well, one thing you didn’t do to a proud black man was put him into situations in which it might seem as if he were a coward. Jesus, that harkened back to way too many old American stereotypes. I’m not sure D’Amato ever got that, however.
BB: You write about how he have made some unwelcome advances though Patterson never called him out publicly on that.
KS: I discovered in my reserach there was a lot of whispered speculation about D’Amato’s sexuality in some quarters. D’Amato had a long-time relationship with Camille Ewald, but she usually lived apart from him. In the 1950s, a man was expected to be married with children or have a very visible girlfriend or, in the world of boxing, maybe both. Cus didn’t do this, so he was suspect. For a time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jim Jacobs. That too spurred whispering. I mention this because in the context of the times, this was a big deal. Then there was the event about which Patterson told Talese. D’Amato was so obsessive about “protecting” Patterson from enemies, real or imagined, that he took to sleeping the same bedroom with him. And then in the same bed with him. One night, Floyd told Gay, Patterson awoke to feel D’Amato rubbing Floyd’s leg with his foot. Floyd feigned sleep and didn’t react in any way. Nothing like this ever happened again, as far as I could find out. And who knows? D’Amato may have been sound asleep himself and it was some sort of reflexive thing. I mention all this only to portray just how closely, how intimately if you will, connected Patterson and D’Amato were at one point. It went beyond the typical manager/trainer’s relationship with a boxer, and because of the nature of the sport, that’s always a pretty intimate relationship anyway.
BB: Still, Patterson need to break from him eventually.
KS: Floyd could never become what he did had it not been for D’Amato, but he also had to break with D’Amato if he was to grow into a man fully in charge of his life. Floyd broke with Cus and drove his career where he thought it had to go, the fights with Liston and Ali, the defeats, the dethronement, the tarnished legacy. To me this is what Aristotle was getting at when he wrote about tragedy. To me, Floyd Patterson is a tragic figure in this regard. And if it was cast into the tradition five-act form, D’Amato would be a key figure in “The Tragedy of Floyd Patterson.”
BB: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your book of poetry,Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. How did you get into poetry?
KS: Poetry was the first thing I wrote in earnest. In high school, I had a teacher, Kenny Walter, who turned me on to contemporary poetry in a serious way. Now, where I came from, it wasn’t exactly okay for a guy to be interested in something like poetry, under normal circumstances. But Kenny had been something of a star athlete in my home town before he went off to college and came back a teacher, and he was still a serious weekend basketball and tennis player and a serious bird hunter. So he showed you could be into poetry and still be “manly.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a pretty remote place–rural Oklahoma—inhabited by a lot of people with backwards notions. So Kenny made poetry accessible, and I sure as hell was interested.
BB: What poets did you read early on?
KS: The big poet who fascinated us at that time was James Dickey, again, a former athlete, a guy who seemed to know a lot about the woods, a guy who seemed to know a lot about things like archery. Since then I’ve learned he was in part a fraud, a damaged person, but, again, he wrote about things I could relate to. Anyway, through that portal, I entered this whole world of verse. I was so damned naïve—I didn’t realize there were all these competing factions in that world. The portal through which I entered was one dominated by some poets who would be classified as Academic poets: Dickey, Richard Hugo, William Stafford. Stafford eventually became a friend of mine for a while, a kind, generous man. Also Robert Lowell during his confessional period—I still think “Skunk Hour” is a terrific poem. Elizabeth Bishop.
BB: When did you break out of the “academic poets”?
KS: That came later and was a liberating experience. Here were a bunch of people writing verse that came from the truest artistic inspiration. Sometimes the verse ended up being, to my taste, not completely successful, but, damn, you could not deny the spirit and the true artistic inspiration behind it. Other times the verse exceeded what the Academics could pull off at their best. I remember well watching a black-and-white PBS documentary about Charles Bukowski at a time when Bukowski was hardly known. It was fascinating and led me to seek out some of his early verse, which was not easy to find in a place like Oklahoma City at that time. As I said, it was liberating. So I just kept writing verse, never stopped. I write poetry that’s not destined to end up in The New Yorker or Poetry. I came in through the Dickey-Hugo-Stafford portal, and their influence is still on me, but I think I wound up writing more in the Outlaw Poetry tradition.
BB: What did you write about?
KS: I wrote a series of haiku about boxing, in part as a sort of satire on the form. Seriously, boxing haiku? Sports infiltrates the verse. I write about rodeo. I wrote a poem about learning at a football game about the suicide of a girl I knew and dated some as a teenager. I wrote poems about a lot of hard slices of life, about dumping my father’s ashes in a stream in the Cascades, about my stepbrother’s death from AIDS. I wrote poems about Merle Haggard and Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates and Dennis Hopper. I wrote about beer joints. I wrote about a Mexican food place in Uvalde, Texas.
BB: And then…Peckinpah?
KS: I’ve long considered the director Sam Peckinpah to be a kind of poet, when he was at his best. He created his metaphors in the mixed media of film rather than by writing them down as lines on paper. I’ve thought a lot about Peckinpah’s work over the years, read a lot about him. I had a poem that included in a line the phrase “dreaming Sam Peckinpah.” I thought for a long time it would be a good title for a book. Well, I had all these poems I’d written, one or two going back more than thirty years. And one day it occurred to me that they could be arranged in a thematic way, sort of in the way a rock concept album from back in the day would be arranged. So I did that, drawing on quotes from or about Peckinpah, and, damn, if I wasn’t happy with the results. About that same time, a wonderful small press publisher had told me he’d be interested in something like what I was working on. Things clicked. And that’s how Dreaming Sam Peckinpah came to be.
Visit Stratton’s website here; you can purchase the Patterson book, here.
Lest you think Dundee was merely a stagehand, a lucky accomplice, somebody fortunate enough to latch onto a rising star, consider the rest of his career. Having taken Ali to the top, in the middle of that ruckus for 21 years, he then joined another Olympic phenom, Sugar Ray Leonard, and helped pilot him to multiple championships. Once more, Dundee adapted himself to the fighter’s natural abilities, allowing Leonard’s stardom to develop. But in at least one fight, just as he had with Ali, it was Dundee who may have saved the day. With Leonard flagging in his back-and-forth fight with Tommy Hearns, Dundee got in Leonard’s face after the 12th round and, in no uncertain terms, called him out. “You’re blowing it, son.” Leonard famously rallied.
There were others as well: De La Hoya for a while, and even George Foreman when the big man regained his heavyweight title in his comeback. There was always somebody, though. Dundee was a boxing man, destined to carry a bucket, happiest when he was swabbing cuts or taping hands. Long after the line of champions had ended, he was still in his gym, his bubbling optimism creating contenders out of anybody who walked through his doors. He was training until the end.
But it was those years with Ali, that incandescent time when boxing was last important, that we remember him for. What a time. What a pair! They would have been an odd couple in any case, the young fighter’s flamboyance and braggadocio in outlandish contrast to Dundee’s puckish demeanor. But they were more simpatico than most would have guessed, sharing their love of boxing, but also a capacity for hijinks. Ali recognized in Dundee a kindred spirit, after all, and was not above rigging the hotel curtains with a long rope, pulling them back and forth in a spectral fashion, until the little trainer exploded from his room in fright. They were a pair.
Would Ali have been The Greatest without Dundee? Maybe, though probably not. Would he have been as much fun without Dundee, certainly an enabler, if not quite a co-conspirator? Absolutely not. Ali’s tendency toward meanness, his inexcusable treatment of men like Floyd Patterson or Frazier, was an innate and probably important part of his personality. But that meanness was alloyed by Dundee’s presence, had to have been. Dundee’s influence, his unabashed sweetness, was its own kind of smelling salt in Ali’s career, the sort of freshener that cleared his head from time to time, restored his goodness, if not his greatness.
Yes, Ali was unspeakably cruel to Frazier in the build-up to their fights, calling him “a gorilla” and, worse, an Uncle Tom. But no one ever said Ali was perfect. He was as flawed and complicated as any other human being, with his mean streak and his public philandering and, for all I know, his snoring. He may not have been a Rhodes scholar, either, which was a point Kram hammered relentlessly. But somehow Ali always managed to find his better self when the occasion demanded it. Rising out of a business in which men are paid to destroy each other—Ali-Frazier III is a classic example—he performed acts of charity, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Some were high profile—opposing the war in Vietnam, championing black pride—while others were small personal gestures, like financing soup kitchens or building homes for poor families. Ali may have been acting on instinct instead of intellect in some cases; in others he may have seen his selfishness morph into something good. Who knows what was going on inside his head? All I can say is that I saw him do far more good than bad, and when he was done, he had become far more than a heavyweight champion. He had become a great man.
It seems anticlimactic to say he was great to cover, too. A writer’s dream. He was funny and irreverent and brash and, when the occasion called for it, humble and sensitive. There weren’t many people in the sports media whose names he remembered—Howard Cosell, naturally, and Dick Young and George Plimpton, whom he called “Kennedy”—and yet the media flocked to him because they knew that when he was around, something was going to happen. He might trade insults with Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage, or back up a prediction with a goofy poem. When he took a vow of silence before his first fight with Leon Spinks, he slapped a piece of tape across his mouth—and even then he was more interesting than anyone who was talking.
I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Ali was a once-in-a-lifetime subject for a sports writer, maybe for any kind of writer. I know he was that way for me, and I always prided myself in saying the story came first. But he made me care about him in a way no other athlete did. It was his charm, his courage, his audacity, his greatness in the ring. When I saw Larry Holmes destroy him in Las Vegas, it was like watching an execution. It was the worst night of my life as a sports writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I felt bad for myself, of course, because I knew I wouldn’t be writing about him for much longer. But I felt worse for Ali because of the way he’d been beaten. Even though Holmes did what he could to hold back, he had to keep fighting until Ali’s craven manager, Herbert Muhammad, told Angelo Dundee to stop it. By then Ali had been damaged in a way he will never get past. All these years later, the memory still haunts me. Maybe that’s the measure of just how special he was.
In the spring of 1971, I was co-producing and writing a 90-minute, live, late-night television show on KNBC, the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. A precursor to Saturday Night Live, this satirical program was hosted by Al Lohman and Roger Barkley, two extremely popular and sweet-natured (when sober) morning disc jockeys. The writers and sketch performers we hired had never worked on television, and among the long list of people who got their start on the show were Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson, and John Amos. Amos, who later appeared in Roots and as a regular cast member on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times, was an ex-pro football player and a huge boxing fan, and he idolized Muhammad Ali.
Johnny and I became close friends, and when the first Ali-Frazier fight rolled around — this was only Ali’s second fight since he was unjustly stripped of his title and denied a license for refusing to be drafted into the military — we made plans to go together. Because the Fox Wilshire theater was located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the seats around us were filled with a glittering dazzle of industry movers and shakers, laughing and talking at the tops of their voices. Along with big-time producers and studio executives — none of whom I knew, but whose names I recognized from the trades — I spotted actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson seated in our row. Sitting next to them were two beautiful young women in see-through blouses and skin-tight bell-bottom jeans, their eyes a little frantic as they tried to project an air of remote amusement.
The fight, while exciting and hard-fought, did not quite live up to its inescapable hype. The crowd in the theater was clearly for Ali, but as the rounds passed with Frazier methodically and dogmatically gaining command, their confident anticipation of an Ali victory began to dissipate. If he lost, it would be his first, and the thought, once impossible to imagine — his mastery in the ring was so complete — now became a real possibility. Johnny, his vocal support of Ali beginning to wither, became unnervingly dispirited, and at one point, around the 12th round, he even suggested that we leave. “No way,” I told him. “All it takes is one punch.”
“He ain’t gonna win, pal. It’s over.”
Johnny was right, but there was a moment, in either that round or the next, when Ali seemed to rally, the speed and potency of his punches unexpectedly reappearing. In the theater there was a sea of noise, and I remember that after one brutal exchange Johnny suddenly jumped to his feet, his voice rising above the crowd, as he screamed, “ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER! ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER!”
Comedians Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett were seated in front of us. When they turned and looked up at Johnny’s face — a face that was black and menacing — their expressions went from sympathy to incomprehension to almost pure terror. The change was swift and almost imperceptible. Unlike Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, both fervent supporters of Ali who were also in attendance, basking in the infatuated glances of their fans, they mistakenly saw in John Amos a man who represented danger and assault: a genuine nihilism. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
In the 14th round, when Ali was knocked down for the first time in his career, the silence in the theater was clear and startling. Ali survived that round and the 15th, but we left before the decision was announced. On the ride back to his house Johnny was utterly miserable, his mood plummeting into an abysmal despair. I tried to cheer him up by talking about our upcoming show and a sketch I was working on, but he remained silent, inconsolable, and I worried that the bond between us had become strained. Then, suddenly, he looked over at me and burst out laughing.
“Did you see Uncle Miltie’s face?” he said, almost doubled over. “Man, when I went off, his eyes got all big and he looked at me like I was Nat Turner or something. Fuck Ali! He fought his ass off. He’ll be back.”
It was no wonder Joe Frazier was so bitter. He was made to seem the foil, a mere accomplice in mythology, consigned to a supporting role in Muhammad Ali’s extravagant, ego-driven drama. It is a harsh truth that if you participate in the most exciting rivalry of a century, it does you little good even to win one of its three bouts. The verdict of history is decisive, and it is permanent, and men like Frazier, who stumble at the precipice, are forever remaindered on the heap of losers, their vinegary claims to justice lost in the courts of public opinion. It was no wonder, then, that when Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, his trembling hands viewed as a physical artifact of heroism by an adoring world, Frazier allowed that if he’d had his way, he’d have pitched Ali into the fire.
…In 1975—Ali now 33, Frazier 31—they met again in the near-death experience that would ever after be known as the Thrilla in Manila. Ali was even crueler in his prefight taunts, exploiting the fact that gorilla rhymed with the venue. Frazier, by turns mystified and hurt, was provoked beyond the requirements of the bout. While Ali would always say he was only boosting the box office, Frazier could never accept any explanation for attacks that might affect his children’s impression of him. “Look at my beautiful kids,” he’d say. “How can I be a gorilla?”
But not even animus could account for what happened that morning in the Philippines. It was such a violent affair—recklessness tilting it first Ali’s way, then Frazier’s way and then Ali’s again—that it seemed less a boxing match than an exploration of man’s capacities, a test of his will to win or at least survive. But once it turned Ali’s way again in the 12th round, too much had gone before for yet another reversal. There wasn’t anything left in either man. Before the 15th and final round Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, called it quits, saving his fighter from certain ruin, even as Ali was instructing his corner to cut his gloves off. It was victory, but by attrition.
Ali called it “the closest thing to dying I know of,” and he didn’t know the half of it. Their careers were essentially over that day, their 41 rounds of shared agony making any further discoveries in the ring unnecessary, or even possible. Frazier lost a rematch to Foreman and called it quits. Ali managed to dominate the game for several years more, but only on the basis of his personality—he was spent. Even then he was beginning a slow and ironic decline, Parkinson’s eventually rendering him rigid and mute, the final price for all those wars.
Ali’s respect for Frazier was enormous, and he apologized for his name-calling on several occasions. “I couldn’t have done what I did without him,” he once said.
Frazier repaid the compliment: “We were gladiators. I didn’t ask no favors of him, and he didn’t ask none of me.” They recognized that their destinies were entwined, that neither would have achieved his greatness without the other. But Ali could afford to concede the point, being the most popular athlete, even personality, in the world. Frazier, who spent the rest of his life living above his gym in Philadelphia, did not have the comfort of the world’s goodwill—he lived in an age that would reward style over substance every time—and so maintained his half of the blood feud as vigorously as possible, even seeming to take a grim satisfaction in Ali’s poor health, proof of who really won that day in Manila.
That a feel-good reconciliation would elude the two men who shaped such a magnificent rivalry is apt. Even if they were more like brothers than foes—who else could understand the kind of pride that forced them through those three battles?—fighters like them could never really enjoy a cease-fire, could never drop their hands, as if they alone knew what man was truly capable of.
“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.
George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”
In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.
Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.
A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.
The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.
They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.
Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.
In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.
Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.
While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.
He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”
Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.