The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency when Cassius Clay Jr. returned triumphant from the Olympic Games in Rome. The blithe boy-child stepped off the plane spouting poetry and singing of his possibilities. He was bold—some said brash—with hopes and dreams, but much seemed within the reach of American aspirations in those freshening days. Cassius signed with a syndicate of wealthy Louisville businessmen, who underwrote his early training as a professional fighter against a 50% belief in purses to come. He had been boxing since the age of twelve with the heavyweight title as his unwavering goal, and he was willing to pay any price, bear any burden to fulfill his vision.

With the aid of his backers, Ali apprenticed under Trainer Angelo Dundee, a skilled groomer of fighters. Dundee recalls: "The Louisville group wanted me to train him. I told them to send him down to Miami after Christmas. Twenty minutes later, I get a call telling me Ali wasn't waiting till after Christmas, he was coming right away. They told me he said, 'I don't want to wait for Christmas. I want to fight.' That's how it all started in October 1960."

Dundee soon discovered just how good his young charge was. The strident gym voice softens, as if remembering something rare and lovely: "Oh, yes, I knew I had a winner. Of all the fighters I've ever known, only he could make the heavy bag sing when he hit it. I used to hear him make it snap like a snare drum every time I came up the stairs to the gym.

"He ran seven miles to the gym from the hotel and back every day along the causeway. He was always the first in and the last out of the gym. He is the most unspoiled kid I've ever had. He insisted on putting on his own gloves. He didn't like to be pampered."

Dundee tells how he had barnstormed the country with the young Clay and finally brought him into Madison Square Garden in 1962 to fight Sonny Banks. "Banks hit Ali with the finest left hook I've ever seen. It would have floored King Kong. Ali's eyes glazed like he was out of it, and his keester hit the canvas. Then he sprang back up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and stopped the guy cold. He won by a knockout. That's when I knew for sure. I really thought for a split second that Bank's punch was goodbye to everything, then and there."

Cassius moved up in the rankings, and with each step he minted new doggerel predicting the round of his opponent's defeat. The talking, talking, talking had begun in earnest now; the young, barely literate Louisville Lip displayed the stirrings of a genius more valuable in a media age: a flair for public relations, for hype and self-aggrandizement.

He superbly displayed his talents for promotion in 1964, when he was matched for the title with Champion Sonny Liston, a great, seemingly invincible giant of a man. Clay called Listen an "ugly old bear" and pranced around carrying a bear trap to the delight of the photographers. Budini Brown, Clay's corner man and cheerleader, gave his fighter the perfect line: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." That is precisely what he did. Cassius attacked, disappeared on those marvelously fast feet, attacked again, disappeared again, until the bear was beaten, helpless in his corner.

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