The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

  • Share
  • Read Later

(4 of 8)

Then the first shock from this narcissistic, almost coquettish new champion. He went off after the fight to eat ice cream in the company of Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader whose unyielding words attacked the nation's racial hostilities and foretold the fire to come. The next morning, the conqueror of Listen told sportswriters he had become a Black Muslim.

It seemed at first that the conversion was just another idiosyncrasy, some kind of gimmick. It was nothing of the kind. Clay had actually changed his religion before the Listen fight. Harold Conrad, for mer sportswriter, sometime promoter, and, in the years when Ali was banished from the ring, tireless seeker after the means of his return, was privy to a prefight crisis.

Two weeks before the fight in Miami, Promoter Bill McDonald learned of Ali's Black Muslim associates and threatened to can cel the fight if Cassius did not denounce the Muslims. Conrad remembers: "When Ali heard that the fight was going to be nixed, he turned to Angelo and said matter of factly, 'Well, that's that.' He had absolutely no intention of renouncing his faith, not even for a crack at the world championship he'd fought and slaved so long and hard to get. It meant chucking the fight and plunging into obscurity, but he didn't hesitate."

His conversion, complete with the adoption of the new name, Muhammad Ali, raised eyebrows but not full public ire—yet. He was funny and, yes, pretty, and so what if Malcolm X was looking over the man-child's shoulder? He was still eating ice cream. How bad could it be?

Ali and the American public learned the answer to the question in 1965, when he defended his title against Floyd Patterson. A sporting event became a religious war between Catholic Patterson and Muslim Ali. It was also a terrible mismatch between a flagging ex-champ and a cruelly derisive young titleholder. By the time of the K.O. in the 12th round, even the most bloodthirsty fight fans were sickened by the gruesome giving and taking of pain. But there was more than that to the scene. White America had seen Watts burn with a deadly rage that summer. Now there stood a triumphant Black Muslim fighter, lips peeled back around his mouthpiece, sneering down at a softspoken, respected black who talked of moderation. Muhammad Ali had confirmed the worst fears; the rest came easy.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8