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How Muhammad Ali Became The Greatest: The Rise of a Legend

Muhammad Ali explores how the legendary boxer transcended the sport through politics, social activism, and his undeniable charm and charisma. 

Few athletes transcend the sports world into mainstream celebrity status, and even fewer surpass the aura of celebrity to become a cultural icon. By the end of his boxing career, Muhammad Ali had achieved both. 

A gifted athlete from a young age, Ali rose from humble beginnings to win a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Four years later, at age 22, he shocked the world by defeating the heavily-favored and much-feared Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion, at a time when boxing was the most-watched sport in the world. Ali's brash antics coupled with his undeniable talent and charisma made him an international star. 

No stranger to controversy, Ali made as many headlines for his actions outside the ring as for his prowess inside. Shortly after defeating Liston, Ali shrugged off the name Cassius Clay, which he referred to as his "slave name," and became the great Muhammad Ali that we know today. He also joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial organization that helped stir the racial tensions of boxing fans nationwide. Ali also refused to serve in the Vietnam War, and was stripped of his heavyweight title for over three years–during the very prime of his career. 

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Ali's return from exile can easily be considered the greatest comeback in all of sports. Although losing his first major fight (1971's "Fight of the Century"; the first of three epic battles with Joe Frazier), Ali eventually regained the heavyweight title by defeating a man nobody thought could be beaten: George Foreman. In "The Rumble in the Jungle", Ali used the now-famous rope-a-dope technique to sap Foreman's energy before knocking him out in the ninth round. It would be the second time Ali defeated a so-called unbeatable opponent. 

Ali later retired, only to return to the ring to capture the heavyweight crown an unprecedented third time. By this point, he was already a legend, and the name Muhammad Ali was synonymous across the globe with greatness. 

In his book Muhammad Ali, author Thomas Hauser provides a sweeping biography of one of the greatest sports legends of his time–or any time. Heralded by The New York Times as “the first definitive biography of the boxer who transcended sports as no other athlete ever has,” Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most charismatic and controversial superstars.

Read on for an excerpt of Muhammad Ali, and then download the book.

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Muhammad Ali

By Thomas Hauser

Muhammad Ali

By Thomas Hauser

“It may not seem like much that a fighter should size up the fight business as show business, but damned few before Cassius Clay ever did.”

So wrote Tom Wolfe in 1963, after Clay again broke new ground by recording an album for Columbia Records. The LP consisted of monologues and poems devoted largely to the recording artist’s own greatness: “I’m so great, I impress even myself…It’s hard to be modest when you’re as great as I am…They all must lose in the round I choose…I’m a perfect role model for children; I’m good-looking, clean-living, cultured, and modest.” 

Some of the material was written by Clay, the rest by employees of Columbia Records. Released in September to a barrage of publicity, the album enjoyed moderate commercial success and further enhanced Clay’s marketability. But who was Cassius Clay? What really went on inside his head? Only in isolated moments did he open up and truly speak his mind:

To Huston Horn: “Man, all the time somebody is telling me, ‘Cassius, you know I’m the one who made you.’ I know some guys in Louisville who used to give me a lift to the gym in their car when my motor scooter was broke down. Now they’re trying to tell me they made me, and how not to forget them when I get rich. And my daddy, he tickles me. He says, ‘Don’t listen to the others, boy; I made you.’ He says he made me because he fed me vegetable soup and steak when I was a baby, going without shoes to pay the food bill. Well, he’s my father and I guess more teenagers ought to realize what they owe their folks. But listen here. When you want to talk about who made me, you talk to me. Who made me is me.”

To Robert Lipsyte: “When I get that championship I’m gonna put on my old jeans and get an old hat and grow a beard and I’m gonna walk down an old country road where nobody knows me till I find a pretty little fox who don’t know my name, who just loves me for what I am. And then I’ll take her back to my $250,000 house overlooking my million dollar housing development, and I’ll show her all my Cadillacs and the indoor pool in case it rains, and I’ll tell her, ‘This is yours, honey, ’cause you love me for what I am.’”

“To Huston Horn, again: “The hardest part of the training is the loneliness. I just sit here like a little animal in a box at night. I can’t go out in the street and mix with the folks out there ’cause they wouldn’t be out there if they was up to any good. I can’t do nothing except sit. If it weren’t for Angelo, I’d go home. Here I am, surrounded by showgirls, whiskey and nobody watching me. All this temptation and me trying to train to be a boxer. It’s something to think about.”

To Dick Schaap: “I dream I’m running down Broadway. That’s the main street in Louisville, and all of a sudden there’s a truck coming at me. I run at the truck and I wave my arms, and then I take off and I’m flying. I go right up over the truck, and all the people are standing around and cheering and waving at me. And I wave back and I keep on flying. I dream that dream all the time.”

muhammed ali
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At one time or another, most people dream about being Superman. Saying anything they want, and knowing they can back it up. How many people have fantasized about taunting Mike Tyson or the functional equivalent? Telling him how ugly he is, how they’re going to whip him in the ring, make him crawl, and then going out and doing just that. That’s what Cassius Clay did to Sonny Liston.

HAROLD CONRAD: “Sonny Liston was a mean fucker. I mean, he had everybody scared stiff. People talk about Tyson before he got beat, but Liston, when he was champ, was more ferocious, more indestructible, and everyone thought, unbeatable. This was a guy who got arrested a hundred times, went to prison for armed robbery, got out, went back again for beating up a cop, and wound up being managed by organized crime. When Sonny gave you the evil eye—I don’t care who you were—you shrunk to two feet tall. And one thing more: He could fight like hell. They forget it now, but when Liston was champ, some people thought he was the greatest heavyweight of all time.”

The sole blot on Liston’s record was a 1954 decision loss to Marty Marshall, avenged by knockout seven months later. Thereafter, Liston improved as a fighter, wreaking havoc in the heavyweight division, and capturing the heavyweight crown by knocking out Floyd Patterson in one round. Ten months later, on July 22, 1963, Liston and Patterson met again, and Patterson fell in two minutes ten seconds. “A prizefight is like a cowboy movie,” Liston gloated. “There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pays their money to see me lose. Only in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins."

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And what did Cassius Clay have to say about Sonny Liston?

Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons. I’ll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles he’ll think he’s surrounded. I don’t just want to be champion of the world, I’m gonna be champion of the whole universe. After I whup Sonny Liston, I’m gonna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them won’t scare me none because they can’t be no uglier than Sonny Liston."

HAROLD CONRAD: “The campaign he launched to get a fight with Liston was genius. Right before the second Liston-Patterson fight, Clay followed Sonny out to Las Vegas. One night, Liston was in the casino—I think it was the Thunderbird Hotel—shooting craps. And Clay was standing against the wall, watching. Liston was a mean-tempered son-of-a-bitch, and he was losing, so naturally he’s mad. Liston picks up the dice and throws craps and there’s a big silence. Then a voice comes, ‘Look at that big ugly bear; he can’t even shoot craps.’ Liston glared at him, picked up the dice, and rolled again. Another craps. ‘Look at that big ugly bear. He can’t do nothing right.’ So Liston throws the dice down, walks over to Clay, and says, ‘Listen, you nigger faggot. If you don’t get out of here in ten seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.’ And Clay was scared. He walked; you better believe it. I asked him later, ‘Were you scared?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, man; that big ugly bear scared me bad.’ After that, people said Liston slapped him, but I was there, and I didn’t see that. You know how those stories are; after a while, they get bigger and bigger. He didn’t slap him, but he scared the shit out of him; you better believe it.”

Still, several nights later, Clay was at ringside for the second Liston-Patterson fight. Brought into the ring during the customary prefight introductions, he shook Patterson’s hand, looked toward Liston, threw his hands in the air in mock terror, and fled. Then, minutes after Patterson had been demolished, Clay was in the ring again. “The fight was a disgrace,” he shouted into a microphone. “Liston is a tramp; I’m the champ. I want that big ugly bear. I want that big bum as soon as I can get him. I’m tired of talking. If I can’t whip that bum, I’ll leave the country.”

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HOWARD BINGHAM: “I guess what Ali tried to do was drive Sonny Liston crazy. We had this bus. Ali bought it because he was afraid of flying. He used to say, one good thing about buses is, when they break down, they don’t fall thirty thousand feet. Anyway, we were in Chicago one day, and Ali got the idea to go to Liston’s house in Denver and drum up publicity to get the fight. We drove from Chicago just for that. It must have been a thousand miles each way. There was him and me and his brother Rudy and maybe a few others. We had a pretty good group. We took turns driving, and when one of us got tired, we changed in midroad. Whoever was driving would just lift up from the seat and the next guy would slide in. We got to Denver around two o’clock in the morning. Then Ali called some newspapers and radio stations, so by the time we got to Sonny’s house, there was a bunch of people there. I was the one who got sent out of the bus to the house to knock on the door. Liston came to the door in his bathrobe, looked out the peephole and said, ‘What do you want, you black motherfucker.’ You know that stare Sonny used to give opponents right before a fight when the referee was giving instructions. Well, that’s the look I got from Sonny that night. So I got back to the bus pretty fast. One of the guys was in the bus, honking the horn, and Ali was on the lawn screaming and hollering about how he was gonna whup Liston bad. We all hollered for a while, and then Sonny came out on the lawn, so we took off. I had a good time that night.”

MUHAMMAD ALI: “I was crazy then. But everyone wants to believe in himself. Everybody wants to be fearless. And when people saw I had those qualities, it attracted them to me. People ask me now, did I think out what I said and did ahead of time or did it just come to me? Some things I thought out, but most of the time, it just came to me. I guess it’s like people say; you have to be a little crazy to be a fighter.”

Muhammad Ali
  • Ali defeats Liston

  • Photo Credit: East Coast Gambler / Flickr (CC)

On November 5; 1963, Clay’s promotional efforts came to fruition, and a contract to fight Sonny Liston was signed. “We did not want this fight so soon,” Gordon Davidson, a lawyer for the Louisville Sponsoring Group, admitted in response to reporters’ questions at a press conference. “But Cassius insisted and we had to give in. We argued that he needed more experience, that Liston was too strong right now. No use. He wasn’t listening. We finally concluded Cassius doesn’t try to learn anything from one fight to the next and really doesn’t care about becoming one of the finest heavyweights who ever lived. All he wants is to be the richest. Wise or unwise, it’s his decision and his career.”10

MUHAMMAD ALI: “Everyone predicted that Sonny Liston would destroy me. And he was scary. But it’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself. I was confident I could whup him. So what I did was, I studied his style, I trained hard, and I watched Liston outside the ring. I went to his training camp and tried to understand what went on inside his head, so later on I could mess with his mind. And all the time, I was talking, talking. That way, I figured Liston would get so mad that, when the fight came, he’d try to kill me and forget everything he knew about boxing.”

The prefight buildup was vintage Clay.

Cassius Clay: “First five rounds, I’ll be circling that big ugly bear, making him move. He’s off balance whenever he reaches out with that jab, and every time he throws that jab I’ll just counter over it. I’ll be sticking and moving so fast the cameras won’t be able to detect my speed. After he loses that zip in the sixth, I’ll start pounding on him, Whop, Whop, Bop! Seventh round I’ll continue shaking him up. Pop, Pop. Eighth round he’ll be dazed, he’ll be frustrated, he’ll be tired and nervous. I’ll meet him before he gets off of his stool and I’ll be right on him faster than greased lightning. I’ll be tagging him with left hooks, jabs to the body, crosses to the head. Whop! Whop! Bop! Bop! And Cassius becomes the champion of the world! I’ll make him look so bad they’ll call it a mismatch.”

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Sonny Liston: “My only worry is how I’ll get my fist outta his big mouth once I get him in the ring. It’s gonna go so far down his throat, it’ll take a week for me to pull it out again. That’s my only worry, that loud-mouth.”

Cassius Clay: “I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I can’t possibly be beat. I’m ready to go to war right now. If I see that bear on the street, I’ll beat him before the fight. I’ll beat him like I’m his daddy. He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world’s champ should be pretty like me. If you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny, because I’ll never lose a fight. It’s impossible. I never lost a fight in my life. I’m too fast; I’m the king. I was born a champ in the crib. I’m going to put that ugly bear on the floor, and after the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him. People think I’m joking. I’m not joking; I’m serious. This will be the easiest fight of my life. The bum is too slow; he can’t keep up with me; I’m too fast. He’s old, I’m young. He’s ugly, I’m pretty. It’s just impossible for him to beat me. He knows I’m great. He went to school; he’s no fool. I predict that he will go in eight to prove that I’m great; and if he wants to go to heaven, I’ll get him in seven. He’ll be in a worser fix if I cut it to six. And if he keeps talking jive, I’ll cut it to five. And if he makes me sore, he’ll go like Archie Moore, in four. And if that don’t do, I’ll cut it to two. And if he run, he’ll go in one. And if he don’t want to fight, he should keep his ugly self home that night.”

Sonny Liston: “I might hurt that boy bad.”

I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I can’t possibly be beat.

Cassius Clay: “You tell this to your camera, your newspaper, your TV man, your radio man, you tell this to the world. If Sonny Liston whups me, I’ll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he’s the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country. I’m the greatest. Everywhere I go, I draw sellout crowds. If it wasn’t for me, the fight game would be dead. But for those of you out there who won’t be able to see the eighth round of the fight, here’s the eighth round exactly as it will happen:

Clay comes out to meet Liston

And Liston starts to retreat

If Liston goes back any further

He’ll end up in a ringside seat

Clay swings with a left

Clay swings with a right

Look at young Cassius

Carry the fight

Liston keeps backing

But there’s not enough room

It’s a matter of time

There, Clay lowers the boom

Now Clay swings with a right

What a beautiful swing

And the punch raises the bear

Clear out of the ring

Liston is still rising

And the ref wears a frown

For he can’t start counting

Till Sonny comes down

Now Liston disappears from view

The crowd is getting frantic

But our radar stations have picked him up

He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought

When they came to the fight

That they’d witness the launching

Of a human satellite

Yes, the crowd did not dream

When they lay down their money

That they would see

A total eclipse of the Sonny

I am the greatest!”

Want to keep reading? Download Muhammad Ali today.

Muhammad Ali

By Thomas Hauser

Featured photo: Alchetron 

Published on 22 Jan 2019

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