(Alex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) was originally published in the October 1964 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
Alex Haley Interviews Cassius ClayAlex Haley Interviews Cassius Clay (October 1964)
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942) is now a retired American boxer and three-time World Heavyweight Champion, who is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight championship boxers of all time.
As an amateur, Clay represented the United States and won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He returned home a hero, bringing back a gold medal and a poem: “To make America the greatest is my goal. So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole. And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.”
Clay’s first major professional fight was against Sonny Banks at Madison Square Garden in 1962. He predicted a victory, claiming that “to beat me, you got to be greater than great.” Clay—now known as The Louisville Lip—predicted not only victory, but the knock out round. Sure enough, Sonny Banks fell in four; Lavorante went down in five. The only one Clay misfired on was Don Warner, who he KO’d in the fourth, instead of the promised fifth. He explained: “I had to. He refused to shake my hand at the opening bell.”
Mouthwise, Clay met his match against Archie Moore in 1962. The fight was stopped in the fourth. Clay was the victor. Clay’s last tune-up fight for Liston was against British champ Henry Cooper. Clay’s call: “After five rounds Henry Cooper will think his name is [astronaut] Gordon Cooper. He’ll be in orbit!” Cooper was a TKO in five. The biggest challenge of Clay’s early career came against the ferocious Sonny Liston. Clay wasn’t intimidated: “It’s my time to howl, rumble, man, rumble, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” ~ Cassius Clay.
A Candid Conversation With The Flamboyantly Fast-Talking, Hard-Hitting Heavyweight Champ
It wasn’t until 9:55 on a night last February that anyone began to take seriously the extravagant boasts of Cassius Marcellus Clay: That was the moment when the redoubtable Sonny Liston, sitting dazed and disbelieving on a stool in Miami Beach’s Convention Hall, resignedly spat out his mouthpiece—and relinquished the world’s heavyweight boxing championship to the brash young braggart whom he, along with the nation’s sportswriters and nearly everyone else, had dismissed as a loudmouthed pushover.
Leaping around the ring in a frenzy of glee, Clay screamed, “I am the greatest! I am the king!”—the strident rallying cry of a campaign of self-celebration, punctuated with rhyming couplets predicting victory, which had rocketed him from relative obscurity as a 1960 Olympic Gold Medal winner to dubious renown as the “villain” of a title match with the least lovable heavyweight champion in boxing history. Undefeated in 100 amateur fights and all 18 professional bouts, the cocky 22-year-old had become, if not another Joe Louis, at least the world’s wealthiest poet (with a purse of $600,000), and one of its most flamboyant public figures.
Within 24 hours of his victory, he also became sports’ most controversial cause cèlébre when he announced at a press conference that he was henceforth to be billed on fight programs only as Muhammad Ali, his new name as a full-fledged member of the Black Muslims, the militant nationwide Negro religious cult that preaches racial segregation, black supremacy and unconcealed hostility toward whites.
Amidst the brouhaha that ensued—besieged by the world press, berated by more temperate Negro leaders, threatened with the revocation of his title—Cassius preened and prated in the limelight, using his world-wide platform as a pulpit for hymns of self-adulation and sermons on the virtues of Islam. Still full of surprises, he then proceeded to appoint himself as an international goodwill ambassador and departed with an entourage of six cronies on an 8000-mile tour of Africa and the Middle East, where he was received by several heads of state (including Ghana’s Nkrumah and Egypt’s Nasser), and was accorded, said observers, the warmest reception ever given an American visitor.
We approached the mercurial Muslim with our request for a searching interview about his fame, his heavyweight crown and his faith. Readily consenting, he invited us to join him on his peripatetic social rounds of New York’s Harlem, where he rents a three-room suite at the Hotel Theresa (in which another celebrated guest, Fidel Castro, hung his hat and plucked his chickens during a memorable visit to the UN).
For the next two weeks, we walked with him on brisk morning constitutionals, ate with him at immaculate Muslim restaurants (no pork served), sat with him during his daily shoeshine, rode with him in his chauffeured, air-conditioned Cadillac limousine on leisurely drives through Harlem. We interjected our questions as the opportunities presented themselves—between waves and shouts exchanged by the champion and ogling pedestrians, and usually over the din of the limousine’s dashboard phonograph, blaring Clay’s recording of “I Am the Greatest.” We began the conversation on our own blaring note.
Haley: Are you really the loudmouthed exhibitionist you seem to be, or is it all for the sake of publicity?
Clay: I been attracting attention ever since I been able to walk and talk. When I was just a little boy in school, I caught onto how nearly everybody likes to watch somebody that acts different. Like, I wouldn’t ride the school bus, I would run to school alongside it, and all the kids would be waving and hollering at me and calling me nuts. It made me somebody special. Or at recess time, I’d start a fight with somebody to draw a crowd. I always liked drawing crowds. When I started fighting serious, I found out that grown people, the fight fans, acted just like those school kids. Almost from my first fights, I’d bigmouth to anybody who would listen about what I was going to do to whoever I was going to fight, and people would go out of their way to come and see, hoping I would get beat. When I wasn’t no more than a kid fighter, they would put me on bills because I was a drawing card, because I run my mouth so much. Other kids could battle and get all bloody and lose or win and didn’t hardly nobody care, it seemed like, except maybe their families and their buddies. But the minute I would come in sight, the people would start to hollering “Bash in his nose!” or “Button his fat lip!” or something like that. You would have thought I was some well-known pro ten years older than I was. But I didn’t care what they said, long as they kept coming to see me fight. They paid their money, they was entitled to a little fun.
Haley: How did your first fight come about?
Clay: Well, on my twelfth birthday, I got a new bicycle as a present from my folks, and I rode it to a fair that was being held at the Columbia Gymnasium, and when I come out, my bike was gone. I was so mad I was crying, and a policeman, Joe Martin, come up and I told him I was going to whip whoever took my bike. He said I ought to take some boxing lessons to learn how to whip the thief better, and I did. That’s when I started fighting. Six weeks later, I won my first fight over another boy twelve years old, a white boy. And in a year I was fighting on TV. Joe Martin advised me against trying to just fight my way up in clubs and preliminaries, which could take years and maybe get me all beat up. He said I ought to try the Olympics, and if I won, that would give me automatically a number-ten pro rating. And that’s just what I did.
Haley: When did you hit upon the gimmick of reciting poetry?
Clay: Somewhere away back in them early fights in Louisville, even before I went to the Olympics, I started thinking about the poetry. I told a newspaperman before a fight, “This guy must be done / I’ll stop him in one.” It got in the newspaper, but it didn’t catch on then. Poetry didn’t even catch on with me until a lot later, when I was getting ready to fight Archie Moore. I think the reason then was that he talked so much, I had to figure up something new to use on him. That was when I told different reporters, “Moore will go in four.” When he did go down in four, just like I said, and the papers made so much of it, I knew I had stumbled on something good. And something else I found out was how it had bugged Archie Moore. Before the fight, some people got it to me that he was walking around and around in the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, saying over and over, “He’s not going to get me in no four, he’s not going to get me in no four”—and the next thing he knew, he was getting up off the floor. I been making up things that rhyme for every fight since.
Haley: Your poetry has been described by many critics as “horrible.” Do you think it is?
Clay: I bet my poetry gets printed and quoted more than any that’s turned out by the poem writers that them critics like. I don’t pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim to about what they’re criticizing, they ought to be doing that instead of just standing on the side lines using their mouth.
Haley: As your own best critic, what do you consider your finest poem?
Clay: I don’t know. The one the newspapers used the most, though, was the time I covered the water front with a poem I wrote before my fight with Doug Jones. I said, “Jones likes to mix / So I’ll let it go six. / If he talks jive / I’ll cut it to five. / And if he talks some more / I’ll cut it to four. / And if he talks about me / I’ll cut it to three. / And if that don’t do / I’ll cut it to two. / And if you want some fun / I’ll cut it to one. / And if he don’t want to fight / He can stay home that night.”
Haley: How often have you been right in predicting the round of a knockout?
Clay: I ain’t missed but twice. If you figure out the man you’re up against, and you know what you can do, then you can pretty much do it whenever you get ready. Once I call the round, I plan what I’m going to do in the fight. Like, you take Archie Moore. He’s a better fighter than Sonny Liston. He’s harder to hit, the way he bobs and weaves, and he’s smart. You get careless and he’ll drop you. I guess he knows more tricks in the ring than anybody but Sugar Ray. But he was fat and forty-five, and he had to be looking for a lucky punch before he got tired. I just had to pace myself so as to tire him. I hooked and jabbed him silly the first round, then I coasted the second. Right at the end of the second, he caught me with a good right on the jaw, but it didn’t do me no harm. Then I started out the third throwing leather on him, and when I could feel him wearing down, I slowed up, looking for my spots to hit him. And then in the fourth round, when I had said he was going down, I poured it on him again. And he did go down; he was nearly out. But he got up at eight. A few combinations sent him back down, and then the referee stopped it. It was just like I planned.
Haley: In that fight, you were twenty and Moore was forty-five. It’s often been said that you got to the top by beating a succession of carefully picked setups. What’s your response?
Clay: I didn’t beat nobody that wasn’t trying to beat me. I don’t care who I fought fair and beat, but they said something was wrong. Archie Moore, yeah, they said he was an old man. Doug Jones, he was one of the toughest fights I ever had. He was one of them what-round calls that I missed. I had said just before the fight, “I’ll shut the door on Jones in four,” but it went the limit, ten rounds. When the judges and referee gave me the decision, everybody was calling it a fix. Then Henry Cooper in London, after he caught me in the fourth with a right that sent me through the ropes, I took him out in the fifth just like I had said I would; I had said, “It ain’t no jive / Henry Cooper will go in five.” But sure enough, people said that Cooper hadn’t been in shape. I’m surprised they haven’t been saying Liston was underage, or something, since I whipped him good.
Haley: To get back to Archie Moore for a moment: Do you give him any credit, as a master of self-promotion, for helping you develop your own ballyhoo technique?
Clay: I learned a lot from the old man, yeah. He showed me some proof of what I had already figured out myself, that talking is a whole lot easier than fighting, and it was a way to get up fast. It’s a shame he wasn’t fighting big time when he was in his prime. It would have been like a young Satchel Paige in the big leagues. I picked up quick how the old man would talk up a fight to make a gate, how he’d talk it up that the guy he wanted next didn’t want no part of him. But the big difference between the old man and me is I’m bigger and louder and better. He believed in whispering something to reporters for them to print—but I believe in yelling.
Haley: At what point in your career did you first put this yelling technique into practice?
Clay: Right after I had won the Olympic Gold Medal. One day, back home in Louisville, I was riding on a bus. I was reading a paper about Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. I didn’t have no doubt I could beat either one of them, if I had a chance to fight them. But Machen, Folley, Jones and all of them other bums were standing in the way, and I decided I wasn’t just about to stand around like them. I’d won the Olympic title, that was all in the papers, but hadn’t nobody really heard of me, though, and they never would as long as I just sat thinking about it. Right there on that bus is where I figured I’d just open up my big mouth and start people listening and paying attention to me. Not just talking, but really screaming, and acting like some kind of a nut. That day was when I started out after getting in the ring with the champion.
Haley: Even though you never fought him officially, you did have a run-in of sorts with Ingemar Johansson, didn’t you?
Clay: Yeah. Boy, I sure made him mad! He hired me as his sparring partner in Miami, and by the end of the first round I had him pinned against the ropes, all shook up and very mad. And he hadn’t put a glove on me at the end of the second round. You talk about somebody upset! He was so mad he wanted me to go to Palm Beach, where we could spar in private. Not me! I wanted the newspapermen to see me if I did anything great and sensational.
Haley: Do you feel that you could have beaten Johansson?
Clay: I just finished telling you I did beat him. The only difference between that and a regular fight was that we had on headgear and we didn’t have no big fight crowd, and I didn’t have no contract.
Haley: After you had scored victories over Archie Moore, Charley Powell, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, how did you go about your campaign to get a match with Liston?
Clay: Well, the big thing I did is that until then, I had just been loudmouthing mostly for the public to hear me, to build up gates for my fights. I hadn’t never been messing personally with whoever I was going to fight—and that’s what I started when it was time to go after Liston. I had been studying Liston careful, all along, ever since he had come up in the rankings, and Patterson was trying to duck him. You know what Patterson was saying—that Liston had such a bad police record, and prison record and all that. He wouldn’t be a good example for boxing like Patterson would—the pure, clean-cut American boy.
Haley: You were saying you had been studying Liston . . .
Clay: Yeah. His fighting style. His strength. His punch. Like that—but that was just part of what I was looking at. Any fighter will study them things about somebody he wants to fight. The big thing for me was observing how Liston acted out of the ring. I read everything I could where he had been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him, or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, to try to get a good picture of how his mind worked. And that’s how I first got the idea that if I would handle the thing right, I could use psychology on him—you know, needle him and work on his nerves so bad that I would have him beat before he ever got in the ring with me. And that’s just what I did!
Clay: I mean I set out to make him think what I wanted him thinking; that all I was was some clown, and that he never would have to give a second thought to me being able to put up any real fight when we got to the ring. The more out of shape and overconfident I could get him to be, the better. The press, everybody—I didn’t want nobody thinking nothing except that I was a joke. Listen here, do you realize that of all them ring “experts” on the newspapers, wasn’t hardly one that wasn’t as carried away with Liston’s reputation as Liston was himself? You know what everybody was writing? Saying I had been winning my fights, calling the rounds, because I was fighting “nothing” fighters. Like I told you already, even with people like Moore and Powell and Jones and Cooper, the papers found some excuse; it never was that maybe I could fight. And when it come to Liston, they was all saying it was the end of the line for me. I might even get killed in there; he was going to put his big fist in my big mouth so far they was going to have to get doctors to pull it out, stuff like that. You couldn’t read nothing else. That’s how come, later on, I made them reporters tell me I was the greatest. They had been so busy looking at Liston’s record with Patterson that didn’t nobody stop to think about how it was making Liston just about a setup for me.
Haley: Would you elaborate?
Clay: I told you. Overconfidence. When Liston finally got to Patterson, he beat him so bad, plus that Patterson looked so bad, that Liston quit thinking about keeping himself trained. I don’t care who a fighter is, he has got to stay in shape. While I was fighting Jones and Cooper, Liston was up to his neck in all of that rich, fat ritual of the champion. I’d nearly clap my hands every time I read or heard about him at some big function or ceremony, up half the night and drinking and all that. I was looking at Liston’s age, too. Wasn’t nothing about him helping him to be sharp for me, whenever I got to him. I ain’t understood it yet that didn’t none of them “experts” ever realize these things.
What made it even better for me was when Liston just half-trained for the Patterson rematch, and Patterson looked worse yet—and Liston signed to fight me, not rating me even as good as he did Patterson. He felt like he was getting ready to start off on some bum-of-the-month club like Joe Louis did. He couldn’t see nothing at all to me but mouth. And you know I didn’t make no sound that wasn’t planned to keep him thinking in that rut. He spent more time at them Las Vegas gambling tables than he did at the punching bag. He was getting fatter and flabbier every day, and I was steady hollering louder to keep him that way: “I’m going to skin the big bear!” . . . “I’m the greatest!” . . . “I’m so pretty I can’t hardly stand to look at myself!” Like that. People can’t stand a blowhard, but they’ll always listen to him. Even people in Europe and Africa and Asia was hearing my big mouth. I didn’t miss no radio or television show or newspaper I could get in. And in between them, on the street, I’d walk up to people and they’d tell one another about what “that crazy Cassius Clay” said. And then, on top of this, what the public didn’t know was that every chance I got, I was needling Liston direct.
Clay: I don’t see no harm in telling it now. The first time, it was right after Liston had bought his new home in Denver, and my buddies and me was driving from Los Angeles to New York in my bus. This was Archie Robinson, who takes care of business for me, and Howard Bingham, the photographer, and some more buddies. I had bought this used thirty-passenger bus, a 1953 Flexible—you know, the kind you see around airports. We had painted it red and white with world’s most colorful fighter across the top. Then I had liston must go in eight painted across the side right after Liston took the title. We had been driving around Los Angeles, and up and down the freeways in the bus, blowing the horn, “Oink! Oink! Oink!” drawing people’s attention to me. When I say I’m colorful, I believe in being colorful. Anyway, this time, when we started out for New York, we decided it would be a good time to pay Liston a visit at his new house.
We had the address from the newspapers, and we pulled up in his front yard in the bus about three o’clock in the morning and started blowing: “Oink! Oink! Oink! Oink!” In other houses, lights went on and windows went up. You know how them white people felt about that black man just moved in there anyway, and we sure wasn’t helping it none. People was hollering things, and we got out with the headlights blazing and went up to Liston’s door, just about as Liston got there. He had on nylon shorty pajamas. And he was mad. He first recognized Howard Bingham, the photographer, whom he had seen in Los Angeles. “What you want, black mother?” he said to Howard. I was standing right behind Howard, flinging my cane back and forth in the headlights, hollering loud enough for everybody in a mile to hear me, “Come on out of there! I’m going to whip you right now! Come on out of there and protect your home! If you don’t come out of that door, I’m going to break it down!”
You know that look of Liston’s you hear so much about? Well, he sure had it on standing in that door that night. Man, he was tore up! He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to come out there after me, but he was already in enough troubles with the police and everything. And you know, if a man figures you’re crazy, he’ll think twice before he acts, because he figures you’re liable to do anything. But before he could make up his mind, the police came rushing in with all their sirens going, and they broke it up, telling us we would be arrested for disturbing the peace if we didn’t get out of there. So we left. You can bet we laughed all the way to New York.
Haley: You said this was your first direct needling of Liston. What came next?
Clay: Every time I got anywhere near him, I’d needle him. Sometimes it was just little things. I had to keep right on him, because I knew he was confused. He had told different people, who got it to me, that he was just going along with my clowning because it would help to build up a gate that would make money for him. So at first I couldn’t get him really mad, because he had this idea fixed in his mind. But I kept right on working on him. A man with Liston’s kind of mind is very funny. He ain’t what you would call a fast thinker. Like I am.
Haley: What do you mean by the “kind of mind” Liston has?
Clay: He’s got one of them bulldog kind of minds. You understand what I mean. Once he ever starts to thinking something, he won’t let hold of it quick.
Haley: And you feel that your mind is faster?
Clay: I know it is. What I did to Liston proves it. I’ll tell you another way I know. Nobody ever could have conned me the way I did him. If I know a man is going to get in the ring and try to beat me, and take the title, then anything he does outside of regular training, I figure he’s got some good reason, and I’d sit down and give his actions careful examination. Liston didn’t never even think about doing that. Neither did nobody around him, all of his advisors and trainers—didn’t even none of them think about it. Even if they had, they sure couldn’t have never told him that I represented danger. He was too fixed in his thinking. That’s what I mean by his kind of mind.
Haley: What other direct confrontations did you have with Liston before the fight?
Clay: Well, another time was just before we signed to fight. It was in Las Vegas. I was there to be on David Brinkley’s Journal, and it didn’t take me no time to find Liston at a gambling table. People was standing around watching him. He was shooting craps, and I walked up behind him and reached and took some of his chips. He turned around, and I said, “Man, you can’t shoot dice!” But he was good-humored. Maybe it was because the people were watching, and maybe he was seeing me helping build up a gate for the fight we were about to sign for—or maybe he was winning something for a change. I don’t know what it was that put him in good spirits, but I just kept right on him. I’d snatch up the dice from him. I could see I was beginning to get to him a little, but not enough. Finally, I had to shoot a loaded water pistol on him. That did it. But he still played it cool, trying to show the people he was trying to humor me. Naturally, the word had spread and people were piling around us. But then very suddenly, Liston froze me with that look of his. He said real quiet, “Let’s go on over here,” and he led the way to a table, and the people hung back. I ain’t going to lie. This was the only time since I have known Sonny Liston that he really scared me. I just felt the power and the meanness of the man I was messing with. Anybody tell me about how he has fought cops and beat up tough thugs and all of that, I believe it. I saw that streak in him. He told me, “Get the hell out of here or I’ll wipe you out.”
Haley: What did you do?
Clay: I got the hell out of there. I told you, he had really scared me.
Haley: Did you consider giving up your campaign to rattle him?
Clay: Oh, no, I never did think about that. Soon as I got time to think about how he had reacted, I saw I had started for the first time to really get under his skin, and I made up my mind right then that by the time we got to Miami in training, I was going to have him so mad that he would forget everything he knew about fighting, just trying to kill me.
Haley: Was the scene you made at the airport, when Liston arrived in Miami, part of the plan?
Clay: You know it. They were making such a big thing of his arriving, you would have thought the Cubans was landing. Well, I wasn’t just about to miss that! Liston came down off the plane, all cool, and the press was ganged around waiting for an interview. That was when I rushed in the scene, hollering, “Chump! Big ugly bear! I’m going to whip you right now!” Stuff like that. Police were grabbing for me and holding me and I was trying to break loose, and finally I did. I could see I was really turning Liston on. I got up close enough to him and he gave me that evil look again, but I wasn’t even thinking about him. “Look, this clowning, it’s not cute, and I’m not joking,” he said. And I nearly threw a fit. “Joking? Why, you big chump, I’ll whip you right here!” And people were grabbing me again, and somebody had rushed up one of them little VIP cars they have at airports. They got Liston, his wife and his bodyguard in it. Joe Louis and Jack Nilon were trying to calm things down. I saw the little car taking off down the tunnel. So I broke loose and took out after it. I was waving my cane, and hollering at Liston. In the tunnel, I guess he told the driver to stop, and he hopped off. Was he mad! He hollered, “Listen, you little punk, I’ll punch you in the mouth—this has gone too far!” Then people was rushing in and hollering at both of us, and I was throwing off my coat and shouting, “Come on chump, right here!” Finally Liston swung at me, and I ducked. He didn’t know he’d had his preview of the fight right then.
Haley: Who won?
Clay: I bet you it went on two hours before it really got settled. There weren’t no more swings, but Joe Louis and Jack Nilon and the cops and bodyguards got Liston in the airport lounge, and they were guarding the doors to keep me out. I was banging my cane on the door, hollering, “Free! I’ll fight you free!” I knew everybody inside could hear me. They couldn’t hear nothing else but me. “Free! You think I’m jiving, chump? I’ll fight you free, right here!”
Haley: And, of course, it was all an act?
Clay: Completely—and it was also building the gate. At least, if it hadn’t been for the reporters, it would have been a better gate. But right then I didn’t want nobody in Miami, except at my camp, thinking I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t want nobody never thinking nothing about I had any fighting ability.
Haley: Why do you say that if it hadn’t been for the reporters, the gate would have been better?
Clay: They made people think that Liston was so mean and I was so nothing that they would be throwing away money to buy a ticket. There was over sixteen thousand seats in that Convention Hall, and it was only about half full. I read where the promoter, Bill MacDonald, lost something like three hundred thousand dollars. But he sure can’t blame me for it. I was the one that let him get seat prices up as high as two hundred and fifty dollars. I was the first fighter who ever talked a fight into being bounced off Telstar to fifty nations. I got more publicity than any fight ever had. I’m colorful when I rumble. But the people listened to the so-called “experts.” If they had listened to me, that Convention Hall would have been overflowing even if they had charged twice the prices.
Haley: But the reporters’ attitudes, you have said, were in the best interests of your strategy.
Clay: It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. They still made me mad. But, lookahere, I wasn’t nearly about done with Liston yet. I mean, right up to the fight I was messing with him. Everybody in my camp carried canes and wore jackets with bear-hunting across the back. Guys from my camp went into Liston’s camp, standing around, watching him training, until Liston quit to personally order them out. We put out the word that we was going to raid Liston’s camp. He got so jumpy and under strain that every day, different reporters would come telling me, serious, “Stop angering that man—he will literally kill you!” It was music to my ears. It meant if he was that mad, he had lost all sense of reasoning. If he wasn’t thinking nothing but killing me, he wasn’t thinking fighting. And you got to think to fight.
Haley: The press was generally unimpressed with your workouts, and the Liston camp knew it. Was that part of your plan, too?
Clay: You ain’t so stupid. I made sure nobody but my people saw me really working out. If anybody else was around, I didn’t do no more than go through motions. But look, I’m going to tell you where Liston really lost to fight. Or when he lost it. Every day we had been leaking word over there that we were going to pull our raid that day. The Liston people got to the mayor and the police, and we got cautioned that we’d be arrested if we did it. So we made a court case out of it. We requested legal permission to picket Liston’s camp, but we were told that a city ordinance prevented carrying signs. We had paid, I remember, three hundred and twenty-five dollars for signs like big ugly bear, bear-hunting season, too pretty to be a fighter, bear must fall, and like that. So we taped the signs all over my bus. It wasn’t no ordinance against signs on a bus. And we loaded the bus up with people from my camp, and screaming teenage girls, and we drove over there and caused such a commotion that people left off from watching Liston train, and we heard he nearly had a fit. One of his men—I know his name, but I guess I better not call it—even pulled a knife on Howard Bingham. Joe Louis run and asked the guy what in the world was the matter with him. But that’s the day Liston lost. We heard he went to pieces. It wasn’t long before the weigh-in, where they said I was the one went to pieces.
Haley: One doctor described your conduct at the weigh-in as “dangerously disturbed.” Another said you acted “scared to death.” And seasoned sportswriters used such terms as “hysterical” and “schizophrenic” in reporting your tantrum, for which you were fined twenty-five hundred dollars. What was the real story?
Clay: I would just say that it sounds like them doctors and sportswriters had been listening to each other. You know what they said and wrote them things for—to match in what they expected was about to happen. That’s what I keep on telling you. If all of them had had their way, I wouldn’t have been allowed in the ring.
Haley: Had you worked out a fight plan by this time?
Clay: I figured out my strategy and announced it months before the fight: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is what I said.
Haley: We read that. But what specifically did you mean?
Clay: To start with, I knew that Liston, overconfident as he was, and helped by reading what all of the newspapers were saying, he never was going to train to fight more than two rounds. I don’t know if you happened to read it later that some of his handlers admitted, after the fight, that this was exactly what he did. So that was my guide how to train, to pace myself. You know, a fighter can condition his body to go hard certain rounds, then to coast certain rounds. Nobody can fight fifteen rounds. So I trained to fight the first two rounds, and to protect myself from getting hit by Liston. I knew that with the third, he’d start tiring, then he’d get worse every round. So I trained to coast the third, fourth and fifth rounds. I had two reasons for that. One was that I wanted to prove I had the ability to stand up to Liston. The second reason was that I wanted him to wear himself out and get desperate. He would be throwing wild punches, and missing. If I just did that as long as he lasted on his feet, I couldn’t miss winning the fight on points. And so I conditioned myself to fight full steam from the sixth through the ninth round, if it lasted that long. I never did think it would go past nine rounds. That’s why I announced I’d take him in eight. I figured I’d be in command by the sixth. I’d be careful—not get hit—and I’d cut him up and shake him up until he would be like a bull, just blind, and missing punches until he was nearly crazy. And I planned that some time in the eighth, when he had thrown some punch and left himself just right, I’d be all set, and I’d drop him.
Listen here, man, I knew I was going to upset the world! You know the only thing I was scared of? I was scared that some of them newspaper “experts” was going to quit praising Liston’s big fists long enough to wake up and see what was just as clear as day to me and my camp; and if they printed it, that Liston’s camp people might be able to get it into his skull. But I was lucky; that didn’t happen. Them newspaper people couldn’t have been working no better for me if I had been paying them.
Haley: Then the fight went about as you had planned?
Clay: Almost. He came in there at two hundred and twenty pounds, and untrained to go more than two rounds, and as old as he is—too old—against a kid, and I didn’t have an ounce of fat on me. And he didn’t have no respect for me as a fighter. He was figuring on killing me inside of two rounds. He was a perfect setup. If you remember, I didn’t throw many punches, but when I did, they made their mark. I have vicious combinations, and just like I had planned, I hurt his body and I closed his eyes.
Haley: But Liston did do you some damage, too.
Clay: You don’t expect to fight no fighter without getting hit sometime. But you don’t want to get hurt bad, and knocked out—that’s the point. Yeah, he hit me some damaging punches. With all the talking I been doing, ain’t nobody never heard me say Liston can’t hit. He got me in the first with a right to the stomach. In the second, I made the mistake of getting maneuvered on the ropes, and he got in some good shots. And in the last of that second round, after I had cut his eye, he really staggered me there for a minute with a long, hard left. In fact, he did me more damage with that than any other punch. In the fifth, when that stuff—rosin, I guess it was—was in my eyes, and I couldn’t see, he hit me with a good left hook to the head.
Haley: Would you be able to give us a round-by-around account of the fight from your viewpoint?
Clay: Yeah, I guess I could. The first round, I beat him out, dancing, to keep from getting hit. He was shuffling that way he does, giving me that evil eye. Man, he meant to kill me, I ain’t kidding! He was jabbing his left—but missing. And I was backpedaling, bobbing, weaving, ducking. He missed with a right hook that would have hurt me. I got away from that, but that was when he got me with that right to my stomach. I just kept running, watching his eyes. Liston’s eyes tip you when he’s about to throw a heavy punch. Some kind of way, they just flicker. He didn’t dream that I’d suddenly stop running when I did, if you remember—and I hit him with a good left and then a flurry of lefts and rights. That was good for points, you know. He nearly flipped, and came after me like a bull. I was hitting and ducking at the same time; that’s how neither one of us heard the bell, and was still fighting after it. I remember I got to my corner thinking, “He was supposed to kill me. Well, I’m still alive. “Angelo Dundee was working over me, talking a mile a minute. I just watched Liston, so mad he didn’t even sit down. I thought to myself, “You gonna wish you had rested all you could when we get past this next round.” I could hear some radio or television expert, all excited, you know the way they chatter. The big news was that I hadn’t been counted out yet.
Then, at the second-round bell, just like I knew he would, Liston come at me throwing everything. He was going to make up for looking so bad that I had lasted one round. This was when he got me on the ropes, where everybody had said he was supposed to kill me. He hit me some, but I weaved and ducked away from most of his shots. I remember one time feeling his arm grazing the back of my neck and thinking—it was like I shouted to myself—”All I got to do is keep this up.” And I got out from under and I caught him with some lefts and rights. Then I saw that first cut, high up on his cheekbone. When a man’s first cut, it usually looks a bright pink. Then I saw the blood, and I knew that eye was my target from then on. It was my concentrating on that cut that let me get caught with the hardest punch I took, that long left. It rocked me back. But he either didn’t realize how good I was hit or he was already getting tired, and he didn’t press his chance. I sure heard the bell that time. I needed to get to my corner to get my head clear.
Starting in the third round, I saw his expression, how shook he was that we were still out there and he was the one cut and bleeding. He didn’t know what to do. But I wasn’t about to get careless, like Conn did that time against Joe Louis. This was supposed to be one of my coasting, resting rounds, but I couldn’t waste no time. I needed one more good shot, for some more insurance with that eye. So when the bell rang, I just tested him, to see was he tiring, and he was; and then I got him into the ropes. It didn’t take but one good combination. My left was square on his right eye, and a right under his left eye opened a deep gash. I knew it was deep, the way the blood spurted right out. I saw his face up close when he wiped his glove at that cut and saw the blood. At that moment, let me tell you, he looked like he’s going to look twenty years from now. Liston was tiring fast in the fourth, and I was coasting. We didn’t neither one do very much. But you can bet it wasn’t nobody in there complaining they wasn’t getting their money’s worth.
Then, in the fifth, all of a sudden, after one exchange of shots, there was a feeling in my eyes like some acid was in them. I could see just blurry. When the bell sounded, it felt like fire, and I could just make it back to my corner, telling Angelo, “I can’t see!” And he was swabbing at my eyes. I could hear that excited announcer; he was having a fit. “Something seems to be wrong with Clay!” It sure was something wrong. I didn’t care if it was a heavyweight title fight I had worked so long for, I wasn’t going out there and get murdered because I couldn’t see. Every time I blinked it hurt so bad I said, “Cut off my gloves, Angelo—leave me out of here.” Then I heard the bell, and the referee, Barney Felix, yelled to me to get out there, and at the same time Angelo was pushing me up, shouting, “This is the big one, daddy. We aren’t going to quit now!” And I was out there again, blinking. Angelo was shouting, “Stay away from him! Stay away!” I got my left in Liston’s face and kept it there, kind of staving him off, and at the same time I knew where he was. I was praying he wouldn’t guess what was the matter. But he had to see me blinking, and then he shook me with that left to the head and a lot of shots to the body. Now, I ain’t too sorry it happened, because it proved I could take Liston’s punching. He had found some respect for me, see? He wasn’t going so much for the knockout; he was trying to hurt my body, then try for a kill. Man, in that round, my plans were gone. I was just trying to keep alive, hoping the tears would wash out my eyes. I could open them just enough to get a good glimpse of Liston, and then it hurt so bad I blinked them closed again. Liston was snorting like a horse. He was trying to hit me square, and I was just moving every which way, because I knew if he connected right, it could be all over right there.
But in the corner after that fifth round, the stuff pretty well washed out of my eyes. I could see again, and I was ready to carry the fight to Liston. And I was gaining my second wind now, as I had conditioned myself, to pace the fight, like I was telling you. My corner people knew it, and they were calling to me, “Get mad, baby!” They knew I was ready to go the next three rounds at top steam, and I knew I was going to make Liston look terrible. I hit him with eight punches in a row, until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like, “Yeah, you old sucker! You try to be so big and bad!” He was gone. He knew he couldn’t last. It was the first time in the fight that I set myself flat-footed. I missed a right that might have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before. I knew he wasn’t due to last much longer. Then, right at the end of the round, I rocked back his head with two left hooks.
I got back to my stool, and under me I could hear the press like they was gone wild. I twisted around and hollered down at the reporters right under me, “I’m gonna upset the world!” I never will forget how their faces was looking up at me like they couldn’t believe it. I happened to be looking right at Liston when that warning buzzer sounded, and I didn’t believe it when he spat out his mouthpiece. I just couldn’t believe it—but there it was laying there. And then something just told me he wasn’t coming out! I give a whoop and come off that stool like it was red hot. It’s a funny thing, but I wasn’t even thinking about Liston—I was thinking about nothing but that hypocrite press. All of them down there had wrote so much about me bound to get killed by the big fists. It was even rumors that right after the weigh-in I had been taken to the asylum somewhere, and another rumor that I had caught a plane and run off. I couldn’t think about nothing but all that. I went dancing around the ring, hollering down at them reporters, “Eat your words! Eat! Eat!” And I hollered at the people, “I am the king!”
Haley: Despite your victory, the fight ended under a cloud of doubt about the genuineness of Liston’s arm injury. What’s your own opinion?
Clay: Eight doctors said his arm was hurt. I ain’t going to argue with no eight doctors’ opinion. And I don’t mean that I think nothing different at all. You take a man punching with the strength and force Liston has in a punch; if all he connects with is air—because wherever he hit, I wasn’t there—then, yeah, I think it explains how he could have torn a muscle.
Haley: There was another controversy about the honesty of your failure to pass the three Army preinduction qualification tests that you took shortly after the fight. Any comment?
Clay: The truth don’t hurt nobody. The fact is I never was too bright in school. I just barely graduated. I had a D-minus average. I ain’t ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month? But when I looked at a lot of the questions they had on them Army tests, I just didn’t know the answers. I didn’t even know how to start after finding the answers. That’s all. So I didn’t pass. It was the Army’s decision that they didn’t want me to go in the service. They’re the boss. I don’t want to say no whole lot about it.
Haley: Was it embarrassing to be declared mentally unfit?
Clay: I have said I am the greatest. Ain’t nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest.
Haley: What is your feeling about the fact that your purse was withheld after the fight?
Clay: I don’t understand it. I’m not involved in any tax problems. How can they justify holding up my money? But let me tell you something: Money and riches don’t mean nothing to me. I don’t care nothing about being no rich individual. I’m not living for glory or for fame; all this is doomed for destruction. You got it today, tomorrow it’s gone. I got bigger things on my mind than that. I got Islam on my mind.
Haley: Speaking of Islam, the National Boxing Association announced that it was considering the revocation of your heavyweight title because of your membership in the Black Muslims, which you announced just after the fight. Have you heard any official word on their decision?
Clay: It just fizzled out. But until it did, the N. B. A. was going to condemn me, try me, sentence me and execute me, all by themselves. Ain’t this country supposed to be where every man can have the religion he wants, even no religion if that’s what he wants? It ain’t a court in America that would take a man’s job, or his title, because of his religious convictions. The Constitution forbids Congress from making any laws involving a man’s religion. But the N. B. A. would take it on itself to take away my title—for what? What have I done to hurt boxing? I’ve helped boxing. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t bother with nobody. Ain’t it funny they never said nothing about Liston? He’s been arrested for armed robbery, beating up cops, carrying concealed weapons, and I don’t know what all. And how come they didn’t lift Gene Fullmer’s title? He was a Mormon. His religion believes Negroes are inferior; they ban Negroes from membership. But I guess that’s all right. The N. B. A. don’t have no power noway. They can’t stop nobody from fighting. And even if they could, it wouldn’t matter, because I don’t put that much value on no heavyweight crown anyway. Time was when I did, but that was before I found the religious convictions that I have. When I started getting attacked so bad because I am a Muslim, I had to decide, if it would come to me having to give up one or the other, what was most important to me, my religion or my fighting. I made up my mind that I could give up fighting and never look back. Because it’s a whole pile of other ways I could make a living. Me being the world heavyweight champion feels very small and cheap to me when I put that alongside of how millions of my poor black brothers and sisters are having to struggle just to get their human rights here in America. Maybe God got me here for a sacrifice. I don’t know. But I do know that God don’t want me to go down for standing up.
Haley: What or who made you decide to join the Muslims?
Clay: Nobody or nothing made me decide. I make up my mind for myself. In 1960, in Miami, I was training for a fight. It wasn’t long after I had won the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal over there in Rome. Herb Siler was the fellow I was going to fight, I remember. I put him on the floor in four. Anyway, one day this Muslim minister came to meet me and he asked me wouldn’t I like to come to his mosque and hear about the history of my forefathers. I never had heard no black man talking about no forefathers, except that they were slaves, so I went to a meeting. And this minister started teaching, and the things he said really shook me up. Things like that we twenty million black people in America didn’t know our true identities, or even our true family names. And we were the direct descendants of black men and women stolen from a rich black continent and brought here and stripped of all knowledge of themselves and taught to hate themselves and their kind. And that’s how us so-called “Negroes” had come to be the only race among mankind that loved its enemies. Now, I’m the kind that catches on quick. I said to myself, listen here, this man’s saying something! I hope don’t nobody never hit me in the ring hard as it did when that brother minister said the Chinese are named after China, Russians after Russia, Cubans after Cuba, Italians after Italy, the English after England, and clear on down the line everybody was named for somewhere he could call home, except us. He said, “What country are we so-called ‘Negroes’ named for? No country! We are just a lost race.” Well, boom! That really shook me up.
Haley: Was that when you joined the Muslims?
Clay: Not right then, no. Before I joined, I attended a lot of mosque meetings in different places I went. I never did come out of a meeting not understanding something I hadn’t known or even thought about before. Everywhere I looked, I started seeing things in a new light. Like, I remember right in our house back in Louisville, all the pictures on the walls were white people. Nothing about us black people. A picture of a white Jesus Christ. Now, what painter ever saw Jesus? So who says Jesus was white? And all my life, I had been seeing the black man getting his head whipped by the white man, and stuck in the white man’s jails, and things like that. And myself, I had to admit that up to then, I had always hated being black, just like other Negroes, hating our kind, instead of loving one another. The more I saw and thought, the more the truth made sense to me. Whatever I’m for, I always have believed in talking it up, and the first thing you know, I was in Muslim meetings calling out just like the rest, “Right, brother! Tell it, brother! Keep it coming!” And today my religion is Islam, and I’m proud of it.
Haley: How has it changed your life?
Clay: In every way. It’s pulled me up and cleaned me up as a human being.
Haley: Can you be more explicit?
Clay: Well, before I became a Muslim, I used to drink. Yes, I did. The truth is the truth. And after I had fought and beat somebody, I didn’t hardly go nowhere without two big, pretty women beside me. But my change is one of the things that will mark me as a great man in history. When you can live righteous in the hell of North America—when a man can control his life, his physical needs, his lower self, he elevates himself. The downfall of so many great men is that they haven’t been able to control their appetite for women.
Haley: But you have?
Clay: We Muslims don’t touch a woman unless we’re married to her.
Haley: Are you saying that you don’t have affairs with women?
Clay: I don’t even kiss a woman. I’m ashamed of myself, but sometimes I’ve caught myself wishing I had found Islam about five years from now, maybe—with all the temptations I have to resist. But I don’t even kiss none, because you get too close, it’s almost impossible to stop. I’m a young man, you know, in the prime of life.
Haley: You mention temptations. What are they?
Clay: All types of women—white women, too—make passes at me. Girls find out where I live and knock at the door at one and two in the morning. They send me their pictures and phone numbers, saying please just telephone them, they would like to meet me, do I need a secretary? I’ve even had girls come up here wearing scarves on their heads, with no make-up and all that, trying to act like young Muslim sisters. But the only catch is a Muslim sister never would do that.
Haley: Did you have any other religious affiliation before Islam?
Clay: When I was twelve years old, and didn’t know what I was doing, I was baptized in the Centennial Baptist Church in Louisville.
Haley: Have you given up Christianity, then?
Clay: The Christian religion has just been used to brainwash the black man here in America. It has just taught him to look for his heaven in the sky, in the hereafter, while the white man enjoys his heaven here on earth.
Haley: As the owner of four Cadillacs and the recipient of a six-hundred-thousand dollar purse earned largely from white patronage of your fight with Liston, do you think that assertion is entirely true in your own case?
Clay: Have you heard anybody complaining he didn’t get his money’s worth? No! All of the noise is about my religion, something that has nothing to do with fighting. They didn’t mind my being champion until they found out I was a Muslim. Then they didn’t want nothing to do with me. White people, they worry more about Islam than they do about the championship.
Haley: Don’t you feel that whites have some reason for concern that the heavyweight champion belongs to an organization that is alleged to teach hatred of whites?
Clay: Look, the black man that’s trying to integrate, he’s getting beat up and bombed and shot. But the black man that says he don’t want to integrate, he gets called a “hate teacher.” Lookahere, now Chubby Checker is catching hell with a white woman. And I’m catching hell for not wanting a white woman. The followers of Mr. Elijah Muhammad, we’re not trying to marry no white man’s sisters and daughters. We’re not trying to force our way into no white neighborhoods. It look like to me that the white people who are so against integrated schools and restaurants and hotels ought to be glad about what Mr. Muhammad is teaching his followers. The only way for peace between the races is a separation of the races.
Haley: Are you against the Civil Rights Act, then?
Clay: I think that the Civil Rights Act will lead to bloodshed. It already has. It won’t change people’s hearts. But I don’t call it hate. I call it human nature. I don’t think that white people hate colored people. You just don’t never see a rabbit eating with a lion. I think that all of this “integration” started backfiring when it put the white man on the spot. It ain’t going to go on much further. I think that the black man needs to get together with his own kind. He needs to say, “Let’s don’t go where we’re not wanted.” You take Sonny Liston. He was the champion of the world, and that’s supposed to include America. But when he tried to buy a house in a segregated neighborhood in Miami, he was turned down. The white people don’t want integration: I don’t believe in forcing it and the Muslims don’t either.
Haley: Is that why you’ve chosen to live in Harlem?
Clay: Right. I could be living all exclusive, downtown, in some skyscraper hotel. I could be living right up in the hotel’s penthouse, with my friends in rooms all around me. But I don’t want none of that. I stay right in the heart of Harlem, in a place that a workingman with a good job could afford. I’m just used to being around my own people. I like being around my own people. It’s just human nature to enjoy being around your own kind. I don’t want no trouble. I am up here in the heart of blacktown. I can’t find nothing wrong with that, but it seems to bother everybody else, it looks like. I been around my own people all of my life. Why would I want to try to leave them now? You have to be all the time putting on an act when you’re trying to live and hang around somewhere you’re not wanted, or they just put up with you for your money. I’m at ease living among my people. I’m never all tensed up; I don’t have to be a side show all the time. I’m around unity, rhythm and soul. Our people are warm people. I don’t like to be around cold people. I go out every morning early and walk up and down in the streets, and I talk to winos and the working people and everybody. I stand where they go down to the subway, and I say hello. I’m different from when Patterson was the champ. He wasn’t anywhere near as popular as I am—not among our people, anyway.
Haley: What do you have to say about the fact that many Negroes, including several Negro leaders, have said that they have no desire to be identified with a heavyweight champion who is a Black Muslim?
Clay: It’s ridiculous for Negroes to be attacking somebody trying to stand up for their own race. People are always telling me “what a good example I could set for my people” if I just wasn’t a Muslim. I’ve heard over and over how come I couldn’t have been like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well, they’re gone now, and the black man’s condition is just the same, ain’t it? We’re still catching hell. The fact is that my being a Muslim moved me from the sports pages to the front pages. I’m a whole lot bigger man than I would be if I was just a champion prizefighter. Twenty-four hours a day I get offers—to tour somewhere overseas, to visit colleges, to make speeches. Places like Harvard and Tuskegee, television shows, interviews, recordings. I get letters from all over. They are addressed to me in ways like “The Greatest Boxer in the World, U.S.A.” and they come straight to me wherever they’re mailed from. People want to write books about me. And I ought to have stock in Western Union and cable companies, I get so many of them. I’m trying to show you how I been elevated from the normal stature of fighters to being a world figure, a leader, a statesman.
Clay: That’s what I said. Listen, after I beat Liston, some African diplomats invited me to the United Nations. And because I’m a Muslim, I was welcomed like a king on my tour of Africa and the Middle East. I’m the first world champion that ever toured the world that he is champion of.
Haley: Is it true that you incensed Nigerians during your tour, by reneging on a promise to fight an exhibition match there, and by making the remark, on departing for Egypt, that “Cairo is more important than Nigeria”?
Clay: It was a whole lot of confusion going on. We had planned a week in Nigeria, then a week in Ghana. But when we got over there, somehow with all kinds of this and that functions calling for me, our whole schedule got messed up. One Sunday I come back from Ghana to Nigeria to fight that exhibition. It was arranged for us to get to Cairo that Wednesday. Then my exhibition fight date got put forward. I figured it would make us disappoint the Cairo government that had bumped people off planes for us, things like that. So I said how important it was to get to Cairo on time. But when somebody got done quoting it, it wasn’t told like I had said it. Any time you hear about me insulting black people, it’s a lie. Anyway, wasn’t nobody over there mad at me because of my religion. Somebody told me over there that I got the biggest welcome ever given to any American.
Haley: You met both Prime Minister Nkrumah of Ghana and Egypt’s President Nasser on the trip. What was your impression of them?
Clay: Well, I looked at Prime Minister Nkrumah, and it come to me that he looked just like so many Negroes in America—except there he was, the head of a country. And President Nasser, one of the six most powerful men in the world, he welcomed me as a Black Muslim, just as friendly as if he had been knowing me all my life.
Haley: Apart from influential friends, what do you feel you got out of the trip?
Clay: Well, it showed me what Mr. Elijah Muhammad’s teachings had taught me: that Africa is the home of Original Man, the black man, and that Africa, where the slaves was stolen from, has all kinds of rich history. And it is the richest continent on earth. Everybody knows that the biggest diamond ever found was found in black Africa. And let me tell you something—it wasn’t just seeing the new buildings and cars and stuff; it’s what you feel in Africa. Black people that’s free and proud—they don’t feel like that over here. I never have felt it here except among my Muslim brothers and sisters.
Haley: Your Muslim activities will soon have to be interrupted long enough to defend your title against Sonny Liston in your upcoming rematch. Now that he’s familiar with your strategy and skills, do you think he’ll be a tougher opponent?
Clay: I know one thing: He would have to think he could put up a better fight than he did the last time. Liston has been through quite a bit.
Haley: Do you think he’ll put up a better fight?
Clay: Maybe, but I’ll have the edge again. Liston will be fighting a comeback. He’ll be in the position of having to prove he can beat me. So he’ll come in that ring scared he’s going to lose. A lot of people still refuse to accept it, but Liston knows he was whipped by a better boxer. Another thing, don’t never forget that boxing is for young men. How old is Liston?
Haley: According to published reports, around thirty-two.
Clay: Well, I hear he’s pushing forty. He ain’t physically capable of forcing a body that old through four and a half months of the strong training a fighter would need to meet a young, strong fighter like me.
Haley: Doug Jones has been touted as another possible contender for your title. What’s your appraisal of him?
Clay: He’s a good, strong man, a good boxer. He’s fast, and he’s got determination. He’s the possible champ after I quit.
Haley: How about Patterson? Do you think he has a chance to regain his title a second time?
Clay: Patterson! Don’t make me laugh. I’m a natural heavyweight, and he was never anything but a blown-up light-heavy. He could never take my punches. I could play with him, cut him up and take him out whenever I got ready. And he knows it. That’s why he always ducked me when he was champ. He ain’t no fool. You know, at the Olympic games in Rome, I told Patterson, “Two, three years from now, I’m going to take your title.” He said, “You’re a good kid, keep trying, kid.” Well, I bet you he has since thought that over many a day.
Haley: If he knows he couldn’t beat you, how do you explain his recent campaign to meet you in a title match?
Clay: Only reason he’s decided to come out of his shell now is to try and make himself a big hero to the white man by saving the heavyweight title from being held by a Muslim. I wish you would print for Patterson to read that if he ever convinces my managers to let him in the same ring with me, it’s going to be the first time I ever trained to develop in myself a brutal killer instinct. I’ve never felt that way about nobody else. Fighting is just a sport, a game, to me. But Patterson I would want to beat to the floor for the way he rushed out of hiding after his last whipping, announcing that he wanted to fight me because no Muslim deserved to be the champ. I never had no concern about his having the Catholic religion. But he was going to jump up to fight me to be the white man’s champion. And I don’t know no sadder example of nobody making a bigger fool of himself. I don’t think three more weeks had passed before it was in the papers about him trying to sell his big, fine home in a so-called “integrated” neighborhood because his white neighbors wouldn’t speak to his family, and white children were calling his children “nigger” and a white man next door even had put up a fence to keep from having to even see Patterson. I ain’t never read nothing no more pitiful than how Patterson told the newspapers, “I tried to integrate—it just didn’t work.” It’s like when he was the champion, the only time he would be caught in Harlem was when he was in the back of a car, waving, in some parade. The big shot didn’t have no time for his own kind, he was so busy “integrating.” And now he wants to fight me because I stick up for black people. I’ll tell him again, he sure better think five or six times before he gets into any ring with me.
Haley: Are there any other active heavyweights, apart from Doug Jones, whom you rate as title contenders?
Clay: Not in my class, of course. But below that, after Jones—and Liston—there’s Ernie Terrell. He’s a tall boy, a good left jab. He moves good, but he tires easy. He doesn’t have enough experience to take me on yet. But he’s a good kid. And Cleveland Williams. If he even dreamed he fought me, he’d apologize. He needs a lot more experience. Liston knocked him out twice. Williams, if he’s pressured, will quit in a minute. I can’t see any more after these. I don’t really even watch fighting much, except films of the greatest.
Haley: Just you?
Clay: Just me.
Haley: Are you the greatest now fighting, or the greatest in boxing history?
Clay: Now, a whole lot of people ain’t going to like this. But I’m going to tell you the truth—you asked me. It’s too many great old champions to go listing them one by one. But ain’t no need to. I think that Joe Louis, in his prime, could have whipped them all—I mean anyone you want to name. And I would have beat Louis. Now, look—people don’t like to face the facts. All they can think about is Joe Louis’ punch. Well, he did have a deadly punch, just like Liston has a deadly punch. But if Louis didn’t hit nothing but air, like Liston didn’t with me, then we got to look at other things. Even if Louis did hit me a few times, remember they all said Liston was a tougher one-punch man than even Joe Louis. And I took some of Liston’s best shots. Remember that. Then, too, I’m taller than Louis. But I tell you what would decide the fight: I’m faster than Louis was. No, Louis and none of the rest of them couldn’t whip me. Look—it ain’t never been another fighter like me. Ain’t never been no nothing like me.
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the October 1964 issue of Playboy. © 1964 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)