Muhammad Ali
Credit: Neil Leifer / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images
His is a story of how a young man took fear – personal fear, and dread instilled by the history of his people in America – and transmuted it into something that fear itself should be afraid of. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, the firstborn child of Cassius Clay Sr. and his wife, Odessa. Odessa was light-skinned – she had some white lineage in both her parents' families, which Ali later attributed to rape, though that wasn't the case. She was a genial woman who worked as a cook and housecleaner for highborn white families and tried to impress dignity on her children. Some believe Ali probably inherited his good humor from her.

Cassius Clay Sr. had a different heritage and temperament. He was a black man named after a white 19th-century plantation owner who became an ardent abolitionist and freed his slaves. Clay Sr. took pride in this legacy, but he knew as well that life in white America, in the border state of Kentucky, had checked his hopes. He had wanted to be an artist; instead, he was a sign painter. He also harbored no illusions about the realities of race in the American South. Ali recounted his father telling him of the horrible fate of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black from Chicago who was beaten and shot in the head in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 for speaking to a white female cashier at a grocery store. The images of Till's mutilated corpse stayed in young Ali's mind. "In one," he said in his autobiography, The Greatest, "he was laughing and happy. In the other, he was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets." He later told Gordon Parks, in Life magazine, "I used to lay awake scared, thinking about somebody getting cut up or being lynched."

Clay Sr. couldn't rid himself of frustration, suspicion, and resentment. When he brooded, he drank and saw other women. When he came back home, he could be menacing; Odessa called the police more than once. Growing up in tension, fearing a parent's volatility, can leave a young person with painful but shrewd premonitions about possible danger and with acute impulses to protection. It can also leave him wanting to build shelter in some other part of his life.

In October 1954, when Clay was 12, he was upset to discover that his gleaming new bicycle had been stolen. He sought a policeman, who was coaching boxing at a nearby gym, and told the officer he wanted to beat up the thief. The policeman, an older white man, Joe Martin, told Clay he had better learn how to fight first. In a picture from that period, the young, slight-looking Cassius Clay wears an expression that is nervous and unwavering at the same time. He won his first bout and informed his family he would be champion. Clay Sr. wasn't happy that his son was receiving the benefit of a white tutor; he saw himself as the force that formed his son. When Cassius later told his father, "I made myself," the statement almost led to blows. Cassius spent less time at home and more in the gym: a place where his dread could be transformed. "He'd build himself up into a regular frenzy," Joe Martin told author Mark Kram, "letting that fear out by tormenting his opponent."'

After fighting 108 bouts by age 18 (winning 100 of them) and garnering two national Golden Gloves championships, Clay boxed for the 1960 U.S. Olympics team in Rome and returned home with a gold medal. He later wrote in The Greatest that he threw the award into the Ohio River after realizing that some restaurants still refused him, as a black person, service in Louisville. Though he indeed encountered racism at home ("On my side of the veil everything was black...." he's said. "I knew that there were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas"), he never truly disposed of his gold medal; he simply forgot where he put it. But the story exemplifies his gift for inventing his own mythology and connecting it to bigger matters.

Race notwithstanding, many in Clay's hometown recognized his potential. In 1960 a consortium of all-white local businessmen formed to sponsor the young boxer and protect him from the corrupt influences in professional fighting. In December of that year, the group sent Clay to Miami to work with Angelo Dundee – one of boxing's most respected trainers. "Angelo understood immediately," said Ali biographer Thomas Hauser in PBS's Made in Miami, "that Cassius did things all wrong from a technical point of view, but he could get away with them because of his speed and his reflexes." One of Clay's most egregious traits was holding his arms low, which could leave him without guard against fast-arriving blows. Also, whereas many fighters slipped – that is, dodged – punches by ducking or quickly moving their head to the side, Clay often pedaled rearward rapidly, pulling his neck back at an acute angle, his eyes fixed on the incoming missile, measuring the evasion to within an inch or less. It was a move that could leave a boxer off-balance or place him out of range for launching counterattacks, but Clay compensated with an unusually long reach. Ring commentators sometimes anticipated that this technique would land him flat – though those occasions were rare to the point of proving historic. Whatever his anomalies, Clay knew how to get a jab in and how to make it sting. "He flicked it," said Ferdie Pacheco, who met Ali in Miami and served as his doctor for many years. "He called it snake-licking." This, too, was a hallmark of Clay's style; he aimed almost exclusively at a fighter's head, not at his body. Clay himself, though, did not like being hit in the face. "Your face and teeth is all your life," he told the New York Times's Robert Lipsyte.

Clay's manner became hard for other fighters to cope with. In early 1961, Swedish fighter and former world champion Ingemar Johansson spent a few minutes sparring with Clay at Dundee's gym. "Come on, what's the matter," Ali taunted him. "Can't hit me?" Johansson told Dundee, "Get him the fuck away from here, and never, ever put him back in here again. I can't touch him. Nobody is going to touch the guy!" Clay's treatment of Johansson foretold what became, in varying ways, his most notable quality: He wouldn't pay deference to conventions or to boxing's popular heroes and ranking candidates. Instead, he goaded and bewildered them. He learned this tactic after witnessing wrestler Gorgeous George's outrageous character in Las Vegas in the summer of 1962. Gorgeous George was flamboyant: He would strut into a wrestling ring wearing beautifully coiffed waves of blond hair and then genuflect derisively to the heckling crowd. "And all the time," Ali told biographer Thomas Hauser, "I was saying to myself, 'Man I want to see this fight. It don't matter if he wins or loses.'"

But whereas Gorgeous George was a jester villain, Clay was a serious aspirant – plus he was a young black man. Black athletes were expected to act respectfully toward competitors – especially white ones – and never to display arrogance or to boast in triumph. That had been the case after the notorious Jack Johnson, in the early 1900s, used to diminish other fighters – including white champion Tommy Burns – so effectively he could conduct casual ringside conversations in the process. After Johnson, no black was allowed to compete for the title until Joe Louis won it in 1937. But Louis had to abide by a code of humility, and that system had been held in place ever since. Now, in the early 1960s, Cassius Clay ridiculed rivals and trumpeted his abilities before an increasingly skeptical press. "To beat me," he declared, "you have to be greater than great." He said this with
exaggerated and humorous swagger, but the self-praise deeply annoyed many. When Clay upped the ante by beginning to predict – with uncanny accuracy – the round in which he would defeat an adversary, the seeming arrogance of it drew even more disdain. Joe Louis cautioned him, "Boy! You better not believe half the things you say about yourself." The guidance didn't deter Clay. "By the end of 1963," he said, "I will be the youngest champion in history."

Clay's braggadocio stirred an excitement that hadn't been seen for any boxer in years. Those who watched him develop as a professional in Miami and saw him defeat 18 competitors in the period from late 1960 to summer 1963 – losing to nobody – received him as the anointed hope. "Everybody thought that this is our guy," Ferdie Pacheco later said. "This guy's going to be the guy." By late 1963, Clay was headed for a title match with the man he called "the big ugly bear": heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, the most forbidding man in boxing history, and the most disreputable. Liston had a criminal past – he'd learned to box in prison – and even though he held the title belt, rumors tied him to the organized-crime element in boxing. It was a terrible image: For generations, the heavyweight champion had signified larger issues of national character, but Liston, as Joe Flaherty put it in the Village Voice, was "a blatant mother in a fucker's game."

Cassius pursued Liston hard for a title shot, sometimes in foolhardy ways. On one occasion he followed Liston into a Las Vegas casino where the champion was losing at dice. Promoter Harold Conrad, who was present, said Clay kept making fun of Liston's bad luck. "So Liston throws the dice down," Conrad told Ali's biographer Hauser, "walks over to Clay, and says, 'Listen, you nigger faggot. If you don't get out of here in 10 seconds, I'm gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.'" When Sonny arrived in Miami in early 1964, set to fight Clay on February 25, the challenger met him at the airport and followed him into the city. Liston pulled his car over and said, "I'll punch you in the mouth. This has gone too far!" Clay still followed. "Get your last look," he told the crowd outside Liston's gym. "I'm the real champ."

Behind his bravado, though, Clay harbored doubts about being able to overcome Liston. "He can hit a guy in the elbows and just about break his arm," he said. However, the young challenger also had a secret source of inspiration. In fact, Cassius Clay had a hidden life that was about to become notorious.