I remember the night of Feb. 25, 1964, as clearly as I remember the afternoon of Nov. 22, three months earlier, or the evening 10 months before that when my father died.
Raymond, Kenny and I sat at the kitchen table in my ramshackle house staring at the radio in front of us, a boxy, off-white, knobless relic that I had retrieved from my attic bedroom. Children of the TV generation, we had no practice in this sort of thing – listening to the radio collectively. It was all very awkward.
Our hero, Cassius Clay, as he was then known, had just climbed into the ring to face Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champ, a seemingly invincible force of pure primal thuggery. We were not afraid that Clay would lose – we expected as much – we were afraid that he would get killed, literally.
Radio, we soon learned, exercises the mind and intensifies fear in ways that TV never could. I finally understood why my mother panicked when Orson Welles’ Martians marched across New Jersey and on to Newark. Now, 25 years later, I imagined an evil just as raw in the form of Liston, and I anguished through every round. When Liston failed to answer the bell for the eighth, my friends and I chose not to ask why. We felt enraptured, delivered, at peace.
That night, that year, Clay had reached us in ways that only adolescents can – or need to – be reached. It wasn’t that easy. At least not for wannabe gangbangers like us. And that’s just the point.
Unlike some of our more privileged peers – at least as they retell it – we could claim no special sensitivity in matters racial. In the dwindling pockets of white Newark circa 1964, such sensitivities did not exist. Certainly not in our neighborhood. We were Jets in an expanding sea of Sharks, and we knew even that the tide of history was running against us.
Yet for all that, we rooted passionately for Cassius Clay. We urged on a black man against all comers black or white, something our parents had never been able to do. How could we do otherwise? The man was a figure of transcendent American cool, a dazzling young boxer unburdened by history. Alone in his time he had the potential to obliterate race and its obligations much the way Michael Jordan would do a generation later when the task was easier and the stakes much lower.
But the sad truth is that he – Clay/Ali – blew it.
“Cop Dad Avenges Son’s Robbery.” Prey to the unknowable logic of motherhood, my mom chose to paste in her scrapbook the Star Ledger’s account of my first official mugging. I was 9 years old at the time.
As the Star Ledger told it, “three older boys” jumped me on the way back from the grocery store. I reported it to my father, a youth-aid detective, and he took me to the public school on my block where I correctly ID’d the three perps. Nice ironic twist. End of story.
Not quite. The truth, as always, was a bit more complicated. The three “older” boys were black. That event marked the first time I ever heard my mother use the words “black” or “bastard.” A day or two after the incident, 20 or so “older boys” descended upon my playground looking for revenge. I beat it out of there, exiled from the Eden of my own childhood.
Even then the media skirted the truth on racial issues. Indeed, no social tragedy in recent American history would be recorded as dishonestly as the collapse of urban America in the 1960s. The punditry’s common two-word pejorative for the phenomenon, “white flight,” condensed this issue as crudely as “yellow peril” did another racial issue a century earlier.
In fact, our neighborhood had been “integrated” since before anyone could remember. When we moved to the block in the early 1950s black families inhabited every floor of the triplex next door and the duplex next to that. From the beginning I had the occasional “colored kid” to my house, and they had me to theirs. No big deal.
The change came late in the decade and intensified in the ’60s. New families were moving in to the neighborhood, but these were families without fathers, a distinction obvious to us, if not to the media.
When the Hanneberries moved out two doors down, three single mothers replaced them with 16 kids in tow. Soon after, a swarm of noisy fatherless children descended upon the Farley’s old house right across the street, an absurdly perfect mirror image. To this day, I have nightmares in which I move my own family to such a block and kick off the covers wondering what possessed me to do so.
Not all of the new, impaired families on our block were black. My mother, in fact, worried more about the white ones, especially the family down the street with the two spectacularly “slutty” daughters just the age of my brother and me.
Black or white, the problem was real, its consequences apparent to us all. At age 12, I was held up at gunpoint for the first time. I was delivering newspapers with my friend Roger. The “older boys” stuck what appeared to be a rifle in my back and demanded money. This time, I chose not to tell my parents. Roger told his. Within months, they whisked him and his little brother away to some distant shore town, the close suburbs being much too expensive for a blue-collar family whose home no longer had much value.
Over the next several years family after family left on their sad unsung Diaspora, most of my old friends among them. The “incidents” intensified – a mugging here, a melee there – and began to take on a larger significance. After an errant elbow in a basketball game, the recipient came after me, yelling, “This ain’t Mississippi, mother f—er.” As if I needed to be told.
And then, in the midst of this maelstrom, along came Cassius Clay, poet and Olympian hero. In his brashness, his optimism, his instinctive democratic flair, he brought out the American in all of us. In ways that Martin Luther King never could, or that Malcolm X never wanted to, Clay helped us sense our commonality in an increasingly fractious time.
What my friends and I did know at the time of his first Liston fight, however, is that the young boxer had been under the thrall of another nation for some time, Elijah Muhammad’s delusional, self-hating cult, the Nation of Islam.
Elijah Muhammad had kept the relationship quiet ostensibly because he opposed boxing, but, in fact, because he regarded Clay as a clown, a loser, one incapable of beating Sonny Liston. The “Messenger” did not want to share the embarrassment of Clay’s defeat, which seemed to him inevitable.
One man who did believe in Clay was Malcolm X. On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, he followed the Liston bout as intensely as my friends and I did, but from seat “7” at the arena in Miami, a seat arranged by Clay himself. When Clay prevailed, he shocked everyone but Malcolm.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Elijah Muhammad launched a holy war for the fighter’s soul before the arena had even cleared. He had all the weapons. He called Clay immediately and offered him the name “Muhammad Ali,” an honorarium denied members of the Nation of much longer standing. Two weeks later he made Ali pledge to sever his relationship with Malcolm. Two days after that, on March 8, 1964, Muhammad publicly denounced Malcolm as a “hypocrite,” a signal, writes Karl Evanzz in his excellent book, “The Messenger,” “that hunting season was about to open for all mammals named Malcolm X.”
As to Ali, when asked for his reaction to the split, he muttered, “I don’t know much about what Malcolm is doing, but I do know that Muhammad is the wisest.” So much for loyalty.
At the time, I was only dimly aware of Ali’s religious drift. I had screened much of it out. I continued to cheer him on against white fighters like Brian London and George Chuvalo as ardently as against blacks like Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams. I even overlooked his gratuitous humiliation of the aging Floyd Patterson, a boxer I had always admired.
I did not want to let go. More than ever, I needed the hope that Ali offered. The neighborhood was disintegrating before my eyes. Soon after the Liston fight, Kenny had his front teeth knocked out, and his parents shipped him off to a soulless, slapdash suburb 60 miles south. Raymond and his family moved some months later to the nether reaches of Newark, near South Orange, his family hoping to buy at least a few more years of relative peace. Our next door neighbors, the Hanlons, moved out as well. The night of their departure the midnight plumbers stripped the place – separated from our house by three feet of alley – then burned it to the ground.
Newark was collapsing like a dwarf star. In the summer of 1967, the city imploded in a terrible, bloody riot as pointless as it was inevitable. It would leave some 37 people dead and many more wounded, among them several of the cops and firemen I had grown up with.
The media merely threw salt on our wounds. The whites who had abandoned the central cities years before blamed the carnage on those whites unable or unwilling to flee. This is when we all started to distrust, if not despise, the media.
That same summer Ali was tried for draft evasion. Elijah Muhammad had swayed him from his inherent – “America is the greatest country in the world” – patriotism and had him parroting the “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” one-liners that his henchmen dreamed up.
What finally got to me that year, though, was an unremarkable statement by Ali that I have seen quoted nowhere since, but that still burns when I recall it. “I am fighting,” he boasted, “for 20 million Americans.” His boast bore into my soul. Try as hard as I might, I knew that those 20 million did not include me.
If Muhammad Ali abandoned young people like me, kids who had grown up on the Friday Night Fights and could name every heavyweight champion from John L. Sullivan on, he found a new class of fans. No, not black Americans, they had always idolized him.
Wittingly or not, he abandoned me and my friends for our affluent white peers, young people who had never known him as Cassius Clay and who would leech on to him not for who he was instinctively but what they could make him.
“They were not boxing fans,” Mark Kram writes in his acerbic and knowing “Ghosts of Manila.” “They were seekers of the antihero. What mattered was Ali’s style, his deprecating mouth, his beautiful irrationality like their music.”
It did not matter to Ali’s new fans that he could not identify Vietnam on a map or that his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had collaborated with the Japanese during World War II, or that Ali and they were cheering on a Stalinist police state in North Vietnam that would soon enough justify everyone’s worst suspicions.
Not at all. Ali’s geopolitical incoherence mirrored their own. Better still, he was black. In making him an icon, a martyr even, these children of affluence could show their moral superiority to the hard hats and cops and ofay parents who thought him less.
Ali’s shift in audience would prove to be a shrewd one. In time, his new fans would come to control just about all of the media that mattered. In countless books and movies, they would recreate his life – and theirs – as the embodiment of good. In time, as memories faded, these clever alchemists would transform good to great and great to godhead.
In the medieval morality play of Ali’s public life, there had to be a demon worthy of his virtue. If one did not exist, Ali and his media friends would create one. At the end of the day, Ali’s role in this creation would prove to be the great, unforgivable sin of his life, greater than his mindless draft dodging, the casual humiliation of his five or so wives, his betrayal of Malcolm X, the reckless pursuit of money that would leave him punch drunk, even the abandonment of certain of his children.
That creation was Joe Frazier. In a cruel and unceasing string of abuse, Ali and friends managed to turn this humble, hard-working child of a one-armed South Carolina sharecropper into the most despised man in Black America, a pariah even in his own city of Philadelphia.
As Sports Illustrated’s main boxing reporter during Ali’s career, Mark Kram witnessed this ritual defamation on a regular basis. He recounts one chilling episode during a run-up to a Frazier fight in a gym packed with Ali fans.
As Kram tells it, after leading the frenzied crowd in chants of “the greatest,” Ali then threw out the word, “gorilla” and taunted the audience to respond.
“Joe Frazier,” yelled one white guy. “Ape! Ape!” shouted a young blond woman. “Jist niggers,” screamed a black guy.
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Ali to the last comment, dropping to his haunches. “Gorilla,” he howled now. “Ugly and smelly.” And as Ali lurched ape-like around the ring, his fans jeered the mock Frazier much in the way the Parisian rabble might have jeered Quasimoto.
For the light-skinned Ali and his fans, Joe Frazier was both too black and not black enough. “A little old nigger boy from Philadelphia,” Ali taunted him, “who never had a thought in his dumb head ‘cept for himself.” Even if there were an appropriate response, Frazier had no microphone. Ali owned the media. The psychic blows from this relentless assault bruised Frazier more deeply than all the punches of all the fights he ever fought.
It would be 20 years before the media reprised a racial smear of such viciousness. Then, its victim would be another man both too black and not black enough, Clarence Thomas.
On March 8, 1971, my friends from grad school, Rick, Stanley, Joan and I left Purdue to watch a big screen viewing of the first Ali-Frazier fight. I was the only one I knew at Purdue pulling for Frazier. The night before the fight, a friend informed me of his passion for Ali in words that remains memorable only for their crudeness. “I would stand on this table and piss in my pants if Ali were to walk in that door,” he told us all. If his emotion was excessive, his attachment was the norm.
Given our limited means, we saved $5.00 a ticket by going to Gary rather than Indianapolis, which was 30 miles closer. The moment we walked in the theater, however, I understood what the others did not: Gary was a mistake.
Other than the 50 or so hard-hats sitting together in the bleachers by the exit door, we were about the only white people there among the 4,000 or so in attendance. Joan was the only white woman – period. This was of some concern to me as she would soon be my wife. Many times, before and since, I have attended events with comparable ratios, but never one in which the racial tension had been so raw and palpable.
This, I thought, is what Ali had wrought. He had abandoned his instincts, betrayed his roots, and contrived a jihad of race and class that benefited no one, including himself. He had the crowd not so much rooting for him as against the imagined race traitor, Joe Frazier, and anyone, black or white, who dared cheer him. Gary, that night, was a cauldron of hate, a dangerous place to be.
Still, the fight proved to be worth the risk. It was both brutal and brilliant as only great fights can be. Going into the 15th, it seemed to all of us too close to call.
“OK,” I said to my friends between rounds, “we’re out of here.” I explained that if Ali lost a fight that the crowd expected him to win, there would be hell to pay, and we’d do the paying.
“But we’re for Ali,” Stanley protested. I shook my head in disbelief. How could someone so otherwise smart be so dangerously na?ve? “Trust me,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been in this situation before.”
We watched the 15th round from the top of the aisle. In that fateful round, Frazier knocked Ali clean off his feet and sucked the wind out of the crowd. As we turned to leave the arena, just moments before the decision, a young black man brushed by us.
“Muhammad Ali, my ass,” he muttered, his affection for Ali no deeper than Elijah Muhammad’s. “That’s Cassius Clay.”
“No,” I thought to myself, “that’s Muhammad Ali.”