News & Politics

Barbara Long Follows Cassius Clay to a Pleasure Dome


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November 24, 1966, Vol. XII, No. 6

Nothing Left But Xanadu

By Barbara Long

Fred Astaire ran out of steps to dance; Gene Kelly didn’t. Charlie Parker ran out of notes to play; Miles Davis hasn’t. Dostoievski ran out of words to write; John Barth never will. Geniuses early outstrip their tools, then their mediums. Each one has the problem of amusing himself after that.

Cassius Clay is a genius 26 years old, with muscles growing more muscles, movements more stunning each time he moves, a deep, mad sense of joy and no fighters in sight worth fighting. With no heavyweights left (all the likelies beaten because he won the fights somewhere in his head, going into the ring only long enough to make the announcement), he’s taken to beating their cities. No more mouth, now it’s just his tongue tickling. The tongue darts back into his cheek; the city slips into his pocket.

Toronto, for example. True, Toronto is not your hottest fight town, but Clay was beautiful in Toronto, so droll that everybody missed the point.

Give this much to Toronto, Edmund Wilson, it was the perfect setting for a hoax. For openers, Toronto is in Canada, and Canada, simply not fitting into Clay’s, or anyone else’s conception of a society filled with beautiful young girls and beautiful young boys, became the scene for something that Clay had to do, no matter how much the prospect bored him. Clay, after all, had gone through his breezy one-liners with Liston and Patterson, men with senses of humor, and some unfunny fools, influential press fools, were still holding out on him. He had to let the next fight go 15 rounds. Simple as that. Fifteen rounds were called for. You may recall that no American city would touch Clay’s fight with Chuvalo in March. Toronto, almost on the eve of the fight, accepted it with reluctance and then went through clever, cagey noises to cover itself. We are going to be the victims of a hoax, but if we know we’re going to be the victims of a hoax and tell the world that we know, then we won’t be, will we?

Indeed. Toronto, heavy, gray, silly in its provincial prickiness, snittily affirming that it’s a failed New York, half-knowing, and drinking a lot of brandy over that knowledge, that it is instead, a failed Boston, made one nice play. The night of the fight the marquee at the hockey palace where the fight was staged read BOXING TONIGHT. That’s nice. BOXING TONIGHT. The ring announcer interrupted the prelim announcements to give hockey scores coming in from Montreal. The audience adored him, missing the fact that one of the prelim fighters, knocked through the ropes, fell to the floor of the press section only because a New York photographer had earlier that day persuaded the Garden to shorten the apron around the ring. Ignorant, smug, Toronto was ready for Clay. Out came their only possible product — a fighter with a killer-fighter’s movements and no killer instinct. Bless him, Chuvalo is tough and loveable, but even Marciano would have giggled a bit. Clay came out, basting Chuvalo in contempt, and pulled his right hand for the first six rounds. Just stood there looking like a kid going into the tank. Amusing. Angelo Dundee, standing in Clay’s corner, didn’t look amused, just vaguely worried, and the audience, having lost its sense of humor a long time ago from staring up at the We – are – not-as-unamused-as-our – Great – Ancestor-but-we-are – still – not-amused portrait of Queen Elizabeth, missed the exquisite drollery of Clay choosing Chuvalo as his very own White Hope. Clay did shoot some naughty-naughty looks at his tame bear for low blows, but the champion held his temper and let Chuvalo stay on his feet, realizing perhaps that standing 15 rounds in Toronto is the worst punishment anyone can take. Toronto? Toronto went away adoring Clay. They honestly thought the bad boy of boxing had come to the provinces and gone straight.

The Mildenberger fight? There’s nothing funny about Germany, and even a clown can’t do anything there, but Houston — Houston was perfect for Clay. He had to respond to any city that would build a psychedelic whore house, decorated in Texas Royal rest rooms with floors painted in gold specks, walls trapped in purple velvet, and call it an Astrodome. Houston, a city that never cared before, was choked up with love for its Cleveland Williams, and hated Clay. The press hated Clay. Clay slipped into town, made quiet, good-nigger statements about how much he respected Houston’s Cat, looked stunned by the size of the Pleasure Dome Decreed, and acted humble. The press went away adoring Clay.

Clay walked into the ring amid boos, moved away from Williams, slipped from side to side, dipping delicately, then stopped abruptly, faced Williams and whipped a combination of punches into his head. A big fat Negro sitting behind me in his gray Stetson and $5 seat, a good-natured friend of Williams’s who had been putting plenty of money on The Cat, stood up laughing and shouted, “You may not like him, but you gotta learn to live with him.”

The pretty one will come to New York eventually, and New York, told by its writers how tough a city it is, will make coy noises, never noticing that its thighs are already open.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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