Sports

Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali

“I cannot go out a loser, Jack Johnson went out a loser. Sugar Ray went out a loser. Joe Louis went out a loser… I got to be that black man who gets out on top.”

by

Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali: “You Really Didn’t Know How Great I Was”
October 16, 1978

In the films Mandingo and Drum former World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton plays a slave boxer, his flesh handled by people who have such intense feelings for him they wish to stab him or boil him in a pot. The women want to ball him, and the men want to do battle with him; some people want to do both.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World is, most of all, a grand hunk of flesh, capable of devastating physical destruction when instructed by a brain, or a group of brains. I’m not saying he’s stupid. He may be brilliant, but even his brilliance is used to praise his flesh.

The Heavyweight Championship of the World is a sex show, a fashion show, scene of intrigue between different religions, politics, classes; a gathering of stars, ex-stars, their hangers-on, and hangers-on assistants.

It’s part Mardi Gras, with New Orleans jazz providing the background for the main event while the embattled Be-boppers, led by former Sonny Rollins’s sideman Earl Turbington, hold forth in one of the restaurants facing the Hilton’s French Garden bar.

Driving into town on Route 61 past the authentic Cajun music and food joints, motels with imitation French-styled balconies, car lots, heading on Canal Street toward Decatur, I heard Dick Gregory on the car radio. A saint of the prime flesh movement, he was naming “Carlos,” a New Orleans man, as a conspirator in JFK’s assassination. Gregory was one of Ali’s advisors, though an insider told me that Ali didn’t pay attention to Gregory’s nutritions.

Hotel Bienville, named for Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, was located in a red-light district of the French Quarter. Nearby were two Greek restaurants and some small-­time players’ bars. I checked in, changed, and then followed the huge Hilton H the way you’d follow a holy asteroid: the sign resembled a blue star on the New Orleans skyline. The Hilton is located on a 23.3-acre, $250 million international river center. It has 1200 rooms, five restaurants, three lounges, parking lots for 3550 cars, tennis courts, and rises to 30 stories above the street. It was designed by Newhous & Taylor, architects.

Entering the press hospitality room I was greeted by Sybil Arum, a Japanese-Korean woman who got me a drink and in­troduced me to her husband, Bob Arum. They both were dressed casually; she was wearing proletariat pigtails and lat­er someone said she was the best-looking woman in the hotel. Arum was seated next to Leslie Bonanno, a burly, wavy-haired sheriff who is heavyweight Jerry Celestine’s manager. Arum was confident that Spinks was going to win the fight. He had great admiration for Ali but it was his theory that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s “exile” from 1967–1970. I was introduced to an ex-UPI reporter who followed Ali’s career during those years and we were about to head upstairs to the bar when Mike Rossman’s family arrived, wearing MIKE ROSSMAN T-shirts. They told me they were bringing in three planeloads to witness Rossman’s fight with Victor Galindez for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship of the World.

 

The man from UPI talked like Jimmy Stewart and didn’t want his name used. He had that glint in his eye, the glint I’d see in the eyes of the other Ali disciples — Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, and George Plimpton. The Ali glint belong­ing to the true believer. Once, when Ali was banned and a black promoter from Charleston offered him an exhibition fight which was to be held on a dirt track, the UPI man and a reporter from the Detroit Free Press were the only ones there to cover it. The city council voted against the exhibition bout and it was cancelled. At 3 o’clock the afternoon of the fight they came to tell Ali there’d be no fight. Ali took it philo­sophically, got into a car, and headed for the airport wearing the same suit he’d worn for two years.

The punishment and cruelty visited upon Ali during those three years for refusing to step forward at the induction cen­ter have become part of the Ali legend. It seemed that the whole nation wanted to spit in his face, or skin The Grand Flesh. Not only, to them, was he a draft-dodger but he was also a member of a misunderstood religion which the media had hyped into a monstrous black conspiracy. The Muslims were different from many of the other black organizations of the time. They had rhetoric but they also accomplished things. They had built a multi-million-dollar business from their Mom and Pop stores and newspaper sales. They were “The Bad Nigger, The Smart Nigger, The Hard Nigger, and The Uppity Nigger” epitomized by one organization. Ali had to pay a heavy price for his religion and for his politics. My favorite story from that period occurred when an imprisoned Ali was ordered to serve breakfast to prisoners on Death Row. One prisoner looked up and said, “My God, I must be in Heaven, the Heavyweight Champion of the World is serv­ing me breakfast.”

The man from UPI remembered an argument that broke out in the press room in Madison Square Garden the first time Ali fought Frazier for the heavyweight championship. They didn’t know what to call him. They decided, finally, to call him Ali if he won the fight, and Clay if he lost.

There was a flurry in the lobby. Some of Spinks’s people began showing up. Tourists were standing on the second floor balcony staring down at the scene. Shortly, Spinks came in. With that black crest he resembled a black silk shirt–wear­ing iguana. I approached the gathering with my brand new Realistic tape recorder I’d bought at Berkeley’s Radio Shack. Spinks’s bodyguards made a scene. They demanded that I turn the tape recorder off. Later I understood why. A Playboy writer using a tape recorder had betrayed Spinks’s confidence by writing that Spinks had smoked some grass.

Because I was standing with Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s spar­ring partner and bodyguard, a tourist came up and asked for my autograph. It was that way the entire week. People signing each other’s autographs; photographers snapping pic­tures of other photographers.

The next afternoon, people from Ali’s camp began to show up in the French Garden Bar, a stunning environment light­ed by sun rays which poured through a skylight above: Ali’s brother, Rachaman Ali, his freckled-faced mother whom Ali calls “Bird,” and his father, wearing a checkered sport-jacket and white hat. Bundini arrived and judging from his ringside antics I thought he’d have an expansive sense of humor. He didn’t. He was wearing a white leisure suit. Bundini always wanted to be an actor, someone told me later.

In the evening, Mayor Ernest N. Morial, New Orleans’s “Black” Mayor, who’d be considered white in most parts of the world, gave a reception at the Fairmont Hotel honoring Ali and Spinks. I walked into the lobby toward a big room on the first floor. There was a commotion behind the door. The first man to exit was Ali. I was standing face to face with a $100 million industry which included everything from candy bars to a forthcoming automobile capable of traveling across the desert. He was huge and awesome-looking, but not the “Abysmal Brute” Jack London had pined after.

“Hi Champ,” I said. I shook hands with the black man they let beat up Superman.

He was followed by his wife, Veronica (“Veronica belongs to me,” he said later). A procession trailed the couple to the upstairs ballroom, the whole scene illuminated by the photographers’ flashbulbs. I fell in behind them. When we reached the top of the escalator I heard a loud exchange between him and a figure who was coming down. It was Joe Frazier.

Slave power allowed Southern women to spend hours at the mirror costuming, preening, and painting their faces. There was an eerie ad for Georgia Life Insurance on a billboard, a picture of a child done in the kind of oils Rod Serling used to introduce Night Gallery. She was dressed in a Victorian outfit, and heavily made up. The caption read: “What about her?” The Southern woman was supposed to be this life-sized doll who occasionally produced a fake aristocrat while the old man went about impregnating the countryside. In the French Quarter you can buy any kind of doll you want. Black. White. I bought a black doll which turned inside out became a white doll (no jokes, please).

Some of my very talented female-writer friends have jammed up the media with their woeful tales regarding the black male’s proclivity toward the Macaroni style. It took me some serious reflection to reckon with the truth in this. But if black males were that — if Emmett Till was a rogue as a dema­gogic feminist, so hard up for a victim, as claimed — then they certainly had a great teacher.

The doll style of the women in this ballroom, in their syn­thetic fabrics, bloused and belted-in at the waist, showed that even though the institution was razed, certain habits of the old South have endured. The women were what we used to call “Beautiful,” and the men were youthful and virile-look­ing. Attractive and adorned bodies gathered to witness the most wonderful body in the world. A flesh ball. The Mayor was standing behind Ali’s people, beaming. Don Hubbard, a local promoter, told me that the fight would bring the city $20 million in revenue, bigger than the Mardi Gras.

Ali has so much control over his body he can turn the juice on and off. In contrast to the sombre and downcast-looking fighter I’d seen emerge from the downstairs room, with whom I was alone for about 15 seconds, the upstairs Ali be­gan to shuffle up and down the stage, jabbing at invisible op­ponents, dancing, all the while speaking rapidly. He doesn’t have the brittle, dry irony of Archie Moore or the eloquent Victorian style of the bookish Jack Johnson, but he is more effective because he speaks to Americans in American im­ages mostly derived from comic books, television, and folklore. To be a good black poet of the sixties meant capturing the rhythms of Ali, and Malcolm X, on the page. His opponents were “Mummies” and “Vampires”; he was “The Man from Shock.” In one press conference he dis­cussed The Six Million Dollar Man. His prose is derived from the trickster world of Bugs Bunny and Mad magazine. The world of Creature Features.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said as the press conference began. “Where’s the champ? If he stays out of jail, I’ll get his tail.” Ali referred to Spinks as a “nigger” then caught him­self to explain that “niggers can say niggers, but white folks can’t,” which is as good an answer as any to the man running for office in Alabama who requested that he have the same right to say “nigger” as “the Jews” and “the niggers.”

Ali’s style was a far cry from the nearly catatonic humility of Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, but then, these are differ­ent times. Can you imagine the uproar if Louis had come up with, “No Nazi Ever Called Me Nigger”?

When the question-and-answer period came, I had my hand up and Ali pointed to “the young man over there.” I was on his side after that.

“Mr. Ali, do you plan to run for Congress as The Nation magazine has suggested?”

“No, I plan to run for vice-president, that way the president won’t get shot.” He called himself the “Savior of Boxing,” and predicted that he’d punch Spinks out of the ring. “Spinks,” he said, “will become the first spook satellite.” He flirted with the ladies and praised his body.

Dick Gregory followed Ali with some familiar jokes about Spinks’s arrest for driving without a license and possessing $1.98 worth of cocaine (St. Louis cocaine). Gregory strongly believes that the coke was planted on Spinks. “Why did they alert the press before he was brought into the station?”

I asked Gregory to repeat what he’d said on the radio, that the killers of JFK resided in New Orleans. I figured that since the Mayor and the police were on the stage the con­spirators would be arrested immediately. The laughter van­ished. The Mayor and Ali stood silently. Dick Gregory refused to discuss it.

During the broadcast he urged black-Italian cooperation. “If the Mafia is so big,” he said, “why won’t Henry Ford in­vite it to his next garden party?”

After Ali left, Gregory came over to the bar where I was standing. The black waiters, dressed in black bowties and green satinish jackets, weren’t serving beer nor wine, so I asked for what Gregory was drinking. Vodka and orange juice. UMMMMMM.

A long table covered with white linen held hors d’oeuvres under silver tops which resembled Kaiser helmets. The South knows how to lay out the dog when it wants to. Chopin on the piano stand. Silver layed out in case somebody’s com­ing for supper.

I got a plate, returned to my seat, and found myself being choked to death from behind. It was Hunter Thompson. Choking people, I learned later, was his way of showing affection. He was wearing dark glasses and looked like he’d just stepped off a space ship. They’re filming his life and the crew was coming to New Orleans with his two lawyers.

The DeJan’s Olympia band began to second line about the floor playing some old music. They were led by this lithe flesh wearing a top hat and tails, symbolizing what to some may be a spirit imported from Haiti. The carrying of the um­brella may be an African retention. I fell in behind the band and began doing the second line around the room with them. Few joined in. As we made it about the door, Spinks ap­peared. His eyes seemed to roll about his head. He was wear­ing a droll grin. He seemed very very happy. He took the umbrella from the band’s major domo and second lined to­ward the stage. He stood and signed autographs for a while.

I went back to the press hospitality room and met some old-timers, some trainers and some boxing buffs.

Like there was Sam Taub. As Irving of Top Rank tells it, “Sam Taub was 92 on September 10. He was born on Mott Street on the Lower East Side and was working as an office boy when he got a job through The New York Times with The Morning Telegraph, a magazine similar to The Police Gazette. He worked many years for Bat Masterson, a lawman who came west to be a fight official and sportswriter. It was Sam who found Masterson dead at his desk of a heart attack. I was looking through the record books and I found out that Mas­terson was the timekeeper for the Sullivan-Corbett fight which was held in New Orleans, September 7, 1892.

“Sam did the first radio broadcast from Madison Square Garden, in the 1920s, and the first telecast of a bout from Madison Square Garden in 1939. For many years Sam broad­cast for Adam’s hats and Gem razor. He had a popular show on WHN called The Hour of Champions. Never took a quar­ter from anybody. Never put the shake on anybody.

“During the last riot at the Garden he climbed to a chair to call the rioters ‘hooligans,’ and had to be carried away by the police, bodily.

“Sam Taub told me about the time Jack Johnson worked at the 42nd Street Library and was obsessed with these sand­wiches which they were selling four or five in a bag. Taub went out and bought some for Johnson. And when Sugar Ray appeared on the Hour of Champions for the first time, I said, ‘Now you watch this fellow; he’s going to be the champ one day.’ ”

As I approached Taub to be introduced he was threatening a man who could have been 40 years younger than himself with, “Take a walk, buddy!” The man moved on.

Thursday, hundreds of people were pushing into the Grand Ballroom for the official weigh-in ceremo­nies. Bright, unnatural lights from the television. Total confusion. People were standing on chairs, craning their necks to see celebrities. It was 10:55 when Angelo Dun­dee arrived. He looks like a mild-mannered math teacher in a boys’ high school. Jimmy Ellis, who has a teenager’s bright face, strode in with Ali’s brother, Rachaman, whom I mistakenly called Rudolph Valentino Clay. He could have been, standing against the pillar in the French Garden Bar, as I had seen him earlier, dressed in a white suit.

The platform which held the scales was so full of the press that it began to reel. Arum threatened to cancel the press conference. I spotted Don King, followed by Ali, toothpick in mouth, and Veronica. A man next to me said, “Ali is the best-known person in the world.” Ali weighed in at 221 pounds, Spinks 201. I was tempted to bid.

After the weigh-in I asked former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Jose Torres, to assess Ali’s chances. Torres was pessimistic. He’d seen Ali work out and he didn’t like his color. “Too grey.” He thought Ali’s eyes were “dead,” and that he was bored. “Ali no longer enjoys fighting and despises training,” Torres said. “I want Ali to win for nostalgic reasons.” He liked Spinks. “The more criti­cism he gets the more I like him,” Torres said. Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s bodyguard and sparring partner, standing behind Torres, said that Spinks looked real good.

Up front, Emile Bruneau, a wizened wild turkey, the head of the Louisiana Boxing Commission was holding a press conference. Somebody asked him if he had voted to strip Ali of the crown in 1967 when he was sitting on the World Box­ing Association. The Commissioner told the reporter to leave or “go to a cemetery.”

Another person asked if there would be a dope test follow­ing the fight. It seemed that Ali’s corner had complained about a mysterious bottle given to Spinks between the rounds of the last fight. Whatever was in it seemed to give Spinks ex­tra vigor. He asked the Commissioner what kind of water would be allowed in the corners. The Commissioner an­swered, “Aqua water.”

I saw Don King’s famous crown poking above the crowd of bodies, moving and mashing against each other. King was blandly praising Ali but at the same time voiced hope that he would retire. He said that Ali was the most identifiable man in the world. “Strong on the inside as well as the outside.” He praised Larry Holmes, “the other champion,” in a short speech dotted with words like “cognizant.” The most fre­quent adjective people use in talking about King is “flamboy­ant.”

I went up to the second floor to inquire about my creden­tials. A white-haired Norman Mailer was standing in the middle of the room. I had met him in 1962 at Stefan’s and had gone to a couple of his parties. Gone were the pug breaks and the frantic fast-talking. He seemed at peace. We exchanged greetings.

Albert C. Barnes, writing in The New Negro, in 1925, ex­tolled Primitivism in Negro Art: “It is a sound art because it comes from a primitive nature upon which a white man’s education has never been harnessed.” He said it reflected “…aspirations and joys during a long period of acute oppression and distress.” Man in distress was existential man. Mailer popularized this idea with his “White Negro.” To be Negro was to be hip. Jack Kerouac studied Negro Art, and for his dedication Bird did a tune called Kerouac. What Mailer and Kerouac failed to realize was that the average black would have thrown Bird out of his home, or giggled at his music, or charged him with not combing his hair. It was hard enough to be a Negro, but to be that and Bird too was real hard. In Managing Mailer, Joe Flaherty writes about the free­loader blacks Mailer surrounded himself with — hustlers who turned Mailer sour on blacks in general. Kerouac and Mailer tried. As they grew older their intellectual position regarding blacks became more obtuse than right. As obtuse as their prose styles.

Reading The Fight again, on the way down, I realized that what I had mistaken for racism in Mailer’s writing was actu­ally frustration — frustration that he couldn’t play the dozens with Bundini and them; frustration that he couldn’t be black. Maybe one day the genetic engineers in their castles rocking from lightning will invent an identity delicatessen where one can obtain identity as easily as buying a new flavored yogurt.

It’s kind of sad. The trench-coated verbal and physical scrapper I used to trade jokes with at Pana Grady’s salons in the Dakota. His benign eyes indicated that he realized he could never really become a “Wise Primitive,” and this had brought tranquility, like the look that comes over the face of the werewolf who finally realizes his agony is over.

I asked Mailer who was going to win? He gave me one of those answers for which he has a patent. “Ali. He’s worked the death out.” So had Mailer.

The black entrepreneur is caught in a bizarre crossfire. On one hand, black intellectuals view him as a sellout to the system, even though many of them have bank accounts which help sustain the system. The 1960s social and cultural programs brought prosperity to some and with this prosperity came the guilt feelings ex­perienced by other aspiring immigrants toward the “brothers left behind.” The black entrepreneur is expected to kickback his gains to them, “the sub-proletariat.” In Oakland, the Black Panthers, joined by white children of the prosperous middle class, picketed black merchants.

He also has to struggle against the banks and creditors who grudgingly lend him money, and against the myth of black ineptitude. He has to struggle against blacks who seem to try their damnedest to prove the myth.

He knows that if he gets too big they’ll axe him down to size.

Don Hubbard, the 38-year-old president of Louisiana Sports, sat on the arm of a couch in the second-floor lobby of the Hilton. He was confident, proud, cocky even. He blamed Top Rank for the disorderly weigh-in ceremonies which had just taken place. “Only people with gold passes should have been admitted.”

The Vegas fight between Spinks and Ali was the first fight he’d attended; the first time he’d heard the “moans and groans” of the sport.

Hubbard had met Butch Lewis, Top Rank’s former vice-­president, at the fight and invited him down to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. He proposed to Lewis that New Orleans would be a good scene for a rematch between Ali and Spinks. Lewis scoffed at the suggestion, reminding Hubbard that Hubbard had never promoted a fight before and there was some strong competition, including Anheuser-Busch, groups from Las Vegas, Casino owners in South Africa, and a Miami group led by Chris Dundee, Angelo’s brother.

“Spinks agreed to come to New Orleans for the YMCA and didn’t show. The Mayor’s limousines, police escort and everything, were waiting for Leon Spinks. I looked at the 5 o’clock news and Spinks was in Detroit. My wife had cooked dinner and was mad enough to jump on Spinks.

“Butch Lewis came down to save face, and raised the money for the YMCA. I started needling Butch because there was a rumor that the fight was going to South Africa. How the hell can Ali stage his last fight in South Africa? Top Rank got a whole barrage of protests from the Urban League and others, and I kept bugging Butch.

“Butch called one evening and said, ‘Don, you’re bugging the hell out of me. I’m coming to New Orleans at 11:30. From that time you have 48 hours to raise $3 million.’ ”

Hubbard said he met with the Mayor to get his blessings, obtained a letter of credit for $350,000, and kept $2,500,000 in escrow. At the time I talked to Lewis, which was about 12 o’clock on the Thursday before the fight, the $3,000,000 in­vestment had been returned. Hubbard’s partners were Sher­man Copelin, a black, and two Italians, Jake DiMaggio and Phillip Ciaccio. Hubbard said he didn’t know whether to call the Italians white because some Italians are white and some are Italian.

“The boxing crowd spends more money than the football crowd,” he claimed. “When the Super Bowl fans come, it’s with clubs on chartered buses, but the fight crowd arrives in Rolls Royces, Mercedes, private planes.”

Back in the press room I ran into Harold Conrad who’d promoted the Liston-Patterson fights and traveled to 22 states seeking a license for Ali to fight during his three and a half years’ exile. He said that if Ali won, the only fighter he’d get money for fighting would be Larry Holmes. I had just seen Holmes encounter Angelo Dundee in the hall. Dundee had said to Holmes, “My kid thinks you’re the ugliest and biggest man she’s ever seen.”

Conrad was completing a novel called A Rare Bird Indeed, which he says will be the story of a newspaperman of the 1930s and 1940s, the end of a great era when you could get a table at Lindy’s and Reubens at 5 a.m. and everybody knew Winchell, and nightclub openings were as big as Broadway openings. Conrad, tanned and wearing a plaid sports jacket, slacks, and a shiny, thin mustache could have been a Runyon character. He had worked for Damon Runyon, a “strange man from Kansas City who didn’t have many friends and liked to be left alone.” Humphrey Bogart played Conrad in The Harder They Fall, his last role.

My friend Sam Skinner, from San Francisco’s Channel 44, and I posed for a gag picture with Larry Holmes, WBC Heavyweight Champion and one of the brightest students of the Ali style. Holmes wanted to know where the women were. A young hostess told me that the demand for women was incessant from the Spinks people. They bragged about all the “ladies” they had coming down from St. Louis.

Skinner introduced me to a black-haired, short, and tough-looking man, Richie Giachetti, Holmes’s trainer. I asked him how Holmes had made Ken Norton look so bad.

“I studied the Norton film. He can’t back up, he’s vulner­able to uppercuts, straight right hands; when he throws a left hook he telegraphs it; his overhand right is only effective on the ropes; he can’t throw it in, the middle of the ring because he drags his foot.

“So the way you fight Norton is to stay in the middle of the ring and fight, and jab — jabs nullify him better than anything else. You neutralize a slugger with jabs, you back him off, you fluster him.”

How would Spinks fare against Ali? “Spinks is still an amateur. In football you go through high school to college and then to the pros. Spinks went through high school — but he hasn’t had enough fights to have gone through college.

“Spinks makes a lot of mistakes, but at the same time he’s fighting an old fighter like when Marciano went up against Louis. Spinks would not get the recognition because he will have defeated an old man, a man who contributed so much to boxing, a living legend. Spinks has nothing to gain and ev­erything to lose by defeating Ali.”

How should Ali fight Spinks? “Go out and rake the first round, don’t give up anything, stay away from the ropes and fight in the middle of the ring; Spinks’s best attack is a com­bo left hook followed by a right hand. Ali should sidestep I him, throw short left jabs, counterpunch him, and there will t be no contest.

“I’m for Ali. Got to go with Ali. But if it goes over 10 rounds, Spinks will win the fight.”

Spirit City had become keyed up for the fight. Boys and girls in red stetsons and fringed jackets were bused to the Hilton to provide a marching band. The town was heavy into Disco. Hilton employees, dressed in black skirts, pants, and white blouses, tossed black and white balloons in the alley next to the Hilton as they second lined to a Jazz band. There was a fireworks display over this New Orleans sun temple. On the second floor, celebrities moved through the English bar, or sat on the sofas. Souvenirs of the fight were on sale all over the French Quarter. They ranged from cheap and ex­pensive dolls and T-shirts, to the $100 official fight poster boy LeRoy Neiman, on sale at the Bienville Exchange, where the Louisiana equestrian crowd brunches on Saturdays. Even in the airport there were waitresses dressed in glossy boxing shorts, and wearing Ali and Spinks training jerseys. The fight coincided with the Hilton’s first anniversary and so it got real goopy. Baron Hilton, the son of “the man who bought the Waldorf,” was greeted with a kingly reception as he walked into the lobby with a woman who wore a fur coat, even though it was about 90 degrees outside. The humidity was making life miserable. There was a huge cake near the French Bar, about 15 feet high, blue and white in color. Two chefs were standing next to it. I asked how many pounds of flour went into the making of the cake. They said that it wasn’t edible.

I had dinner Thursday night with Hughes Rudd, whose appearance in experimental anthologies alongside Barthelme and Barth is a well-kept secret. CBS’s eye should be replaced with a peabrain for removing Rudd from the CBS Morning News. We all got up at 6:30 so as not to miss those long ram­bling anecdotes of his which were about as close to writing fiction as television will ever approach. We ate and went through a couple of bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse in Winston’s Room, on the second floor of the Hilton. It was done up in the style of early Frank Lloyd Wright and included some touches of chinoiserie, which became popular in the twenties when the missionaries were looting China.

Rudd talked about an incident during World War II when they sent him up in an airplane that was worth less than the crate it was shipped in. He said some things about the “TV Industry” which led me to think that it ought to be sunk be­neath the ocean in cans so that it won’t disturb mankind for maybe 200 years.

On the day of the fight you couldn’t touch anything without getting a shock, so high was the tension. The night before I made a bet with a Reuters reporter that Ali would KO Spinks in three rounds. I over­heard Angelo Dundee telling someone, “The Champ’s going to do a number on Spinks.”

In the morning Jose Fuentes and Jane Senno took me up to Luis Sarria, the man some people referred to as “the mysteri­ous Cuban.” He was eating breakfast alone, gazing from time to time at the barges and sightseeing boats on the brown Mis­sissippi, or watching the cartoons on television. I’d met him Wednesday night, and watched him as he stood on the periphery of the crowd, hardly speaking, contemplative, studi­ous. He was the calmest man in the whole place. I must have asked him a hundred times whether he thought Ali would win; Jose or Jane would translate to Spanish, and he’d usual­ly nod his head. Jose showed me a photo he’d taken of Sarria, “laying hands” on Ali’s face. Sarria’s face was black and his features were ancient, like those of the people who came over on the first boats.

We went to Ali’s private suite, room 1729, only to learn that he was living in a private home in West Lakeside. He was inaccessible to all but TV media stars. Television had put up $5 million for fight coverage. There were some men sit­ting about the suite, silent, not talking. I was reminded of the time I was snowed in one Seattle night with the Cecil Taylor group only to hear a tape of the three-hour concert I’d just left. Nobody said a word. Bundini filed in with Pat Paterson and some others, then filed out again. It was like a religious cult. The night before an insider had praised Ali as Christ, Abraham, Moses. But what influence would he have on international politics in the future? The newspapers were begin­ning to say that he was naive about the Soviet Union. Others were saying that his entourage was protecting him from the world and that he was “easily deceived.”

We went to Pat Paterson’s room. He is the permanent bodyguard Mayor Richard Daley had assigned to Ali. My eyes were blinded by a cluster of blazing trophies laying on a dresser, glittering like idols to the sun. I had read that there’s a crunch in the dressing room after the fight and asked Pater­son, who was wearing a green leisure suit, my chances of get­ting in. He said I’d have to take my chances like everybody else.

The packed press bus headed for the Superdome at 4 o’clock. I felt sorry for the working press. I thought about the newspapers they worked for. The cities they had to re­turn to. I was standing next to Ed Cannon, a Muslim reporter who was wearing a sweater which read: THERE IS NO GOD GREATER THAN ALLAH. That night he was hassled on the floor by a “famous movie star.” The Superdome resembled a giant concrete jaw jutting out at the end of the street. Soon we were inside the jaw. New Orleans chauvinists say that the Super­dome is so big you can put the Astrodome inside and still have 60 feet around. A Muslim reporter wrote an article describing it as “a white elephant.” The seats were of red and blue hues and extended to the roof of the building. Strobe lights blinked on and off. Processions of flag bearers headed up and down the aisle.

One blue flag carried the letters MORON. Nobody will be­lieve me. I asked Nick Browne of the Soho News, who was sitting next to me, to examine the flag through his binoculars and sure enough it said MORON. After the chaotic weigh-in there had been a threat to call out the National Guard. Fist­fights broke out on the floor during the bouts.

I decided to take my roving press pass and rove about the floor. Spinks’s cars, all white, were on the main floor near the dressing room. I went to Ali’s dressing room and was stopped at the door by two whites. I moved through the people on the main floor who were gawking at the celebrities entering to take their seats at ringside. People were putting on a fashion show and hardly paying attention to the bouts. Three black women dressed to the hilt in 1940s costumes walked up and down. One was wearing a gold-sequined dress the color of her hair and skin. There was a group of men who made a ring about another man. Nobody was paying any attention to them. I walked up to see Chip Carter standing in the center of the ring.

“Who’s going to win the fight?” I asked.

“Ali,” he said.

“What about Spinks?”

“He’s good, too.”

“You’re really a politician.”

“I hope so.”

I made my way down the aisle toward ringside, past the guards who were sending people back. Up close I could see an ugly, dark-red wound about the eye of Victor Galindez, who was defeated by Mike Rossman for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship. This was real blood, and some of it had sprayed on the referee’s shirt. Somebody in the front row yelled, “Get out of the way!” and I spun around and flashed on the people at ringside. It resembled one of Dadaist Lil Picard’s Beauty Shop satires she used to do in the sixties art galleries. I saw no eyes, noses, nor mouths but what ap­peared to be blank faces smeared with pancake make-up which seemed unnaturally dry under the lights. My mind flashed back to the Norton films, the eager and richly fed faces, despising his body but at the same time lusting after it.

I started back toward the press box which was way up in the balcony, nearly touching the ceiling. As I moved toward the elevator, Veronica Ali was entering the Superdome, pro­tected by bodyguards. From upstairs, the fighters in the ring looked like dolls. So I watched some of the fight on one of four giant TV screens suspended from the ceiling. All during the preliminary fights, even the championship fights, people were entering and exiting. “They don’t care about this crowd,” somebody said. “What they care about is television.” More than 200 million people were watching.

Nick Brown’s remarks were more interesting than the preliminary bouts. It was the kind of grim, deadpan, jaded humor you hear traded across the bar at the Club 55. When Featherweight Champion of the World Danny (Little Red) Lopez knocked out Juan Malvarez, Brown said, “I can understand ethnicity in boxing, but a guy who’s part Irish, part Amerindian, and part Chicano is taking it too far.”

When Rossman came on to the strains of “Hava Nagila,” he quipped: “Four thousand years of history and only one song.”

As the main event approached, fistfights began to re­ally break out; “over bets” I was told. About six rows of state troopers spilled over one another just to stop two guys. It was like a rowdy 1890s audience which used to hurl liquor bottles at the actors, or mercilessly heckle politicians on the stump.

Edy Williams, 37-23-37, a “raven-haired” woman, jumped into the middle of the ring after the Rossman fight and took her clothes off, revealing flesh the color of the hotdogs they were serving in the press room and a few shades lighter than the red ring ropes.

Describing herself as a “Naturalist from California,” she said, “If Muhammad Ali can use his body to be a success in the ring, why can’t I?” One newspaper described her show as “the most exciting event of the evening.” Many were using their flesh for success outside the ring as well; it seemed that every whore and player from the Mississippi Valley and points beyond was there.

Rocky Stallone, Joe Frazier, and Larry Holmes had en­tered the ring, Holmes receiving a few boos, but fewer than the Governor of Louisiana received when he was introduced. Isaac Hayes did a Disco version of “America the Beautiful,” and Joe Frazier sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” grimac­ing as if in pain. Somebody seated beneath me said, “I ain’t gonna stand.” When Ali entered he was alternately lifted and buried by the crowd. His party seemed to sway from side to side and as they moved him down the aisle, the crowds pressed in for a souvenir of The Greatest’s flesh. Spinks looked like the kind of guy who’d say, “Motherfucker, kiss my ass” as they put the handcuffs on him.

After one round a few state troopers gave Ali a standing ovation. His left jabs worried Spinks silly, and Spinks looked like a brawler, engaged in a St. Louis street fight, the most vicious east of the Mississippi. His trainer, George Benton, left his corner during the fight, in frustration at the amateurs Spinks had at ringside yelling to him “wiggle, Leon, wiggle.” Arguments broke out among them over who should give Spinks advice. Spinks was 25, lacked craftsmanship, was a sensational head-hunter. I remember a trainer at an exhibition fight heading with Spinks to go for the opponent’s body. Ali had followed the advice Archie Moore had given to an Old Man in the Ring: “You hone whatever skills you have left.”

A reporter from the Washington Evening Star told me that it was Ali’s most serious fight in three years. At the end of the 15th round there was no doubt in my mind that Ali had won, and so I headed for the dressing room without hearing the de­cision. Veronica Ali, Jayne Kennedy, members of the family, boxing people, and show business personalities were watch­ing a small TV set. The decision was announced. Stallone en­tered, and John Travolta was standing off to the side chatting with some people. I asked Liza Minelli, who was standing in front of me, wearing a red dress, what she thought of the fight. She thought it was “sensational.”

As soon as Ali left the ring, the crowd began swaying and moving like a papier mache dragon, moving through the in­terview room to the dressing room. When Ali finally entered it was impossible to gain entrance unless you were a celebrity or an important member of the Champ’s entourage. “Make way for Wyatt Earp,” they said when Hugh O’Brien walked by. I spotted some of the old timers I’d met on Wednesday evening. I wanted to hear what the craftsmen had to say.

James Dudley is black, grey-haired, and looks like a classical American trainer, old style. Suspenders and glasses, starchy white shirt, a smile that makes his eyes shine. James Dudley managed Gene Smith and Holly Mimms. When I approached him he was being congratulated. His new fighter, welterweight Johnny Gant, had won a shot at the title.

“Ali made him miss a lot,” Dudley told me. “Spinks tried to weave and bob and weave and bob but wasn’t able to do anything. Any time Ali’s left hand is working he’s unbeat­able, and his left hand was jabbing and hooking. Ali hit him with anything he wanted to hit him with.

“Spinks comes straight to you and any man who’ll come straight to you you hit him. You move from side to side and hit him with a right hand, hit him with hooks, hit him with anything you want to hit him with.”

I asked Dudley when he thought Ali had the fight won.

“In the 10th round, because I’d given Spinks only three.”

“What was Spinks’s biggest mistake?”

“Taking the fight,” he chuckled. “Ali,” he continued, “lost the last fight because he stayed on the ropes and gave away six rounds.”

“How would Ali do against Larry Holmes?”

“I think he’s serious about retiring. He’s done everything you can do in the fight business. There ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

“How would Ali rate against Joe Louis?”

“Ali has the style that always gave Louis trouble. Any box­er who could move gave Louis trouble and Ali is the fastest heavyweight of all time.”

Louis, I thought, might have had a harder punch. Judging from his films, his KO victims take a longer time to rise than Ali’s.

Congratulations were going all around as well-wishers en­tered the dressing room area. Rachaman was standing in the middle of the room chanting Muslim phrases. He kept repeating in English, “He said he’s from the world of shock.” Ali had told the inner circle that he would surprise everybody and that he was from the world of shock. I decided that the silence among his aides that afternoon was not due to sullen­ness but gloom. Ali had to cheer them up.

I caught up with Dick Gregory. Gregory said he was sur­prised that the fight had gone as long as it did. “It was a les­son for the world, a health and body lesson. If you take the physical body God has given you and purify it, there’s noth­ing that the body won’t do for you. Anything made by the universal force won’t get old. That’s what it was; with the right mineral balance and combination of nutrients you can make it.” I overheard one of the trainers remark, “He did 6000 calisthenics. 6000. No athlete has ever done that.”

New studies had come out which indicated that we know less about aging than we thought. Senility was being seen as a social, not physical, phenomenon. The idea of waning intellectual powers among the elderly was under challenge. George Balanchine, the dancer, had a body which put many a teenager’s to shame. I remembered a story from an old box­ing magazine, about someone running into the retired Jack Johnson. He was eager to fight Louis and bothered Louis so he was banned from the Brown Bomber’s training camp. The story revealed that Johnson knew of Louis’s weakness — ­dropping his left after a lead — before Schmeling spotted it on film. How would a retired Johnson have made out against Joe Louis?

But then there was something unique about Ali. Bob Arum had put his finger on it. He argued that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s layoff, just as they had to Louis during his army stint, and Jack Johnson after his ex­ile abroad. But then Arum spoke of Ali’s regenerative capa­cities. He said he’d seen three Alis — the Alis of the Supreme Court victory, the victory over Frazier, and the defeat of George Foreman — and that Muhammad might win if he had a fourth Ali in him. That night in the Superdome we’d seen the fourth Ali.

He had his skills, he had his personality, and he had the will. What else did he have at ringside? Spinks’s trainer, George Benton, mentioned a “mystical force guiding Ali’s life.…” After the Zaire fight, George Foreman’s corner complained that Foreman didn’t fight the fight that had been planned. That he seemed distracted. After Spinks lost he said that his “mind wasn’t on the fight.” Was an incredible amount of “other” energy in Ali’s corner? His devotion to Allah is well known.

Bob Arum said that Dick Gregory told him to call home because his son had had an accident. Arum called and it was true. Was Dick Gregory laying more than physical protection on the Champion. Did Dick Gregory have “second sights”?

A Miami customs official said that with the immigration laws as they are now, half of South America­ will be here in the next few years. On my last trip to New York I noticed storefronts to the goddess of the sea, Ye­manya, were springing up around the West 90s. Among the people who came were the Cubans who hold Santaria cere­monies in their Miami apartments. The Cubans brought their cults. This Cuban, Luis Sarria, was protected by Chan­go, the perfect loa of boxing, the warrior-god of fire, thun­der, and lightning.

It was a “mystical” night. The Superdome audience had watched a man turn the clock back, a rare event. I noticed pigeons inside, encircling the Superdome, flying above the heads of the crowd.

Spinks’s six-door white Lincoln Continental was brought up by a bald man, wearing dark glasses and an earring, named Mr. T. Leon was surrounded by a few people including his brother Michael. Spinks waved at some people who stood on a balcony. Nobody waved back.

Somebody announced that Ali was holding a press confer­ence upstairs. He was seated, flanked by Veronica and Jayne Kennedy, the actress who resembles her so much that they could be sisters.

“I’mmona hold it six months. I’m going to go all over the world. Do you know what I did? I was great in defeat. Can you imagine how great I am now? Can you imagine how many movies, how many commercials I will get? I was great when I lost fights. I got eight months I can hold my title… mannnnnn. See how big I am? Can you imagine what will happen if I walk down the street in any city?

“My thing was to dance, come right out and start moving, win the first, win the second, win the third, get away from the ropes, dance, do everything I know how to do. Get my body in shape so that it could do what my brains tell me. The fight’s almost over, if you lose eight rounds, you lose the whole fight — so after I won about 10 rounds, naturally, the opponent gets frustrated. He can’t win unless he knocks me out, and I get more confident.”

“He cut out that rope-a-dope bullshit,” one old timer said to me.

“Do you know I danced 15 rounds with a 25-year-old boy? I’m 36 years old? Man, do you realize how great I am now? The doctor checked my temperature and my blood, and took it to the hospital, and told Dick Gregory what I needed. Do you know how my stamina was up? Do you know what he told me to do?

“Take honey and ice cream 30 minutes before the fight. Half a pint of ice cream and five or six spoonfuls of real hon­ey. My doctor told me to eat ice cream and honey. He gave me a big hunk of honey and melted ice cream. I didn’t get tired. Did you see me explode all during the fight? I said, go!

“Spinks is a gentleman; he held my hand up. Spinks will beat Larry Holmes. Spinks will be champion again. He’s go­ing to be the second man to regain it twice. He’ll have to do a lot to do it three times. But Spinks will be champion again. He’s young, he’s in good shape, he’s going to fight Larry Holmes and be the champ.

“I’m the three-time champion. I’m the only man to win it three times. The greatest champion of all time.”

“Of all time,” chorused his assistants.

“Of all time. Was I pretty?”

“You was pretty,” said a man in the audience.

“Was I moving? Was I fighting? Was I sticking? Was I a Master?”

“In eight months I’ll let you know, I’ll either retire or fight. Hold it eight months. Why give it back as hard as I worked? I’m getting old. Somebody is going to get me. I’m lucky I came back. See, I had you thinking I was washed up. You thought I was washed up. You really didn’t know how great I was. You didn’t know I just didn’t train for the first fight. You thought I had trained and that was my best. Wasn’t I much better this time than the first time? I’m older. I’m seven months older. Wasn’t it a total difference?

“Mannnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. I was the best in this fight, let me tell you. I was training six months. My legs were running, I was chopping trees, running hills, watching my food. I said I cannot go out a loser, Jack Johnson went out a loser. Sugar Ray went out a loser. Joe Louis went out a loser. Of all the great fighters only Marciano and Tunney — two white ones­ — went out winners and everybody’s talking about how great Marciano was, and how great Tunney was.

“I said, some black man has got to be smart enough to get by all these people. I got to be that black man who gets out on top. I went training early. I put all my tools together. I tricked you. I was separated from my wife, all my friends. Mannnnnn. Mannnnnnn.” (Audience, including urbane, so­phisticated sports writers: “Mannnnnnn.”) “Man, I got ready a book coming out for all school children. I hang up my robes, hang up my crown, and my trunks. A Champion Forever. A champion forever. A champion forever. Mannnnnnnn.”

A reporter asked Ali did he think we’d hear from George Foreman again.

“You’ll hear of George Foreman no more. I don’t think he’ll ever come back. Spinks will win the title. Spinks is not finished. He just couldn’t beat me. He’ll beat Larry Holmes (takes a swig of Welch’s grape juice).

“I have an announcement. Kris Kristofferson and Marlon Brando have just signed to make my movie, Freedom Road. We have a $6 million budget. Couple of more questions then I gotta celebrate. Mannnnnn, you come over to the Hilton and we gonna ball. Mannnnnn. My victory party. All y’all playboys come on over.”

Trainer James Dudley said Ali won because “class will tell.” Ali’s camp did everything according to script down to even the right kind of music. In the first fight with Spinks he was introduced with a movement from a Brahms symphony. In the second fight, “The Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Spinks’s entrance was accompanied by the macho “Marine Hymn” which boasts of an illegal invasion of Mexico. So the people were joking about Spinks’s style. A friend of mine predicted that Spinks would win the fight if he weren’t arrested be­tween leaving his dressing room and entering the ring. Ali made a joke at the Mayor’s reception about Spinks still owing a thousand dollars on his $500 suit. Not only did Spinks lose the fight but they had trouble backing his huge white car out of the Superdome.

The political, cultural, and entertainment establish­ments were rooting for Ali. His victory would be seen as another sign of sixtomania now sweeping the country, because even though some of his most heroic fights occurred in the seventies, he would still remind us of the turbulent decade, of Muslims, Malcom X, Rap Brown, The Great Society, LBJ, Vietnam, General Hershey, dashi­kis, afros, Black Power, MLK, RFK. He represented the New Black of the 1960s, who was the successor to the New Negro of the 1920s, glamorous, sophisticated, intelligent, in­ternational, and militant.

The stars were for Ali, but the busboys were for Spinks. They said he lost because he was “too wild.” His critics claimed that he drank in “New Orleans dives,” where the stateside Palestinians hangout — the people the establishment has told to get lost. The people who’ve been shunted off to the cities’ ruins where they live next to abandoned buildings.

They could identify with Spinks. If they put handcuffs on him for a traffic offense, then they do the same thing to them. If he was tricked into signing for a longer period in the armed forces than he thought, the same thing happens to them. For seven months, he was “The People’s Champ.”

Ali and his party left the stadium, with people lined up on each side to say farewell to the champion. The night before, the streets were empty, but now they were crowded, remind­ing one of the excitement among the night crowds in Ameri­can cities during the 1930s and 1940s, or when the exposi­tions were held in St. Louis and Washington. The black players’ bars were filling up. The traffic was bumper to bumper. Hundreds were milling about outside of the Hilton, or standing body-to-body. In the French Quarter, many more moved down Bourbon Street as the sounds of B.B. King and Louis Armstrong came from the restaurants and bars. Every 36-year-old had a smile.

After returning home I learned that Butch Lewis had been fired from Top Rank for, according to Arum, taking a $200,000 kickback from Louisiana Sports. Don Hubbard told me that a press conference had been called by Ali, who had remained an extra day, to blast two officers of Louisiana Sports, Jake DiMaggio and Philip Ciaccio, for filing suit against the black partners, Hubbard and Copelin. Ali was joined by Joe Frazier and Michael and Leon Spinks. They wanted to show support for Butch Lewis.

Ali said that those who control boxing believed that “the black man’s role in the sport should be limited to boxing and carrying the bucket while the white men count the money.”

He said that if he heard anymore about a suit against Cope­lin and Hubbard he’d go see President Carter about the mat­ter or bring it up during his world tour. “I don’t know all the details of this suit,” he said, “but I know this is a racist suit.”

I called Arum. He said that Ali had apologized to him for the press conference. He’d talked to Ali the night before and accused Copelin, Hubbard, and Lewis of “steaming Ali up” so bad that Ali “got intemperate.”

“Ali is contrite,” Arum said. “Jesus, when they steam him up they almost make him drunk on rhetoric. Everybody in Chicago is concerned. Herbert Muhammad leapt to my defense. Hubbard, Copelin, and Lewis concocted the press conference to attack me, but Ali thought they were attacking the other guys [DiMaggio and Ciaccio]. Ali was ill-used and is going to say so today. I talked to Muhammad last night.”

“Why did Spinks lose?”

“I thought Spinks was going to win based on his having George Benton as trainer,” Arum said. “He lost because he received no guidance from his corner. None.”

I asked about the quote attributed to him by Newsweek that Spinks was “drunk every night.” Sports Illustrated re­peated the claim.

“I didn’t see him every night, but every time I saw him he was drunk. A young fighter can drink and abuse himself and not affect his conditioning, but it has a mental effect. Spinks has great raw talent. His wife Nova reputedly has joined the Muslims. If he joins the Muslims they will straighten him out. If he goes on like he is now, forget about him ever fighting again. His life will end up being a personal disaster.”

Arum said he’d fired Butch Lewis because “I found out he was working a scam on me amounting to $200,000.” It had been reported that Lewis received the amount as a kickback from the fight in the form of letters of credit. I thought it in­credible that Ali didn’t know the contractual details of the “Battle of New Orleans” and asked Arum why he thought this was the case.

“He’s easily deceived,” Arum said. Would Arum promote another Ali fight? He said that he’d do nothing to encourage Ali to fight again. There was a rumor making the rounds, the source of which was said to be Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s for­mer doctor, whose book Fight Doctor annoyed Ali. The ru­mor was repeated in Newsweek and New York magazine, whispering that Ali is showing the symptoms of brain dam­age. I taped a press conference that Ali gave after a grueling 15 rounds in the ring with a 26-year-old man and detected not one bit of slurring, or lapse in his usual comical bril­liance. In fact, he could have been a Bible-toting Kentucky evangelist on the stump; the audience in the room belonged to him. They were spellbound by his oratory. Had he com­manded they would have permitted him to walk out of the room on their backs.

DiMaggio and Ciaccio sued Hubbard and Copelin later withdrew the suit saying it was the result of a misunderstand­ing. The “internal problems,” Hubbard said, “had been resolved. We don’t want to spread our dirty linen all over the nation.” But according to a report on Thursday, September 28, from Oakland radio station KDIA, the linen would be spread, and scavengers would dine. A grand jury was going to look into the promotion of the Spinks-Ali fight.

Ali apologized just as Arum said he would. He termed his press conference “unfortunate”:

“Certain people whom I regarded as my friends gave me a distorted version of events which so enraged me that I made unthinkable, angry remarks. I never met Mr. Ciaccio or Mr. DiMaggio and hold no personal animosity. Even if they are wrong I should not have called them a name, particularly a name which offends a whole nation of people.”

DiMaggio had threatened Ali with a $10 million libel suit unless he returned to New Orleans to “apologize” for the remarks Ali made against him.

In defending Arum, Herbert Muhammad said, “He came to me with a contract to guarantee Ali 3 million, 250,000 for training expense, and 250,000 for any other sources of ex­penses, and Butch Lewis came to me working for Top Rank, and Arum’s a white man. And Lewis is a white man. And Top Rank is a white organization, so I think Ali was not that informed.”

Toward the end of his extraordinary press conference, Ali had indicated that “blue-eyed Jesuses” and “Tarzan, King of the Jungle” were on his mind, which reminds us of Tarzan’s Anglo origin and that in many black churches, Jesus resem­bles Basil Rathbone. This brings us to Ali’s last challenge: The Anglo-Saxon Curse on black Heavyweight Champions.

The “white hope” legend was born in the mythic Pacific White Republic of California with its Anglo Saxon ruling capital, the city by the golden gate. Early California poetry boasts of how the Anglo Saxons were destined to conquer and rule California and become its supreme race. Jack London was the lingering myth’s chief philosopher and fantasist and, for London and others, when Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jefferies, the claim of Anglo Saxon superiority received a se­vere setback. They went scrambling about to find someone to break Jack Johnson. Finally, as a historian observed, the white hope appeared in the form of legislation: The Mann Act.

The pride blacks felt in Johnson’s victory led them to cele­brate. They were lynched for “boasting.” Other victims were accused of “strutting about.” FRENZIED NEGROES EXASPERATE THE WHITES, screamed headlines in the London Daily Express, July 6, 1910.

A curse seemed to be laid that, thereafter, black cham­pions would retire in defeat: “the good ones,” like Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles, suffering as much as the “bad guys,” Sonny Liston, possibly killed. If he’s a historian as I believe he is, Ali will retire, undefeated. If he’s a “businessman,” as he said at his press conference, he’ll fight Larry Holmes for “the other” championship and the phantom woman who attends his fights, her chauffeur-driven car outside the stadium, will be there at rightside, awaiting Ali’s destruction. She won’t be the only one.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 19, 2020

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