Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

15

THE GREATEST

Muhammad Ali's Confounding Character

David W. Zang

He is fascinating-attraction and repulsion must be in the same package.

-Norman Mailer, Life, 1971

FOR MANY AMERICANS, their first glimpse of the Vietnam era came on February 18, 1964. On that day a group of young men in a Miami Beach fight gym previewed the future of the world. The Beatles, recently landed in the United States for a knockout appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, had come to meet heavyweight fighter Cassius Clay, who failed to show on time. "Where the fuck's Clay?" groused Ringo Starr. "Let's get the fuck out of here" said John Lennon. When Clay finally strode in, he dispelled the gloom. "Hello there, Beatles," he called. "We oughta do some road shows together, we'll get rich." When he tried out one of his running gags, however, the testiness resurfaced. "You guys aren't as stupid as you look," he said. "No," Lennon responded, "but you are" 1

The edginess finally passed when the five men ran through a series of comical poses for photographers: Clay dusting all four Beatles with a single punch; the singers forming a pyramid in an attempt to get at the boxer's jaw; Clay thumping his chest above the prostrate quartet as they prayed for mercy. As the group departed, Clay turned to New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte and wondered out loud, "Who were those little faggots?"

As their influence built week by week, the importance and connection between the five men dawned on some observers in a way they themselves had not understood. Not all thought the alliance was positive. New York columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote famously and contemptuously that

Clay is part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to their leather jackets and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from dad every first of the month and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and the surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young. 2

Cannon's jumbled rant may have been paranoid, but he was not wrong in recognizing Muhammad Ali as an apocalyptic figure. Throughout the Vietnam era, the boxer upset

-289-

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