This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on Feb. 29, 2004.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Cassius Clay burst into a back room of the Miami Beach Convention Hall and knocked the assembled crowd on its heels with the speed-bag cadence of his words, jabbing startled faces with a flurry of bombast.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” he yelled, glaring at Sonny Liston. “I’m the champ. You the chump. Round 8 to prove I’m great.”
Clay lunged at Liston. Trainer Angelo Dundee pretended to restrain his young fighter, who pretended to be possessed. Clay’s eyes bulged, his fists clawed the air.
Dundee yanked on the belt of Clay’s robe at the weigh-in, and the boxing commission doctor struggled to measure the pulse and blood pressure of the challenger, who kept whirling and ranting. If the skyrocketing vital signs didn’t stabilize, the heavyweight title bout would be called off.
“I’m goin’ bear-hunting, “ Clay taunted. “I’m gonna whup you, big, ugly bear. I don’t quiver. I deliver.”
It was Feb. 25, 1964. No one knew what to make of the man. Was he having a nervous breakdown? Was he scared out of his mind? How could they know then they were witnessing the beginning of the most beloved act on any stage? How could they foresee that this hysteric would become a hero?
Later that night, after Liston spit out his mouthpiece, slumped on his stool and refused to answer the bell for the seventh round, Clay started screaming again. “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
Years later, the world is still entranced by Muhammad Ali.
* * *
He was born in Louisville but molded in Miami.
He won the heavyweight championship here. He announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name to Ali here. He declared his opposition to the Vietnam War here.
When he arrived in 1960, he was shy, ambitious, 18-year-old Cassius Clay — a pretty face. He spent most of the next six years in Miami, and if American society during that era could be likened to an agonizing thriller in a boxing ring, he was at the epicenter, shaking it up.
By the time he left, he was the electric, controversial Muhammad Ali — the most recognizable face in the world.
The transformation occurred here.
He first lived in a “colored” motel in Overtown. He jogged over the MacArthur Causeway to the Fifth Street Gym and was stopped by police who suspected he was fleeing the scene of a crime.
He prayed in storefront mosques. He met the cornermen of his career. And he charmed an entire neighborhood from the front steps of his Allapattah house.
The people who spent time with him here were transformed, too, by his kindness, his wit, his courage.
“He loved himself and he wanted to take you into that world of self-love and self-determination, “ said Ferdie Pacheco, the Overtown clinic doctor who became The Fight Doctor with Ali.
Ali and Miami. Miami and Ali. Both young, brash and breathtaking. What would one be today without the other?
“Those were the best, purest years of his life,” Dundee said. “He was such a sweet kid. Still is. Irresistible. I had so much fun with him. That’s what I learned from Muhammad: Every day is fun.”
* * *
Nelson Adams III was 10 years old and one of the first black kids enrolled at all-white Allapattah Elementary when a hip prizefighter with a Cadillac moved in next door. There were plenty of role models in those tumultuous times — Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bill Russell. But Adams gravitated to the stoop of the house of the man he first called Cassius, then Muhammad, and to this day, simply, Champ.
Clay was the Pied Piper. He challenged children to footraces and paid them $50 if he lost. He sat the little ones on his lap and told stories. He set up a film projector, screen and lawn chairs in his yard, and invited everybody over to watch home movies. He took kids to school, the beach and Dairy Queen in his new, tomato-red convertible or his old black limo. He performed magic tricks.
He asked his young friends what they wanted to be some day, and he expected an answer.
“He exuded a charisma I wanted to have,” said Adams, a Miami obstetrician/gynecologist. “He showed me what you can achieve if you stand up for what you believe in.”
The places Ali lived are quiet now, and not as pretty as they once were — just like Ali himself at age 62, his famous footwork slowed and his poetry muted by Parkinson’s disease.
* * *
When he moved to Miami on Dec. 19, 1960, Overtown was a thriving black community, a miniature Harlem. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. had won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics four months before, and he was ready to advance his professional career. The 11 businessmen of the Louisville Sponsoring Group sent him to be tutored by Dundee, who had a stable of fighters training at a termite-ridden sweatbox of a gym on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.
Dundee got a room for Clay at the Mary Elizabeth motel on Northwest Second Avenue.
“A den of thieves, pimps and prostitutes, “ Pacheco said. “Here comes Cassius, a clean, cheerful kid. He was like a country bumpkin coming to the big city.”
Dundee moved Clay to the Sir John motel. He ran a tab at the Famous Chef restaurant next door. He got his hair cut at Sonny Armbrister’s barber shop, where he joined in the custom of composing rhyming verses.
At night, entertainers such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin, who performed in Miami Beach but were not allowed to stay in the “whites only” hotels, came back across the causeway to their lodgings in Overtown and played at clubs such as the Knight Beat, the “swingingest place in the South.”
Clay went to the Harlem Square to hear Sam Cooke, but he didn’t hang out until the wee hours, and was not one to drink, smoke or carouse.
* * *
He awoke early, pulled on a pair of pants, Army boots and one of the T-shirts he had made up with his name and ran four miles over the MacArthur Causeway and to the gym. After training for hours he ran back again.
“He worked as hard as he talked, “ Dundee said.
On a few occasions, Clay was stopped along the causeway by police.
“The cops would call me and ask, ‘You got a tall fighter named Clay? He says he trains with you, but it looks to us like he’s running from something,’ ” Dundee said.
* * *
When Clay went with photographer Flip Schulke to buy a dress shirt at the Burdines store downtown, he was not allowed to try one on. He could try on a sport jacket, but nothing that would touch his black skin. Schulke was livid.
“I told the manager, ‘This man won an Olympic gold medal for his country,’ ” Schulke recalled. “Cassius didn’t want to argue. He just wanted to leave.”
* * *
In 1961, Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement based on the principle of integration, of black people demonstrating peacefully for the right to be treated equally.
But living in Overtown, being treated like a suspect by police, being shunned by the Burdines clerk, Clay was drawn to the separatist message of the Nation of Islam. He met a Muslim named Sam Saxon, who was selling the sect’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, on Second Avenue. Saxon, captain of Mosque No. 29, invited Clay to attend meetings. Clay had first become intrigued by the sermons of Elijah Muhammad in 1959. He was fascinated by the young minister Malcolm X, who had discarded his “slave name” and advocated opposition to white oppression “by any means necessary.” Malcolm X’s rhetoric of power over passivity appealed to Clay, the fighter.
Clay and his brother Rudy (who later became Rahaman) went to the mosque regularly but quietly. Clay did not want the public or the media to know he was a follower of the Nation, which had a militant, anti-white reputation.
“At that time, it was considered hate-preaching,” said Isiah El-Amin, 69, who worshipped with Clay in the 1960s and later was his Miami driver. “When I accepted Islam, the FBI came to my workplace and questioned me. People thought we were dangerous.”
* * *
There was nothing secretive about Clay’s sessions at the Fifth Street Gym. As he moved up the heavyweight ladder, more fight fans stopped in to watch him spar, and he entertained them with his unorthodox style and constant patter. He was 6-3 and sculpted and had a face you couldn’t look away from.
“You couldn’t go by the book with Muhammad, so rather than change him, I made him believe he was an innovator,” Dundee said. “He kept his hands low. He eluded first, attacked later. The quickness, the reflexes, the bounce — no big man had that before Clay.”
The gym was a steamy, scruffy loft above a liquor store and a drug store, where Clay liked to order fresh-squeezed orange juice. Somehow, he made the place seem glamorous.
One day, in walked Hank Kaplan, a health inspector and fight fan who would become boxing’s respected historian. He had never met a fighter who spoke the same way he jumped rope. But Clay was too funny to be arrogant. There was a wink behind the boasts.
“The mouth on that kid — a promoter’s dream,” Kaplan said. “He asked me to help him make a card with his picture on it that he could hand out everywhere. We took a photo. I asked him how he wanted me to label the card. He said, ‘I am the greatest.’ ”
* * *
In 1963, Clay moved to a three-bedroom, concrete-block aqua house at 4610 Northwest 15th Ct., near Liberty City. The day he moved in, he asked his neighbors, the Adams family, if he could borrow an iron and a clock. His parents and brother lived there on and off, as did his entourage. Howard Bingham, a photographer who became Clay’s best friend, chronicled the visits of Cooke, Jackie Gleason, Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X.
Nelson Adams’ father, an elementary school principal and church deacon, engaged in spirited philosophical discussions with Clay and Malcolm X.
“I couldn’t wait to get home from school every day to see who was there,” said Adams as he stood last week by the house where his 87-year-old mother, Naomi, still lives.
The American South and Adams’ neighborhood were in the midst of big changes, but there was little tension on Northwest 15th Court.
“What he was showing us through his caring and sharing is that we’re all part of the same human family,” said Sceiva Adams, Nelson’s older sister.
Pacheco, a white doctor who worked in Overtown for 20 years, said Clay’s pride was contagious.
“At the time a popular product in Overtown was a cream that supposedly lightened your skin,” Pacheco said. “Here comes Clay saying, ‘Look at me, I’m black, I’m pretty, I’m the greatest.’ That was a revelation.”
* * *
By the fall of 1963, Clay had a contract to fight Liston. Instead of merely predicting an upset, he turned it into a campaign. He bought a bus and painted on it: “Cassius Clay Enterprises. World’s Most Colorful Fighter. Liston Will Go In Eight.” He drove around town, honking and handing out his cards.
He made picket signs for the kids, and they’d march through the neighborhood, chanting his slogans.
“He was creating a buzz, and a persona,” Kaplan said. “Boxing — and sports — would never be the same.”
* * *
Clay sought to unnerve Liston at every opportunity. When Liston flew into Miami on Jan. 26, 1964, Clay was on the landing strip as Liston descended the stairs.
“Let’s fight right now,” Clay said. “I’ll upset this whole airport. They’ll think a plane crashed.”
* * *
Liston, the overwhelming favorite and stone-faced foil, set up businesslike camp at the Surfside Auditorium.
Clay came by to harangue him:
“Who would have thought, when they came to the fight,
That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Back at the Fifth Street Gym, Clay clowned with the Beatles. There in the ring were five poets, whose words signaled the seismic shifts of the ’60s. Clay decked John, Paul, George and Ringo with a “domino punch.”
* * *
As the fight date drew near, Clay paid for Malcolm X and his family to vacation at the Hampton House motel in Brownsville. Malcolm visited the gym one day, and the FBI followed. By then, people were convinced Clay was a Nation believer, although he would not confirm it. His father, Cassius Sr., told the Miami Herald that both his sons had been “brainwashed” by the Muslims.
Promoter Bill MacDonald was in a panic. He persuaded Malcolm X to go home and come back for the fight.
“Ticket sales were lagging,” Kaplan said. “On the one hand you had Liston, a menacing ex-con, and on the other you had Clay, a blabbermouth and a radical black Muslim. It was an unappealing mismatch.”
* * *
On the morning of Feb. 25, Clay strode through Convention Hall for the weigh-in with Dundee and cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown, raving and rhyming. But they got to the scales early, before anyone was there.
“We had to go back to the dressing room and do it all over again an hour later,” Dundee said. “The second time was better.”
As Clay went berserk, Kaplan watched transfixed with Joe Louis’ wife, Martha, who told him, “That poor boy needs a psychiatrist.”
Liston growled at Clay: “Why don’t you hush up so everybody won’t know you’re a fool.”
* * *
In Clay’s dressing room that night, Mosque 29 Captain Sam warned him that the Mafia might persuade the Dundees to fix the fight. Clay was worried someone had poisoned his water bottles. He told Pacheco and Dundee to change the water four times. Before he entered the ring, he prayed with Rudy and Malcolm X.
The referee recited instructions. Clay delivered a verbal blow.
“I got you sucker!” he hissed, looking down at the shorter Liston.
The crowd of 8,271 at the half-full arena saw a bout none of them had envisioned. During the first two rounds, Liston stalked as Clay circled and juked. A flummoxed Liston kept hitting air. In the third, Clay floated in and landed a succession of jabs that opened a cut under Liston’s left eye. Liston’s left shoulder also was hurting.
Something on Liston’s skin — the ferric chloride on his cut or the wintergreen liniment on his shoulder — got into Clay’s eyes, and by the end of the fourth, Clay was blinded by stinging pain.
“I can’t see,” he told Dundee after staggering to his stool. “There’s dirty work afoot, Ang. Cut off my gloves.”
Dundee’s quick thinking prevented Cassius Clay from becoming another forgotten loser.
“I poked my pinkie into the corner of his eye and stuck it in my own, “ Dundee said. “Sure enough, it burned. He wanted to quit. I stalled. I’m sponging out the kid’s eyes as fast as I can.”
A member of Ali’s Muslim entourage whispered in Pacheco’s ear that if there was any foul play the Dundees would pay. The bell rang for the fifth. Clay stayed seated. The referee stomped toward him.
“One more second and he would have called a TKO, “ Dundee said. “So I got the kid up. I said, ‘You can’t quit now. This is the big one, daddy. Keep dancing! Hit and run!’
“Then my guy went to work on him in the sixth. Liston’s face was a big welt. The kid had predicted eight, but it was over after six,” Dundee said.
Liston sank to his stool, told his corner “That’s it, “ and stared straight ahead.
“Liston is not coming out! Liston is not coming out!” Howard Cosell bellowed.
There was pandemonium as Clay thrust his hands in the air. “I am the king of the world!”
* * *
Clay celebrated at the Hampton House with Malcolm X. “He ate a big dish of vanilla ice cream, “ Bingham said.
* * *
The next day at a press conference, Clay confirmed he was a Nation of Islam member. The joking was over.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want,” he said. “I believe Allah is God. I think this is the true way to save the world, which is on fire with hate.”
* * *
On Feb. 27, reporters found Clay and Malcolm X at the Hampton House. Malcolm X declared that Clay would “mean more to his people than any athlete before him.”
On March 6, Elijah Muhammad announced during a radio speech that he was giving Cassius Clay the Muslim name Muhammad Ali.
“I said, ‘OK, Muhammad, but what are we going to rhyme that with?’ ” Dundee said.
* * *
In August, Ali married Sonji Roi. She accepted Islam at Mosque No. 29, which had moved from Overtown to a building adjacent to a plumbing business on Northwest 17th Avenue, two blocks from Ali’s house. Captain Sam had brothers in bow ties from the mosque serving as cooks and bodyguards for Ali.
Sonji found it difficult to adopt Muslim rules.
“She’d come over to my kitchen, as did some of the fellows, and say, ‘I’m so tired of those bean pies. Can I have some pork chops?’ ” Naomi Adams recalled. “She’d smoke a cigarette and I’d spray her with perfume to mask the smell.”
Within a year, Ali had the marriage annulled in a Miami courtroom, where he complained that her clothes were too revealing.
* * *
Ali traveled a lot, but Northwest 15th Court remained home base. It was there that he learned of Malcolm X’s murder in 1965, two months before Ali defeated Liston in a rematch.
* * *
Ali was standing in his front yard on Feb. 17, 1966. Reporters came to tell him his low draft test score had been reclassified and that he was now eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam War.
Ali uttered a line that carried more gravity than any of his poetry: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Throughout the country, Ali was denounced as a coward for refusing to be inducted into the military. Amid the vitriol, he was stripped of his title, but most of his neighbors admired what they saw as a brave decision.
Ali went on to win his case as a conscientious objector in the U.S. Supreme Court and his fights as a restored champion in Zaire and Manila. He moved to Chicago in 1966, but he always came back to Miami to train, to visit, to reminisce.
* * *
The Sir John motel was demolished after highway overpasses slashed through Overtown. The Fifth Street Gym was torn down in 1993. The Hampton House has fallen into disrepair. Mosque No. 29 became the Masjid Al-Ansar — and Ali bought three buses for its school. The house on Northwest 15th Court was bought by Lonnie Ross, who is a Lakeview Elementary physical education teacher.
Nelson Adams, 51, who became a civic leader, moved to Miami Shores.
Kaplan lives in Kendall, where he has turned his garage into a boxing archive.
Dundee, 82, trains boxers in Pembroke Pines.
Liston, doleful to the end, was mysteriously found dead in his Las Vegas home in 1971. The official cause was heart failure, but police suspected murder.
Pacheco, 76, left Ali’s corner in 1977 because he could not bear to see him continue fighting despite the medical evidence that Ali’s brain was damaged. They remain friends. Pacheco’s clinic burned down in the 1980 McDuffie riots. The Fight Doctor is a writer, painter and producer.
“Ali was no intellectual, but he had an intuition that was eerie, “ Pacheco said. “He did things wrong and they came out right. He boxed wrong, and it worked. He joined the wrong religion — that was supposed to be his downfall — but it worked because he symbolized steadfastness. He refused the draft — oh, that’ll be the end of Ali. But, no, he was a hero for it. Then he carried the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. Why would he expose himself as frail and pitiful? But that was perfect, too. People loved him all over again for the strength of showing his weakness.”
* * *
Ali lives on a farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his fourth wife, Lonnie, and their son Asaad. Two months ago he returned to a makeshift ring at the Miami Beach Convention Center to celebrate the publication of GOAT (Greatest of All Time), an 800-page book on his life. He stopped by his old neighborhood, and with trembling hands made a piece of cloth the color of his old Cadillac disappear into thin air. Still magical.
One evening he was asked what it was like to be back, back in the place that changed him — and that he changed — forever.
“Hot,” he whispered. “Miami’s still hot.”