The Grammy-nominated Cassius Clay
The album, like everything else Muhammad Ali did, changed history
August 1963: The Americana Hotel in Manhattan was abuzz. Now known as the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, the luxury establishment sits roughly a mile from Madison Square Garden and less than a half-mile from Radio City Music Hall. Its wildly popular jazz club, The Royal Box, was a regular hot spot for entertainment legends such as Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and others.
But on this summer day, the Americana was hosting a press conference, and the most recognizable face in the place belonged to its subject, Cassius Clay, the No. 2 heavyweight title contender, and boxing’s most outspoken, yet enigmatic personality. Every person in his or her early 20s dreams of taking over the world. Louisville, Kentucky’s Clay was actually doing it.
At this conference there was some talk of boxing, but it was more so about Clay’s venture into other kinds of entertainment. Columbia Records announced its signing of Clay to a recording contract for an alleged price of $25,000. The boxer would record a spoken-word album, filled with his patented comedic gab and verbal jabs at the then-champion Sonny Liston.
Clay, 21, worked the room like a seasoned vet. He knew eyes were on him. “Cassius impressed this observer as a bright, exuberant young man, who could probably make a good living at anything he attempted,” wrote Bob Rolontz for Billboard, “and who could possibly lick Liston, if he keeps talking to him all through their fight.” The album, aptly titled I Am The Greatest, was released the following month. Its first eight tracks are called “rounds”— symbolizing Clay’s prediction of how long the Liston fight would last.
Every element about the project was premeditated. “Rounds” were titled I Am The Greatest, I Am the Double Greatest and The Knockout. Each round lasted between 2 1/2 and seven-plus minutes and featured Clay boasting of his greatness, and claiming he was the “resurrector of the fight game.” The rounds were enhanced with a live audience and so Clay’s material — much of it directed directly at Liston — felt more like a comedy club standup routine.
Clay’s musical ties run deep. His album’s final track, The Gang’s All Here, featured his good friend Sam Cooke. A year after Greatest’s release, The Alcoves paid homage to the charismatic pugilist with The Ballad of Cassius Clay. In 1967, Alvin Cash’s Ali Shuffle celebrated the boxer’s name change and prowess in the ring. Later, in 1974, British pop singer Johnny Wakelin recorded Black Superman (Muhammad Ali). And of course Ali’s influence over hip-hop culture is well-documented. He’s been name-dropped by Jay Z, Kanye West, Drake, Kevin Gates, Lupe Fiasco and many, many more. Ali’s confidence, which took form oftentimes as vicious barbs at foes (though he later regretted his harsh treatment of boxer Joe Frazier) and his obsession with proclaiming his own greatness, is clearly rap’s pre-history. In many ways, the project’s standout round, Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down, is the first rap battle record — with Clay’s play-by-play of an “eighth round” with Liston as its climax:
Clay comes out to meet Liston
And Liston starts to retreat
But if he goes back an inch farther
He’ll end up in a ringside seat
Clay swings with his left
Clay swings with his right
Look at young Cassius
Carry the fight
Liston keeps backing
But there’s not enough room
It’s a matter of time
There, Clay lowers the boom!
Now Clay lands a right
What a beautiful swing
The punch raises Liston
Clear out of the ring
Liston is still rising
And the ref wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Sonny comes down
Now Liston disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up
He’s somewhere over the Atlantic
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 put down their money
That they would see
A total eclipse of the Sonny
Despite a natural gift of gab, Clay was not the project’s Swiss Army knife. Famed comedy writer Gary Belkin handled ghost-writing duties, though The New Yorker writer David Remnick says the boxer wrote a “great deal” of the project. Belkin was taken back by Clay’s reading problems — he was dyslexic and had barely graduated from high school. Later in life, Ali, with his wife, Lonnie, designed with Scholastic “Go The Distance,” a program aimed at educating and inspiring young black readers.
That was 2006, though. In 1963, Clay badly wanted Liston, who besides being the champ, was that year’s most outstanding boxer as selected by the Academy of Sports Editors. Liston had been the target of Clay’s verbal taunts before, but Greatest upped the ante — this was actually “on wax,” and in ’63, taunting Liston wasn’t high on the list of smartest things a man could pursue.
Liston, one of the great heavyweights of all time, was viewed as a menacing presence who struck fear in opponents by staring into their souls and devouring them with his eyes. On the eve of his 1962 fight with Floyd Patterson, columnist Dan Parker said Liston was “as ill-mannered and insolent as a chain gang boss.” And hatred seemed to “ooze out of his every pore.”
“Sonny Liston was a mean f—–,” said boxing promoter Harold Conrad in Thomas Hauser’s 1992 bestseller Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times. “He had everybody scared stiff. People talk about Tyson before he got beat, but Liston, when he was champ, was more ferocious, more indestructible, and everyone thought, unbeatable. This was a guy who got arrested a hundred times, went to prison for armed robbery, got out, went back again for beating up a cop, and wound up being managed by organized crime. When Sonny gave you the evil eye — I don’t care who you were — you shrunk to 2 feet tall. And one thing more: He could fight like hell.”
In a sport historically littered with less than savory characters, the Sand Slough, Arkansas, native embraced his bad-guy image. After Patterson’s comments about how America should accept Liston as world champion should he capture the title, Liston had no interest in returning the favor of being cordial. “I’ll kill him,” he said. “I’d like to run him over in a car.” July 1963, two months before Greatest — after beating Patterson in a rematch that lasted 130 seconds, Liston uttered his most recognizable soundbite: “A prize fight is like a cowboy movie,” he crowed. “There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pay their money to see me lose. Only in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins.” Liston was a mid-’90s Suge Knight before there was such a thing as Suge Knight. And this is the man young Clay sought to unseat.
The unseating began months earlier and the pregame peaked with a promotional tactic — the album — that stood out, even in a sport familiar with outrageous stunts. On Nov. 5, 1963, the ink dried on contracts for Liston and Clay to meet at the Miami Beach Convention Center for the heavyweight title. In the weeks leading up to the Feb. 25, 1964, fight, Clay’s life went further and further under the microscope. His draft eligibility status made headlines after he failed an armed forces mental aptitude test. A Feb. 7 Miami Herald report by Pat Putnam quoted Cassius Clay Sr. saying his son was a member of the “Black Muslims” and would soon be changing his name.
How Clay, at 22, remained focused on the Liston task at hand is no small part of his worldwide legend. In one of the greatest upsets in sports history — Sports Illustrated called it the fourth best moment of the 20th century — Liston refused to come out of his corner for the seventh round, making Clay the new heavyweight champion. Clay’s immediate reaction became public lexicon, and the soundtrack for the rest of his life.
“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived!” he yelled moments after being declared champion. “I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old! I must be the greatest! I told the world. I talk to God every day! If God’s with me, can’t nobody be against me! I shook up the world!”
He shook up the recording industry, too, earning a Grammy nomination in 1964 — his second would come in 1976 for the children’s recording The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Vs. Tooth Decay. Demand for I Am The Greatest skyrocketed. The morning after the fight, factories were “swept clean” as soon as phone lines opened. The album had hit a mark of 30,000 records, but the post-fight craze propelled it toward the 500,000 gold plateau. The Milwaukee Journal dubbed Greatest the “comedy album of the year.” Rumors of an undisclosed multimillion-dollar deal surfaced days after the fight, one that, at the time, was said to be the richest ever label deal negotiated for an athlete. Of the mystery deal, Clay remained secretive, yet boisterous. “I’m the prettiest man in sports. And so this deal is very, very pretty — in fact it’s the greatest — because I’m the greatest.”
Columbia seized the opportunity to have the heavyweight champion — then the most coveted title in American sports — on the radio. An updated marketing campaign was developed. There were window displays, streamers and other materials stores could use to promote it. Clay’s cover of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, featured on the album, was pushed to stations. And Ali could carry a tune. “He just loved that song,” Thomas Hauser, author of Life and Times, said via telephone. “He loved the music of that era.”
The music sticking to our ribs when we need it most is the material that defines a chapter of our lives as we live through it. It’s why Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” resonated the way it did in the early ’70s. Why Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” and NWA’s “F– Tha Police” did in the late ’80s. And Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” did just last year. It’s why Tupac Shakur once said, “I’m not saying I’m going to rule the world, or change the world. But I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world.” Perhaps the man who would soon became known as Muhammad Ali placed a true piece of his soul on The Greatest. There were so many outside forces that didn’t understand his self-confidence, or the dreams he envisioned for himself. Georgia Cates, author of Beauty From Pain, once said, “Music is what feelings sound like out loud. I sing songs that speak from my heart. They tell my story, how I feel.”
Even as uber-confident as Clay was about his talents, he would never mimic the day job of his good friend, Cooke. He wasn’t a musical artist. He was a world-class fighter, destined to wear the heavyweight crown. Clay had no clue what lay ahead of him following the release of Greatest and his defeat of Liston: a falling-out with Malcolm X, a man he saw as a brother, the assassination of that same brother, and losing prime years of his career in a legal battle against the federal government in protest of the Vietnam War. And this was all before he turned 30.
Best believe, though, I Am The Greatest reflected his true feelings. Beyond the jokes was a man possessed by leaving the world a different place from when he entered it. Ali said he knew he was the greatest long before the world actually knew he was. The album is proof. As the world prepares to pay its final respects to the man born Cassius Clay, but transformed into a worldwide icon as Muhammad Ali, he should rest in peace knowing the will he left on I Am The Greatest holds true 53 years earlier.
“To this nation, I’ve made this bequest / So spread the word north and south,” said the future Ali on Round 7’s 2138. “Some folks leave their brains through science / But when I go, I’m leavin’ my mouth! / It’s the greatest!”