Muhammad Ali knew how to play the villain, but dodging the draft turned him into a pariah
An excerpt from Leigh Montville’s ‘Sting Like a Bee’
The famous quote did not come until a day later. The interviews on the lawn at 4610 NW 15th Street were long finished when Ali took a phone call in the morning from Tom Fitzpatrick, a 39-year-old sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News. The fight with Ernie Terrell was scheduled to take place in less than six weeks, March 29, 1966, at the International Amphitheatre near the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Tickets had to be sold. There were reasons to talk to sportswriters from Chicago.
The Daily News was an afternoon paper, so Fitzpatrick was looking for a different angle, different words from what everyone would read over breakfast. He was not disappointed.
“I am a member of the Muslims and we don’t go to no wars unless they are declared by Allah himself,” Ali said into the phone. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”
That second sentence, the one about the Viet Congs, would become the defining quote for all that followed for the heavyweight champion of the world. The initial rush of self-indulgent emotion recorded by Bob Halloran and the other reporters was enough to get America agitated about a man who talked too much, loved himself too much. The mention of the Viet Cong, first reported in the afternoon edition of the Daily News, then repeated on the wire services to newspapers across the country, brought a focus to that agitation, put all the anger into a convenient package.
Nothing against those Viet Congs? This was the hook. Was it dissent or was it treason? Common sense or sedition? No boldface or italics were needed. The words would jump off the page without help.
“We Muslims are taught to defend ourselves when we are attacked,” Ali further told Fitzpatrick. “Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.
“These Viet Congs are fighting a very nasty war over there,” he added. “There’s a lot of people getting killed. Why should we Muslims get involved?”
Variations of “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs” would be included in all future biographical stories about Ali. This would become his stand, his legacy: the ten words that changed his life. The quote would become part of American historical dialogue, stuff for schoolkids to remember. Who said “Give me liberty or give me death”? Patrick Henry. Who said “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs”?
An added quote would be assigned to him later: “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘n—–,’ ” but he did not say that. Not now, not for many, many years, if he ever did. The quote was said by other people — activist Stokely Carmichael, for one — but somehow was assigned to Ali in slippery history. His quote was, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”
He would try later to give the words context. He would claim in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, that on his way back from the gym that day when he received the news, he had seen some kids throwing rocks at a little girl. He said he stopped and asked what was happening and the kids told him they were playing “army and Viet Cong” and the little girl was Viet Cong. The words made him flash to pictures he had seen in a magazine of a little girl walking among dead bodies outside Saigon. Troubled, he took this little neighborhood child in his arms and walked her home, away from the trouble. The incident was still in his head when he spoke later.
None of this happened. The autobiography would be filled with these little feel-good memories that were too good to be true, bedtime-story perfect, invented by the champ and ghostwriter Richard Durham. He never mentioned the little girl to any reporters on that day. He never even mentioned the Viet Cong until his late interview with Fitzpatrick. The quote that became remembered was another part of his daily torrent of words. Captain Sam Saxon, the man who first introduced Ali to the Nation of Islam in Miami, said he was with the champ at one point in the day and told him, “You got nothing against those Viet Cong,” and the champ agreed, yes, he had nothing against those Viet Cong. Ali perhaps remembered and repeated the phrase in the interview, nobody really conscious of the impact. There was no plan; the words came out with all the other words. The difference was that these words landed in the catch basin of the national mind.
Those Viet Cong were killing more than 18 American kids every day. The death total for 1965 had been 1,928 (double the casualties of any year in the Iraq War), and that would be tripled, to 6,350, in 1966 with the new escalation (more deaths in one year than in the entire Iraq War). In 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, 16,899 American kids would lose their lives. That would be 46 per day.
Not being upset with the Viet Cong seemed much worse than not submitting to the draft or not wanting to be involved in the war. Graphic pictures of these dying American boys had begun to appear on the nightly news. The enemy was supposed to be the enemy.
“I don’t want to scare anybody about it, but there are millions of Muslims around the world watching what is happening to me,” Ali said to Fitzpatrick. “I’m not making a threat [that they’ll get angry and do something]. I’m just saying maybe.”
This was heavy stuff.
Ali was familiar with the role of villain. He had chosen it in the early stages of his professional career, tried it on as if it were a black hat and a scowl discovered in the back of a family closet. He kept it when he found that it brought increased attention and larger paydays.
His marketing idea was that bad was much more interesting than good, an approach that newspapers, the television nightly news, and the gossipy woman next door had adopted long ago. People were more interested in paying money to see Sylvester the Cat than Tweety, Tom more than Jerry, Wile E. Coyote more than that beep-beep Road Runner.
This approach was adopted when Ali returned from the 1960 Olympics with his light-heavyweight gold medal and found himself back at the beginning in the professional side of the sport, no more than another low-watt attraction fighting unheralded opponents named Terry Hunsaker, Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, and Duke Sabedong. Where was the money, the instant payoff for those hundred-plus amateur fights? (His amateur record has been recorded in various places with various numbers, ranging from 99-8 to 137-7.) Where was that joy the country felt when he stood on that podium in Rome, the “Star-Spangled Banner” played for the world to hear? He was in a hurry. What would make people notice again? The answer appeared on his television screen.
“Soon after I turned pro, I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn’t making any money,” Ali said to Alex Haley in Playboy. “I was the only champion who didn’t have no jack jangling in his jeans. . . . One night I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s on to something. I think I’ll put some of that into my act.’ ”
Gorgeous George, whose real name was George Raymond Wagner, was an eighth-grade dropout from Nebraska who had become one of television’s first stars in the Fifties, as notable as Lucille Ball or Milton Berle or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He strutted into the ring in sequined robes and high-heeled shoes and had bleached-blond hair that looked as if it came from the same bottle Marilyn Monroe used. His personal “valet” preceded him, squirting perfume into the air. George was a sissified, exaggerated stereotype of a homosexual, effeminate to the ultimate, totally in love with himself. He also was a sneaky, dirty wrestler once the matches began. The combination was irresistible. People howled from the moment he was introduced. A ringside spectator named Hatpin Mary sometimes would stick said hatpin into George’s grand backside somewhere during the proceedings, to everyone’s amusement.
Ali, as Cassius Clay at the time, adopted pieces of this act — the villain was known as the “heel” in wrestling, the hero known as the “babyface” — and added some of his own. The adopted parts involved the self-important bluster, the constant confidence, the repeated declarations about how pretty he was, the demonization of every opponent. He became a shouter, eyes bugged out of his head, one of those people who always seemed to be ticking, ready to explode. The predictions, the rhymes, the nonsense were part of his act.
He was especially insufferable and comic in the buildup to the first fight with Liston. He called Liston “The Bear,” and wore a light blue jacket that said “Bear Huntin” on the back. He went to Las Vegas, screamed outside the champ’s house, confronted him in a casino, made his life miserable. He asked if that big bear was as “rangy and fast and pretty as me.” Gorgeous George couldn’t have done any better.
“[Clay] is light-hearted and breezy and has just enough twinkle in his eyes to take most of the obnoxiousness from the wild words he utters,” Arthur Daley of the New York Times said before the fight. “When they are imprisoned in print, however, the twinkle is never captured and Cassius just becomes nauseous.”
The twinkle made its last unadulterated appearance in the moments after Ali won the title. He was outrageous, comical, as he shouted in triumph from the ring at the sportswriters who picked Liston to win easily. He boasted about his looks, his ability, his battle plan for the odd fight that he had won when Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. No doubt about it, the night the young challenger captured the title he was a hoot. He made even his worst detractors admit they had been wrong about what would happen.
The change came the next day with his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. The comedy of the past was overwhelmed by the message of the present. The bigmouthed character became a Black Muslim. This was not what most of the paying public wanted to hear. The villain’s words now meant something. The jokes took second place to personal philosophy.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said at his press conference. “I’m free to be who I want.
“I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see?” he said. “I see there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor,” he said. “And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go in there.
“In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds,” he said. “That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”
The softness here was in contrast to the national image of the NOI and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For the white folk who had paid attention, not a large group at the start, this was a cult more than a religion, a theology that talked about white devils and spaceships and a black scientist named Jakub, who had an enormous head and created the white devils 6,000 years ago to persecute the black man.
The Muslims had demands. What was it that Malcolm X always said? “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Most national stories about the faith mentioned the large number of convicted criminals who now were members.
At first, there was the thought that Ali’s conversion was a phase, a mistake by a 22-year-old guy — 22 years, 39 days at that — who had landed in a new situation with new levels of fame and economics. He had been brainwashed by some slick salesmen, sold this bill of curious religious goods. He would grow out of it soon enough. A Black Muslim? He would realize a heavyweight champ could have a much easier life.
“He’s always been such a good boy,” said his mother, Odessa Clay. “He’s been taken in by these Muslim people. We pray he’ll see the light — and we think he will.”
“That Muslim stuff is a phony religion,” said his father, Cassius Clay Sr. “They brag that they don’t drink, smoke or fool around with women. That is only one commandment. There are Ten Commandments.”
The depth of Ali’s belief soon became established. If this was a brainwash, it was a very good one. Standing at the side of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after Malcolm X’s death, the heavyweight champion of the world became a potential target for revenge. He never blinked.
As city after city rejected the idea that it should be the host for his rematch with Liston because of worries of Black Muslim violence, because of the potential for his assassination, his commitment never changed. As the fight finally landed in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, and he trained in Chicopee, Massachusetts, trailed by five policemen every day as he went from his motel room to the converted banquet hall where he sparred, he laughed about the threat. As he was guarded by more than 200 policemen on the night of the fight, with hourly reports of Malcolm X Muslims coming north from New York to kill him, he laughed some more. He then dropped Liston in one round with one “anchor punch,” supposedly taught to him by old-time actor Stepin Fetchit, and as all of America wondered what the hell was going on, he exulted.
“Nobody wants to kill me,” he said. “If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands, the bullets will turn, Allah will protect me.”
The Lewiston win was followed six months later with the 12th-round TKO embarrassment of Floyd Patterson. Poor Floyd, 31 years old, was a gentle man, a practicing Catholic, a two-time heavyweight champ who had been knocked out twice by Liston in the first round, causing him to disguise himself in shame when he walked the streets after the fights. He was cast here as a classic babyface by Ali, drawn for the fight as “The Rabbit,” as the white man’s version of a good black man, yessir, nosir, Uncle Tom. Ali cast himself, of course, as the heel. He was the belligerent black man the white man feared in the night.
Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play. True Black Man pummels Fake Black Man. He would use this plotline often during his boxing career, no one ever sure if he was kidding to hype the crowd or was as serious as could be. The answer was left to the observer to decide. Ali simply laid out the story.
His domination of Patterson was obvious. The challenger, who claimed he hurt his back in the fourth, didn’t win a single round. Ali played with him, taunted him, called him “the white man’s black man,” said, “Come on, black man, fight for America.” He seemingly could have knocked him out in any round, finally dropped him in the sixth, then finished him in the 12th. Ali would claim that he was waiting for the referee to stop the fight all night, that he tried not to hurt Patterson, but the ringside view mostly was that he punished the challenger for insisting on calling him “Clay,” not his Muslim name, in the prefight publicity whirl. Fake or real, the villain was in charge all the way.
“He’s mean,” legendary retired champion Joe Louis said. “He worked that poor Floyd over good. He handled him like a baby and he gave him more than he had to give him. I think he could have knocked him out from the first round if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. I think he just let him have it for fun.”
“While we were fighting, Clay said maybe once or twice in the earlier rounds, maybe like in the third or fourth, ‘What’s my name?’ and I said ‘Cassius,’ ” Patterson said years later. “And finally, in the latter part of the fight, I’d say in the ninth, tenth or eleventh round, and I was really taking a really bad beating, suffering, he said ‘Now what’s my name?’ I believe I said the same thing, ‘Cassius Clay and that’s what it’s always going to be, regardless of the results of this fight. Cassius Clay.’ ”
“Round one, I said, ‘What’s my name?’ ” Ali said, some number of years later. “He didn’t say nothing. So round two, round three, I hit him with my right hand. ‘What’s my name?’ He said, ‘Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali.’ ”
Either way, the fight was a showcase for Ali. This was how well he could box. The two bouts against Liston had been characterized by their strange conclusions. This fight was characterized by Ali’s abilities. He had dazzle, flash, incredible speed. There never had been a heavyweight champ like this young guy. He danced and moved like a middleweight, but had the size and power of a heavyweight. He had told everyone before the fight that Joe Louis would have been too slow to beat him. Rocky Marciano would have been too short. Jack Johnson would have been too ugly. Jack Dempsey would have been too light and couldn’t punch. That left him at the top. The Greatest. He looked the part against poor Patterson.
He said he didn’t need love. He had talent.
“I’m not worried about those boos,” he said. “Those were white people. I got all the black people, some white people, too, and the people of Africa and Asia.”
That theory would be tested with his remarks about the draft and the Viet Cong. The volume became louder. Starting now.
From the book STING LIKE A BEE by Leigh Montville. Copyright © 2017 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.