For any other cultural icon -- and Muhammad Ali surely was one, every bit as much as he was a towering figure in boxing history -- it would be deliciously goofy enough to say he took his cues as a showman from Gorgeous George, wrestling's human orchid. We know by now, however, that there was always something extra when Ali was involved, something no one expected. So it was with the role model whose intimates called him G.G. while his valet spritzed him with cologne and he sprayed his opponents with insults.
Ali found himself under the same spell as Liberace, who copied the sequined robes that G.G. wore into the ring, and Little Richard, who must have shouted Awomp-bomp-aloobomb-aloop-bamboom! the first time he laid eyes on the gorgeous one's strut and the waves his hairdresser put in his hair. Better still, Ali was in the same sentence as those two preening piano pounders, a sentence that instantly became sacred to devotees of the outrageous. But what could easily have been a nesting place for him turned out to be a launching pad. Once he achieved liftoff, running his mouth the way Gorgeous George did while adding his own unique spin, there wasn't anyone who flew as high as Ali.
You can measure the altitude he reached by thinking of all the people who hated him in the beginning -- "Who's this Cassius Clay think he is, calling himself 'The Greatest?'" -- and ended up cheering for him, weeping for him, lionizing him. Or you can consider the multitude of young athletes, strapping specimens from every sport, who have been deluded enough to try to match his bombast. What these pretenders fail to realize is that Ali possessed a genius that was his and his alone -- nothing from a textbook, mind you, but a chemical composition of instinct, wit, looks, and the light that never went out in his eyes. "He glowed," said Angelo Dundee, his trainer for a lifetime. "He really glowed."
Surprisingly for a subject so unabashedly fond of himself, Ali needed time to realize just how much of a show he was capable of putting on. He had done some big talking when he won his gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, but his voice didn't carry as far once Dundee began guiding him through his on-the-job training as a professional heavyweight. Dundee understood why: "My guy, he was an introvert." Even with an ego big enough to subdivide, it would take inspiration and ingenuity for Ali to turn himself into the most memorable character ever to come off the assembly line of sports.
His future appeared before him one June evening in 1961 when he was still doing business as Cassius Clay and found himself on the same Las Vegas TV show as George Wagner, otherwise known as Gorgeous George. They were there to hype their respective main events, on back-to-back nights, in the same convention center. After young Cassius offered up a couple of predictable boasts, George seized center stage and didn't turn loose of it until he had promised to crawl down Las Vegas Boulevard on his hands and knees if he lost -- but of course that would never happen because he was the king of the wrestling universe. Dundee looked over at his tiger and saw a kid who looked like he had just been handed the keys to a factory-fresh Cadillac El Dorado. "We gotta go see this guy," the young boxer said.
They walked into what was not just a full house, but an asylum jammed with people who had bought tickets for the express purpose of seeing Gorgeous George get the curl knocked out of his hair. The next night, Cassius won a 10-round waltz with Duke Sabedong, a Hawaiian known for being 6-foot-6 and not much else. Somewhere in town, there was probably an all-you-can-eat-for-$4.99 buffet that drew a bigger crowd. It was time for the future Muhammad Ali to create the persona that defined him for the world.
The role he played for public consumption would swallow him whole, and only cruel fate and the passing years would allow us to once again see the man behind the showman. Until then, there were just vague memories of the wide-eyed innocent who needed to build up a head of steam before he could take self-promotion places it had never been. His preference in the beginning was a clean, well-lighted gym. "You tell Muhammad to go to the gym, it was like telling him to eat ice cream," Dundee said. When he fought three times in Los Angeles in 1962, he settled in at a gym one flight up from the city's Skid Row, a desolate stretch that had only one other cultural outpost, a burlesque theater. Bill Caplan, then a young man hungry to be part of the fight game and now the publicist for Bob Arum, walked into a workout and found himself feasting his eyes on a heavyweight with hands so fast that he could hook off jabs and throw uppercuts off hooks. "No one ever did that before," Caplan will tell you. Even more impressive were the long legs that seemed to carry the kid as fast in reverse as they did in drive. It was as if someone had taught Citation to run backwards.
Missing, however, was the bragging Caplan expected. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with a kid who wanted nothing more than to listen to the transistor radio Caplan had pressed to his ear. Caplan, listening to a Dodgers game the way he always did, handed young Cassius the radio and watched him instantly turn to a rock-and-roll station. The kid didn't do it as a joke, though, the way he would have 15 years later. He really did want to hear how the music sounded. When he'd gotten an earful, Clay asked Caplan, "Why you here? What you want to do?"
"I want to be a boxing publicist," Caplan said.
"Come on up to my hotel," Clay said. "I'll show you how to do publicity."
They walked to the hotel, just the two of them, no entourage, no adoring multitude. There wouldn't be many more moments like that for the future Muhammad Ali, moments filled with innocence and discovery and a pride that, in retrospect, seems almost winsome. Up in his room, Clay dragged out the biggest scrapbook Caplan had ever seen, one whose size now makes him think of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer creates a book so big it can also be used as a coffee table. Clay's scrapbook contained seemingly every word that had ever been printed about him and every photograph that had ever been taken. Said Caplan: "He had so much publicity, my eyes bugged out."
The kid was a natural P.R. man who knew when to play the game and when not to. He kept the chatter to a minimum for his first two L.A. fights, most likely because neither of his opponents, George Logan and Alejandro Lavorante, were worth wasting his breath on. Archie Moore, who waited behind Door No. 3, was something else again, an old smoothie crowding 50, with his trunks hiked up nearly to his armpits and a gift for eloquence that belied his violent trade. Two years earlier, Clay had sought him out for lessons in the fistic arts, but Moore wanted him to earn his keep by washing dishes and sweeping the floor, and young Cassius wasn't having any of that. Now their fight gave him a reason to turn up the volume. He took to the task gleefully a la Gorgeous George, chanting "Moore will fall in four" and promising that he would end the festivities with a punch he called "the Lip Buttoner." Moore, who'd had more than 200 professional fights compared to the kid's 15, could only shake his head. "I'm a conversationalist," he said. "He's a shouter." Unfortunately for Moore, he who shouted won the fight - in the fourth round.
It wasn't long before Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and the world became his personal property no matter how many misgivings there were about where he stood on religion, race, and war. Up where his star hung, there were no other athletes, no movie stars or potentates or holy men. It was just Ali, with Howard Cosell, microphone in hand, nipping at his heels and cashing in on every word that tumbled from his mouth -- and the words were many.
He could never take a vacation from being Muhammad Ali. But maybe he never wanted to. That's hard to believe when you consider the pain he endured in the ring -- the life-altering punches from Joe Frazier and Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes -- but every great showman knows the show must go on. When he arrived soft and bloated for his first fight with Leon Spinks, his eyes shone with mischief as he shifted attention from his ample middle by taking a vow of silence and taping his mouth shut. The light in his eyes came from a different source when he bade farewell to Zaire and the native children who had clung to his every word as he talked circles around George Foreman. They chased after his airplane until it was a speck in the sky, and sent Ali home filled with the joy he tapped into for years and years, as if it had no expiration date.
But it did, and the truth arrived in those 10 awful rounds against Holmes, when the curtain that should have been lowered on Ali's show two years before came crashing down on him. Afterward, Holmes wept at what he had done to the legend who had once hired him as a sparring partner. Then he made his way to Ali's suite at Caesars Palace, wary and uncertain, for all the roadwork and sparring sessions in the world cannot prepare a fighter for such a moment.
Ali looked up from the bed where he lay. "Larry," he said in a raspy voice, "I thought you loved me."
"I do love you," Holmes said.
"Then why'd you kick my ass like that?"
Holmes laughed. A smile was the best Ali could do. But the moment belonged to him anyway, though he hadn't won a round. Holmes was simply someone who had beaten him, a great and honorable warrior, but it ended with that. Ali, no matter how damaged, remained so much more than a boxer -- the most famous man in the world, people liked to say. With such stature came an obligation to usher his conqueror back into the night the only way possible. "I want Holmes," he chanted softly as the door closed. "I want Holmes." It was still Ali's show, and it always would be.
John Schulian is the winner of the 2016 PEN ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing.