On Friday, June 3, America lost one of its most prolific black athletes. Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight champion, controversial Civil Rights icon, The Greatest. In the classic Sting Like a Bee (Bison Books, 2009), José Torres turns his well-trained eye on one of the most celebrated and controversial athletes of all time. In this penetrating view of Ali and the world of prizefighting, told by a true insider and “boxing’s Renaissance man,” Torres delivers exciting and explicit accounts of all of Ali’s major fights with the cool authenticity of one who has lived it.
Muhammad Ali: Was there always a band traveling in his wake as he rolled through the cities of the Sixties? A prince of his time and one of the great artists of the instrument known as the media. If you were alive during his time, you knew about him. Knew the handsome face, knew the voice moving from loudness to mock modesty to a kind of irony. He was American in a way that few others were American, because in him there was always the possibility of tragedy. He was a romantic, a man who believed in possibilities; if you believed hard enough, you could become the Olympic champion, the world’s heavyweight champ, you could have the expensive houses, the Cadillacs, and you could do it all without losing anything, without compromising, without being damaged, without being hurt.
Muhammad Ali: black prince. His dignity always with him. And when it seemed to end on the night when he finally lost his championship, there was a sign in the 125th Street Station of the A train in New York. It said, quite simply, “Ali lives.”
October 25, 1970: The day before the Ali-Quarry fight. It is almost midnight. The streets of Atlanta are quiet. The people who work in the fancy stores on Peachtree Street have vanished to the suburbs and we are in a wild and laughing knot of human beings coming out of a Loew’s movie house as if they are part of a parade. At the head is a tall, good-looking man who is obviously the leader. His name: Muhammad Ali.
“That’s right, man,” he yells to the crowd. “The real champ is gonna show the world who is the greatest. So get to the fight early. The man might fall in one.”
“What round, Ali?” someone asks, as if they listen to him but don’t listen to him.
He starts to shadowbox and the crowd steps back to watch. “I’m feeling better than ever,” he screams. “Better than ever.”
“I hear that the fight won’t take place,” says a young girl. “Will you be disappointed?”
“Ask Jerry Quarry,” Ali says. “I’m used to worse things.”
Now we are at the Ali-Quarry fight headquarters at the ultramodern Regency-Hyatt House Hotel. “Here I am,” he yells extending both arms as if to embrace the heavens. “The king is here.” Smiles. “You see that,” he says, pointing to the largely black crowd, “That’s my people coming in from all over the country. Came to see the king…the real champion.”
Blacks move through the lobby of the Regency-Hyatt. They are wearing multi-colored outfits. Some have rims on their hats so large they look like small umbrellas. They have arrived in psychedelic-colored Cadillacs, Mercedes-Benzes, Rolls Royces. Some are equipped with white chauffeurs. Blond whores from New York and from Chicago walk hand-in-hand with their rich, black pimps, displaying super-mini skirts. Their cars are comfortably double-parked on the streets of Atlanta.
Black language reverberates all over the city that Scarlet O’Hara once knew, the city that is now 51 per cent black. Blacks are still arriving at the nation’s fourth busiest airport by way of seven airlines. They are coming in on the seven bus lines that serve Atlanta. Many of the rich ones who are afraid to fly, or apprehensive of the long drives, sent their chauffeurs with their cars and travel instead by one of the thirteen rail lines.
In the middle of the hotel lobby is a bar which looks like a giant sea shell suspended in the air. It’s the fanciest hotel I’ve ever seen. The language of the place is special. “Man, we own this place,” says Ali, regarding the parade of blacks in this lobby. Some of the laughter is wild. As a black from Watts says, some of the people are talking “Harlem language.” Throughout the week preceding the fight the Southern whites, who ran the bar, were puzzled by the blacks with the fancy clothes. “We can’t allow no one here without a tie,” said a bartender to a young black from New York.
“You just,” he was told, “can’t wear a tie with this outfit. C’mon, my man, don’t spoil my fashion.”
Now people are drinking without being worried about ties or jackets. “You know,” someone tells Ali, “the hotel changed the rules. We don’t need special clothes anymore.”
Now after three-and-a-half years of such inactivity, still engaged in a series of legal wrangles, most of his money gone and, with prison facing him, his name a synonym for controversy, Muhammad Ali is coming back. Walking with him in the Atlanta night, it is still difficult to believe, even for Ali himself.
“I’m thinking about this fight,” he says more than once. “I need the money and I need security for my family. I don’t want to spoil this fight by getting involved politically. I’m a fighter, period.” But it is hard for Ali to keep away from the political vibrations that fill the air every time he holds a press conference. It is common knowledge that the fight is opposed by Georgia’s governor, Lester Maddox.
One remembers Maddox as the man who earned his first public reputation by chasing black men out of his restaurant with a pistol in one hand, an axe handle in the other. (He claimed later that the press had lied: “It was really a pick handle,” Lestor Maddox said.) The night before the fight, we are all conscious of where we are. It may be Atlanta, “the oasis of the South,” but it is still very much the South.
“What do you think of the Governor’s announcement declaring the day of your fight with Quarry a day of mourning?” a reporter asks.
“A day of what?” Ali answers.
“A day of mourning—m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You know, a sad day….a black day.”
“Oh, that! Yes, that we gonna have.”
But Atlanta’s young Jewish mayor, Sam Massell, has answered Maddox’s statement. Aware that in addition to the Ali-Quarry fight, Atlanta is also having important pro and college football games as well as a pro basketball game, the Mayor makes his announcement: “Next week,” he says, “will be Sport Spectacular week.” It is the semi-final: Massell versus Maddox. Does Ali enjoy these white men and their sparring?
“No more popping off, no more boasting,” Ali pronounces. “I don’t want no more trouble. Just the fight with Quarry.”
But, in fact, until this last evening before the fight, his public mood has not been happy; on the contrary, it has been sullen, it has been stern and almost frozen—a strange role for ebullient Ali. But in some ways he doesn’t seem to be thinking of Quarry. In fact, Ali seems obsessed with a hard-punching black man named Joe Frazier. Watching him work, I am thinking about myself as well as him.
After all, Muhammad Ali is a complicated man and so am I. We both have gone through many of the same experiences. We both became world champions. But Ali has aroused the minds of many people, mine included. I never did. Still, some of the experiences that made Ali a fighter made me a fighter. The details might be considerably different, but the ingredients are not. So, I’m watching him and thinking about him. I’m either better equipped or worse equipped to understand him than anybody else.