Remembering Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) With Dad
Dad and I were in constant friction about who were the best athletes, the old timers or the new guys (who are today’s old timers)? It was an amusing and fun bantering with him about something that had an obvious conclusions. It seemed as if for the sake of Dad’s own pride he held on to the good old days.
I never knew how important this was to Dad until February 25th 1964. It was the night of the first Liston/Clay (Ali) fight.
Dad and I debated for months about the fight. I favored the younger, brash braggadocio blathering lightening fast Cassius Clay. Dad preferred, the brawling brooding brutish thunderous slugger Sonny Liston. He was a throw-back of what my Dad thought heavyweight boxer should be.
Dad and I sat at the kitchen table listening to the Liston/Clay fight over radio. It was a different time. We lived in a farm-house seemingly isolated from the world around us except for a TV and radio. It was a small cozy kitchen with a counter top and painted white homemade cabinets. The appliances were early to mid fifties white. There was a certain aroma to farm kitchens; there was always the presence of the odor of well water. We waited months for this fight. Dad was nursing his second beer and not particularly enjoying what he was hearing over the radio, it sounded as if Clay was winning. Sonny Liston was not landing any of his punches while clay was jabbing and scoring.
Dad sat at the table sort of shadow boxing to the description of the fight by the announcer. He could not have been anymore involved than if he was in Liston’s corner. “Cut off the ring. Get underneath the jab. Charge and lead with your right when he backs away. That sets him up for the left upper cut.” Dad shouted commands like he was in the corner. Dad took a swig from his beer and turned to me. “He won’t stand toe to toe and fight like a man.”
“This is boxing, Dad,” I said. “It’s not a brawl. It’s about who has the over-all best skills.”
When Liston remained in his corner not answering the bell for the seventh round Clay was awarded the victory by TKO.
Everyone was stunned. I was stunned. I really thought Clay did not stand a chance. The odds were so heavily in Liston’s favor.
Immediately Dad said, “It’s fixed. There’s no way.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said gleefully.
“He took a dive,” Dad said sitting his bottle firmly on the table.
I was giddy inside.
It seemed as if Dad began to doubt the existence of reason and order. The only way he could make sense of this was to say, “It’s fixed.”
This fight was more than a fight to Dad. It was much more than that.
Dad And Me; The Second Clay/Liston Fight
Dad was not a hard-core racist. He liked to see the white guy win, but when it became inevitable that black men were becoming more and more dominate in the boxing world he preferred the fighters who fought like white men. He didn’t like the flashy quick jabbing fighters who danced with ease around the ring like gazelles. He liked the guys who stood and took ten punches to land one with the force a mule’s kick.
In 1952 Dad and I listened over radio to the Rocky Marciano/Jersey Joe Walcott fight. Marciano won by absorbing a lot of punches before landing a thundering right hand in the 13th round that sent Walcott to the canvas.
We listened to the fight over an old Philco model 90 that sat on the mantle of a gas brick fireplace.
I was only five, but remember Dad’s enthusiasm and attention. Even though I had no idea who was fighting I pulled for whoever Dad did.
Marciano was my Dad’s kind of fighter.
And here Dad and I were now in 1964. Clay had won. I was no longer pulling for the same fighter as Dad. In a few weeks the Clay/Liston rematch was announced.
That was probably the first time Dad noted I had my own opinions. We always liked the same things. Perhaps it threatened him. I don’t know, but there was a change in his tone from that point on. I didn’t see it then, but only years later; well after his death.
It took nearly a year and a half for the rematch to be arranged, but on the night of May 25, 1965 Clay and Liston fought again. This time it was in Lewiston, Maine.
Once again Dad and I sat at the kitchen table. He just opened his first bottle for the night. He may have only had one swig before Liston was on the canvas. The fight was called a little more than two minutes after it started.
I was ecstatic. I ran around the table and jokingly taunted Dad. “What did I tell you? What did I tell you? He is the greatest!”
Dad slammed his fist on the table and began to curse. I didn’t let up. “Can’t hit what you can’t see,” I said.
Dad continued cursing. “He’s a chicken sh*t S O B. He can’t fight a real man.”
“He just did, Dad,” I said. “And he’s too slow, too dumb, and too old. It’s a new day. Move aside.”
That was all Dad could handle. He went into a tirade. I measured the distance between me and to doorway out of the kitchen and made my exit. A few minutes later Dad went to bed.
I suppose that night signaled a close of an era for my Dad and his generation. A new breed had taken over and Dad probably saw Clay as the poster child.
There are times I reflect on that night with amusement, but that was a sad day for Dad. I think that’s perhaps when he came to grips with the fact the world had changed.
A few weeks before Dad’s death I was visiting him. He was in bed at home. He spent most of his time there. He might occasionally go to the living room to watch TV.
I stood at the foot of the bed and put my hands up like a boxer. “Come on, Ole Man,” I said smiling. “Get up! You still got a few good rounds left in ya.”
Dad smiled and winked. “Hold your right a little higher. Holdin’ it that low I’d jab ya ta death with my left.”
'Just like Clay would," I thought.
Dad didn’t have any rounds left in him.