See this as no more than a snapshot and forget about everything that came later, with one caveat: He’ll be called Muhammad Ali—the name he chose for himself—even though it wasn’t what people called him at the time.
History muddles things, and he made a lot of history.
Miami Beach, 1961
Miami was a small enough town that everyone was aware of everyone else. There were distinct pockets—people segregated by class, color, and culture—but overlap occurred all the time.
This overlap was creatively in play for boxing. The Italian mob controlled much of the sport in Miami Beach in the early ‘60s. By and large, they kept it on the up and up. The Miami fight crowd was knowledgeable, there were plenty of good fighters to represent everybody, and competitive scraps would bring fans flocking to the Miami Beach Auditorium and the Convention Center.
Still, the wiseguys knew their business, which meant that they occasionally fixed fights.
New to the Area
Muhammad Ali, recently relocated from Louisville and still wet behind the ears, didn’t know how to box, but his natural aptitude was so prodigious, his speed so otherworldly, and his confidence in the ring so absolute, that his technical shortcomings didn’t matter. His fluency, largely a sleight of hand, was dizzying. At the 5th Street gym one afternoon, he ran circles around poor Willie Pastrano, the light heavyweight champ, who was a slick veteran of more than 70 pro fights. After two rounds, all Willie could do was laugh and throw up his hands.
“Angie, I can’t lay a glove on with this cute motherfucker. Tell him to stand still for a minute, will ya?”
The teenager was most at home in Overtown—“Colored Town”— more comfortable and sure-footed around black people, especially those from the South. But he saw an outward trajectory to his life, and so he became a sponge, eyes wide open, unabashedly absorbing information at a staggering rate, asking a million questions, picking up tips on how to be famous.
With scant frame of reference, he added modest but surprisingly creative emblems of success: a cherry-red Cadillac convertible, a black-and-white hound’s tooth sports jacket, a stack of rock & roll records—not to mention access to cold sodas from anybody's porch refrigerator in Colored Town. I should say emblems of a kid’s success.
Girls loved him, and he loved them. But he was no ladies’ man. He was shy around girls as he tried to decide what his demeanor should be like. He mostly settled on a variant of “big brother.” Everybody trusted him to behave.
It was nearly impossible for Ali to find anyone in boxing to model himself after. Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson were more like him, experienced and stylish older relatives who could school him on how things worked in the big world. Urbane, tough, self-made, and both on their way to crossing over to the white audience without losing the black, they knew what the young fighter needed.
“No, not like that, man. Drape the coat like this. See?”
Wilson, a former golden glover, would trade punches with the youngster.
Ali, mouth dropping, would say, “Man, you got some fast hands.”
“That ain’t nothing, little brother. You should see my footwork.”
Ali gave that some thought.
He was the first rock & roll champion, after the nugatory Wonderful, Wonderful of Floyd Patterson and the menacing, ponderous Night Train of Sonny Liston.
Ali couldn’t stay still, so maybe he’d grab Rudy and jump in the Caddy—top already down—push the dash button for WINZ, crank it up, and jet down the Florida Highway Expressway. “I couldn’t sleep at all last night” shouted Bobby Lewis. The Raylettes told Ray Charles to “Hit the Road, Jack.” All at 100 mph. He wasn’t driving anywhere in particular, but he knew he was getting somewhere.
Ali wasn’t the best fighter at the 5th Street Gym. Luis was. They called him “El Feo” although he wasn’t really ugly: Rodriguez’s face was like an African mask. He had come to Miami Beach from Havana to make Yankee dollars. He was trained by Luis Sarria, who knew more about boxing than nearly anyone else, but was shunted to the background in favor of promoter Chris Dundee’s kid brother Angelo.
The Cubans got a kick out of the big American kid who was always playing little tricks on them. They recognized his talent, as he recognized their degree of accomplishment. Although Ali wasn’t straightforwardly teachable, he was both a good mimic and a fast appropriator of things that caught his interest. He saw the ways that Luis turned his body to make a smaller target, how he stayed loose and fluid, and how inherently he understood the dimensions of the ring.
Most importantly, Ali’s sense of fistic rhythm expanded from watching El Feo. His movement became less jerky, statelier. He started to glide.
Why Nobody Taught Him Anything
He was surrounded by real boxing people, among others. You have to wonder why no one showed him how to do things right. Sure, many were blinded by his flash. But they wouldn’t all have been. What was the argument for letting him remain as they discovered him?
There may have been two. The first was that stylistically there’d never been anyone like him before, so that his uniqueness even inside the ring, in conjunction with his uniqueness outside it, was sure to draw attention. People would pay to see him as he was.
The second was that maybe those boxing people didn’t think he’d be around long enough for teaching him to matter.
Although there’s no inarguable “greatest fighter in the world,” no troubling baggage attaches itself to the concept that there is. It’s not an unsettling idea for boxing people. But what about when it’s 1961, and the greatest fighter in the world can make a case for being the handsomest man in the world? It becomes embarrassing for boxing people. And what if the ante is upped by this fighter asking others, “Ain’t I pretty?”
How do you answer him?
A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet
Frankie Carbo, Jack Nilon, and the promoter Chris Dundee sat in the back dining room of the Miami Skyways Motel on Lejeune Road, drinking coffee. Chris’s brother Angelo, not present at the meeting, had already been installed as the young heavyweight’s trainer.
“This kid could become a big, big draw. If he could somehow get past Sonny.”
Someone signaled for the waitress.
“Honey, could you bring over a fresh pot?”