Krupa: A believer in Ali when he was Cassius Clay

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) in action against Sonny Liston during their heavyweight title fight at Miami Beach, Fa., Feb. 25, 1964. Clay won the contest, becoming world champion, when Liston failed to come out at the start of the seventh round.

Detroit – I was 6 years old and I had never heard of the name Cassius.

But that was the name of this young boxer, Cassius Clay. I liked the way his name sounded when I said it and he seemed smarter than the others, more expressive and a lot better looking – almost like a movie star.

And he was from Kentucky. I had an uncle from Kentucky.

This boxer seemed skinnier than the others, and I thought they would beat him.

But he was fast and they were slow. He was smart and they seemed dumb.

The adults did not like Clay. When he recited his poetry and sounded angry and sometimes looked mean, they said they thought it was wrong.

They did not like that he was loud.

The adults had sometimes warned me about black people, who they called “colored.” They could be dangerous, some adults said.

On the Northwest Side, I never saw many black people unless we went downtown, shopping. And I certainly had never talked to any.

This guy Clay did scare me, a little, I thought.

But that smile! And he could be so funny that I thought like some of the other funny adults, he would be fun to be around.

I also thought he was smarter than some white people. And my oldest brother had started going to Cass Tech. He told me some white people were wrong about black people.

Early impressions

When I was 7, Clay was going to fight Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world. I knew Liston was really scary, and Clay had a nice smile and he could be really funny and even though he seemed way smaller, he was so smart he might beat Liston anyway.

He was on television, a lot. He said he would beat Liston.

He was really loud about it and really funny sometimes. His poetry made me laugh. And it made me believe him.

Legendary heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali dead at 74

When he said he would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, I thought, “How cool!”

On the radio, during the fight, when he could not come out of his corner because the announcer said he could not see, I thought a punch had blinded him. What a cruel and terrible thing for such a young underdog, I thought.

But he did come out, and the announcer kept saying it was amazing watching a blinded boxer fight. Clay survived the round, which to me seemed to last forever.

When he came out for the next round, I was afraid for him. But he could see.

And Liston paid.

When the bell rang for the next one, the announcer kept yelling Liston would not get up off of his stool. “Scaredy-cat,” I thought!

Clay won.

I thought he was someone like Superman or Gordie Howe or Al Kaline.

Surely Clay would lose the rematch, all the adults said.

Then, some of them got angry when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Some of them screwed up their faces, shook their heads and said, what kind of name was that?

I was disappointed. I really liked “Cassius.” It went so well, somehow, with Clay.

When he fought Liston again, the adults really wanted Liston to win. I thought I knew why: Adults never liked anything cool, anyway.

And Ali was cool!

When I took my brothers old transistor radio to bed, the one everyone else thought stopped working, and listened to the fight and Ali beat Liston so quickly, I was almost in pain because I knew I could not talk to anyone about until I woke up because it was past my bedtime.

But, I thought, when I wake up I am going to tell them all they were wrong about Sonny Liston and I was right about Muhammad Ali.

When adults and the guys on television kept saying Liston was not punched before he fell, I thought it was because they had it out for Ali. The adults did not like him.

It was only years later that I saw slow motion of Ali’s lightning quick right that stymied Liston, before Ali waved past him with an aborted right hook and Liston fell, as if knocked down by the passing wind.

But it was the first right that dumped Liston and left him on the mat, perhaps contemplating the very concept of Muhammad Ali.

Bright personality  

He kept appearing on television. He would come on the variety programs and he was as funny as a comedian and more interesting.

He was smart, and he was black.

And on the news after supper, I had seen kids dressed just like my older brothers walking home from school with their school books getting knocked down by adults with fire hoses while mean dogs on leashes tried to attack them.

I was a little confused. But I knew it must be wrong.

I already knew, too, that the black people all lived in one place, away from us, in Detroit. I never saw them. And so many white people all said it was all a lot of trouble.

It was confusing.

The other thing that was on television a lot was Vietnam. When they drafted Ali and he said he would not go and he was going to be like some of the others who would not go, people called conscientious objectors, I got really confused again.

God said you were not supposed to kill, I thought. But I knew from all those television shows about World War II that we had to kill the Nazis to stop Hitler.

Some of the adults said Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams went to war, and they were baseball players.

I could not understand Vietnam. What started it, I thought? There was no Pearl Harbor or really bad people like Hitler.

Again, I was confused. I used to go over the arguments over and over in my mind. Sometimes I thought this, and sometimes I thought that.

But when I saw Ali on television one day and he said, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong,” I was convinced all over again that he was wise.

The adults all had really complicated explanations for why we were fighting and so many people were dying. Ali made it plain.

I was crushed when they took away his heavyweight championship, especially because adults told me his career was over.

It was all so sad, so confusing and so upsetting.

I was 10.

When I was 14, Ali came back. It was magical.

The fights against Joe Frazier, while I attended Cass Tech, were astonishing. But Ali did not regain the title until I was a freshman at Michigan.

I recall my friends and I all went to bed thinking the old man, Ali, then 32, would lose to the young, powerful George Foreman in Zaire. But in my first lecture the next morning, a group of football players had seen the fight on closed circuit and described the amazing scene in great detail.

Ali was no longer faster than everyone. But he was even smarter, now.

I saw the fight later on television, and much later in life a documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle” titled, “When We Were Kings.”

All those years later, as a middle aged man, far from the innocence of childhood, I still thought Ali was magical.

As I stood at a bar in the South End of Boston in 1996, when Ali raised his then trembling right arm to light the Olympic flame and smiled, I wept.

The tears flowed and I had absolutely no sense that they should stop, even in a crowded bar.

That he could not talk to us for so long in his later life, I have grieved. Now, I grieve his loss.

And I remember when I had never heard of the name Cassius.