By Leigh Montville
From Sting Like a Bee, 2017
The day moved slowly. Bob Halloran tried to keep the conversation going in the living room of the small concrete house at 4610 NW 15th Court in the worn-down section of Miami, Florida, that the residents called Brownsville, but after one hour passed, two hours, three, there wasn’t much else he could say. The list of topics had been covered and covered again. He mostly sat and waited, a talkative man curiously out of words as Muhammad Ali puttered and fretted, went outside and came back, and sometimes watched cartoons on the black-and-white television set.
A worry squirmed in Halloran’s chest that Ali would become tired of him and would send him home. Or would want to be with different people. Or something. What then? The 29-nine-year-old local television sports reporter from WTVJ tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.
His cameraman had set up on the front lawn in the morning. The guy was still somewhere out there watching the equipment. Neighborhood kids also were out there, kids who came around Ali every day, kids who treated him as if he were one of them, another kid, ready for fun. Most days he was. This day he wasn’t. A worry also squirmed in the chest of the heavyweight champion of the world.
Local Draft Board No. 47 was preparing to make its move in Louisville, Kentucky. The machinery already was in motion. Although a New York lawyer had been dispatched to plead Ali’s case, there was little doubt what the result would be. The weight of the U.S. government would fall directly on top of the primary resident of this house.
Nobody knew for sure when it was going to happen, but rumors had been floating for a week that he was going to be made eligible for the military draft at any moment. The demand for soldiers had grown, more than doubled, with the escalation of the Vietnam War. The generals at the Pentagon now wanted more than 400,000 troops for the war effort.
Ali had failed the intelligence test twice, which resulted in a 1-Y classification, unfit for service, but under new standards, changed only three days ago, his score of 16 now passed. He not only would become 1-A, eligible, but at 24 years of age, newly single again, he would be at the top of the induction list for the next month’s call. All indications—which included comments he had made in the past on the subject—were that he would challenge the order to report.
Halloran had received a tip that today, Thursday, Feb. 17, 1966, was the day all this would begin. Thursday was the day that Draft Board 47 made its weekly announcements. The tip was that the news would come from Louisville later in the afternoon, but Halloran had wanted to make sure he was there for the moment. That was why he had arrived before anyone else. That was why he had been here so long.
Communication was a problem. The bulletin from Louisville would come across the wire machine in the newsroom, but there was no way the people at the station could reach Halloran here. There was no such thing as a cellphone. He had to call them. The only phone he could use was Ali’s home phone.
As time stretched, the reporter became uneasy about breaking the mood periodically by standing and going to that phone. Any news? Okay, thanks. The movement, the words, seemed intrusive. He would shuffle back to his place to watch more cartoons.
The wait continued.
Ali was more than just another interview subject. Halloran had known the boxer since he was a 19-year-old kid, since he was Cassius Clay, back from the Olympics, training at the 5th Street Gym at the start of his professional career. Boxing was important in Miami. There were no other professional sports, unless you counted horse racing, which also was important. The University of Miami was important. The Miami Dolphins, the new football team, no doubt would be important when they finally opened for business in the fall. That was it.
Halloran needed material for two shows a night. He spent much of his week at 5th Street, upstairs in the heat and the sweat and the multicultural noise, talking with fighters and trainers and whoever might come through the door. Ali was at the top of the list, now the most known professional athlete in the world. Need words? Ali, Cassius, whichever name was used, would deliver them with style and emotion. Often they would be in rhyme.
In the early days, the beginning, Halloran sometimes would see him in the mornings, running from Brown’s, the little hotel in the Central Naval District, to the gym in Miami Beach. The trip took him over the Causeway. Who ran over the Causeway? Halloran would pick him up, save him from being clipped by the traffic. They would go somewhere for breakfast.
“I’m the king of the world!” the kid shouted, pretty much hyperventilating now in public. “I shocked the world. Shocked the world. I am the greatest. I’m a baaaaaaaaaaaad man.”
On the crazy night when the kid took the title from Sonny Liston at the Convention Center, when Liston didn’t leave his stool for the seventh round, Halloran was with him for the whole experience. Sat with him and Angelo Dundee and Sugar Ray Robinson and maybe Bundini Brown in the stands early in the night to watch Ali’s younger brother, then called Rudy Clay, now Rahman Ali, win a 10-round decision over Levi Forte, who later became a crack bell captain at the Fontainebleau. Was in the locker room just before the fight, was there when Sugar Ray, known as the greatest fighter of all time, pound for pound, had to sit on top of Ali’s chest to keep him from hyperventilating. Was in the ring seconds after the fight ended, first reporter to get to the new champ.
“I’m the king of the world!” the kid shouted, pretty much hyperventilating now in public. “I shocked the world. Shocked the world. I am the greatest. I’m a baaaaaaaaaaaad man.”
Halloran kept good field position as the chaos developed, as people came from everywhere to be in that ring. The words went into his WTVJ microphone in a rush. The kid moved and moved, side to side, climbed on top of the ropes in a neutral corner, shouted and shouted some more, celebrated and pranced. Halloran kept with him as much as possible until there was a tug from behind.
“Hey,” a nasal New York voice said, “you’ve had your time. This is network television.”
That was how he met Howard Cosell, the most prominent sports announcer in the country.
The two-year anniversary of that fight, that night, would arrive in eight days. The two years had passed in an unremitting rush of activity. The day after the fight, the new champ declared himself a member of the Nation of Islam, a disciple of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The news was greeted with public discomfort as he began his dialogue about the separation of the races, about white devils and slavery guilt. Four days later he was in New York at the United Nations with Malcolm X. Malcolm X! Radical! Revolutionary! Everything had unrolled from there as most of America winced.
“A rooster crows only when it sees the light,” the new champ said. “Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.”
The kid who ran across the Causeway free and easy moved at a much faster speed after his announcement. He changed his religion, changed his name to Cassius X, changed it again to Muhammad Ali, traveled across Africa on a triumphant tour, was married, beat Liston again in Lewiston, Maine, of all places, went to Europe to fight a few exhibitions, came back to the United States to humiliate Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas, then was divorced little more than a month ago. Every day seemed touched with notoriety, with adventure.
He cut a record in New York, 10 backup singers and a six-piece band, the lyrics written for him by Sam Cooke. He visited the pyramids, where he rode a horse, then visited with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he called “one of the sweetest, most loving, humble men on the planet earth,” which was not an opinion shared by the U.S. government. He had an operation for an inguinal hernia in Boston, which delayed the second Liston fight. He then used his personal bus that he named Big Red to bring sparring partners, cooks, friends, even media on the road to Chicopee, Massachusetts, to train for that fight when it eventually happened in Lewiston. (When the bus broke down in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he said, “Give me them buses. When they catches fire, it’s not 30,000 feet to the ground.”) He was the subject of a mammoth question-and-answer interview with Alex Haley in Playboy. He was on the cover of Time magazine, seemingly on the cover of half the magazines in the world. He was a 24-hour news machine.
Never shy or intimidated, he seemed at ease no matter where he landed. He spoke with the bulletproof certitude of a 14-year-old, a teenager convinced he knew everything about all subjects. He talked politics with politicians, religion with theologians, anything with anybody. Doubt was never involved.
In a visit to the British Isles, in the birthplace of iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns, Alloway, a Scottish town outside Glasgow, he was his usual self. Seated in a famous wooden chair that had been built from the wooden presses that printed Burns’s first edition of poems in 1786, prodded by reporters, Ali “composed” one of his own poems.
“I heard of a man named Burns,” he said, “who’s supposed to be a great poet. But if he was: How come I don’t know it?”
The words, so basic, so formulaic, were straight out of an adolescent joke book. What level of bravado allowed him to say them here? He never thought twice. Reporters scribbled while he spoke. The “poem” went across the world, probably read by more people than ever read a single Robert Burns sonnet. Tom McMynn, curator of the Burns cottage, was not amused.
“I don’t think Robbie would have thought much of his poetry,” the curator said.
Moments like this happened with regularity. The young heavyweight champion of the world was a caricature, the American innocent dropped into one sophisticated situation after another. He survived because his curiosity was obvious and contagious. He was showman as much as he was boxer. Everywhere he went was part of the performance. His charm, when he used it, which was much of the time, could grab strangers of all ages, sexes, races, national origins. This could have been a continual, triumphant parade.
Except he was a member of the Nation of Islam.
Except he made a lot of people uncomfortable.
In a country that had begun to push and pull itself apart with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, voices and sects and constituencies all claiming a piece of the future, louder each day, Ali had become a figure of controversy, sitting on a position at the far, far end of the racial debate. He was no marcher from Selma, Alabama. He was no link to Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, the three slain civil rights martyrs in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Nation of Islam under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad preached separation, not inclusion, closer to the teachings of the KKK than the work of the Reverend Martin Luther King. The NOI talked self-defense, not non-violence, an eye for an eye, Jack, shut your mouth.
“When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X, he became a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against,” Reverend King said. “I think perhaps Cassius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.”
With the assassination of Malcolm X a year earlier—a murder perpetrated by members of the NOI at the Avalon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965—Ali had become the most prominent Black Muslim in the country. Malcolm was threatened with death, then murdered because he had repudiated the “straitjacket world” of the NOI’s black racism and called the Honorable Elijah Muhammad a “religious faker.” Ali had stayed true to the religion and the man in charge.
He appeared on the stage of the Chicago Coliseum at the NOI national convention five days after the assassination, the same day Malcolm was buried in New York, and stood next to Elijah Muhammad, who said that Malcolm received what he deserved. (“Malcolm was preaching bloodbath… he got what he deserved.”) The champ, by his very presence, agreed. Agreed? He fought a five-round exhibition against his brother that was the main entertainment of the afternoon.
“I’m trying to show you how I have been elevated from the normal stature of fighters to being a world figure.”
Most major cities had an NOI temple in the ghetto, black men dressed in suits and ties and stern demeanors posted at the doors. The body language and the language from the pulpit both said that this was not a group to be dismissed lightly. White America certainly noticed.
“Cassius belongs to a meandering cadre of the community that calls itself ‘The Fruit of Islam,’” columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote. “History has shown this fruit is bitter and poisonous. It is the Gestapo in blackface. Its stock-in-trade is terror, its payoff is death. Cassius has enrolled in this despotism, the first heavyweight champion since Max Schmeling to be in bondage to a cancerous tyranny.”
This view pretty much was a majority view. Clay or Ali or whoever he was had gone to a dark side. He had been brainwashed, bamboozled, led astray. Why was he complaining? He was the heavyweight champion of the world. This was an exalted position in American culture. He could have anything he wanted. What was the matter with this guy? Why couldn’t he be happy? Be normal?
Aren’t money and fame enough?
“The fact is that my being a Muslim moved me from the sports pages to the front pages,” Ali boasted to Alex Haley in that interview in Playboy in October 1964. “I’m a whole lot bigger man than I would be if I was just a champion prizefighter. Twenty-four hours a day I get offers—to tour somewhere overseas, to visit colleges, to make speeches. Places like Harvard and Tuskegee, television shows, interviews, recordings. I get letters from all over. They are addressed to me in ways like ‘The Greatest Boxer in the World, U.S.A.’ And they come straight wherever they’re mailed from. People want to write books about me. And I ought to have stock in Western Union and cable companies, I get so many of them. I’m trying to show you how I have been elevated from the normal stature of fighters to being a world figure.”
The problem was, the part of the world where he lived was not impressed.
Halloran had checked in regularly with Ali during all these travels and changes. The young Miami reporter had wrangled the only television interview with Ali’s wife, Sonji, who was now an ex-wife because the champ said she did not want to be a full-fledged Black Muslim. He had done an interview with Ali’s mother, the sweet woman overwhelmed by the change in her son’s religion. The relationship between boxer and reporter persevered through whatever happened. Even when Ali was flanked by his many Muslim associates, hard-looking men in suits, white shirts, and bow ties, he had a loyalty to familiar faces who had been there at the beginning. Ali had a tendency to adopt people. Halloran was on the adopted list.
Chicago was supposed to be Ali’s home now, but that was just the rented apartment where he and Sonji had lived. He was here in Miami as often as he was anywhere. This was where he trained with Angelo, where he reassembled the pieces of his craft. He was here now to get back in shape for a defense of his title against the awkward Ernie Terrell, the 6-foot-6 challenger he had designated as “The Octopus.” The fight was supposed to take place in six weeks, on March 29, 1966, in Chicago.
The little house in what the champ called “spooktown” served him just fine as a base of training operations. He walked the streets as a hero. The neighborhood didn’t bother him. He could live anywhere because he never had to travel for entertainment. He was the entertainment.
“It is one of those houses that always seems stuffy, where the warm smell of dinner hangs around the next morning and you can reconstruct the previous night’s menu by sniffing in corners,” would be a description by writer Jack Olsen in Sports Illustrated. “In this house in a shabby section of Miami, there is the constant presence of Negroes, of too many humans for the size of the place, no matter whatever their color. They drift in and out: celebrity Negroes, little children Negroes, big sparring-partner Negroes, door-to-door salesman Negroes, neatly dressed Muslim Negroes, quick-dollar Negroes, old Negroes in skinny yellow shoes, young Negroes in porkpie hats, affluent Negroes driving black Cadillacs. In this house, kept neat and tidy by three Muslim ‘sisters,’ there remains something of the atmosphere of the ‘colored only’ waiting room of the Florida East Coast Railroad.”
This business with the draft was a surprise, certainly not part of the plans for the Terrell fight. When Halloran had approached him a night earlier, talking about the tip from Louisville, Ali had been stunned. He had not expected anything this soon.
He had awakened early in the little house this morning, crossed the Causeway, and run his roadwork around the golf course five times. Later he sparred three rounds apiece with three large sparring partners, all of them over 6-foot-4, reasonable facsimiles of Mr. Terrell. Back across the Causeway, he found that other reporters had started to appear at the house. Word had begun to spread.
Two years ago, there had been a burst of controversy when Ali flunked the test before and then again after the fight in Miami against Liston. That had subsided. Headlines were diverted to other sports page stories. His 1-Y status had become background, part of the general unease about him. The news from Louisville would return all this to the front.
The many, many veterans of World War II who had returned home were now in their late 40s, their 50s and 60s. These were men who had much less celebrated lives interrupted at Ali’s age for far more harrowing service. This was not a sympathetic group. It already had spoken when he failed those tests.
“Had I flunked math [as Ali did] I still could have peeled potatoes for the first two months of my Army service—which I did,” Representative William H. Ayres, a Republican from Ohio, a private in World War II, had said. “Anybody that can throw a punch like Cassius ought to be able to throw a knife around a potato.”
This was the type of opinion that awaited. This was the basic opinion.
Halloran decided to check with the office one more time. What else could he do? He stood up, walked to the phone. The voice at the other end said nothing had happened. Then, as Halloran started to hang up again, bells started ringing in the background at the station.
That was how the wire machines worked, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, all of them. When a story arrived, a sequence of bells designated how important it was. UPI’s sequence, for example, went from four bells for an urgent story, five for a bulletin, to eleven for a truly important story, a stop-the-presses “flash.” When all the services sent a truly important story at the same time, all the bells on all the machines would ring, so many that all other business in newsrooms around the country would stop. That was the sound here.
There was no doubt about the story.
“That’s from Louisville,” Halloran soon yelled to Ali. “It’s official. You’re 1-A.”
The broadcaster had the presence of mind, the competitive instinct, to leave the receiver to the phone on the floor instead of hanging up. That way the outside world could not intrude. Any competition would be behind in the chase. Also, any extra advisors would not be able to reach Ali to tell him not to speak to the press.
The broadcaster hurried the new 1-A draft candidate out to the front lawn, dodging whoever was there. Ali didn’t want to say anything at first, a thought that lasted for about half a second. Sure, he’d talk. He’d always talk. He couldn’t help himself. With the neighborhood kids in the background, with the knot of reporters growing larger with new arrivals by the moment, Ali talked about the possibility of being in the U.S. Army. As expected, the champ was not enthused. He adopted a “why me?” approach. These were words that he would repeat for all interviews for the rest of the day.
I can’t understand how they do this to me. Why be anxious to take me—a man who pays the salary of at least 200,000 men a year— 200,000 men, you hear?
I can’t understand out of all the baseball players, all of the football players, all of the basketball players—why seek out me, who’s world’s only heavyweight champion?” he said. “Why are they so anxious pay me $80 a month—me, who in two fights pays for six new jet planes? I’m fighting for the government every day. I’m laying my life on the line for the government every day. Nine out of 10 soldiers would not want to be in my place in the ring. It’s too dangerous.
For two years the Army told everybody I was a nut and I was ashamed. And now they decide I am a wise man. They embarrassed my parents. Everybody was asking them questions, asking them if I was a nut. Even my ex-wife was ashamed. Yeah, it bothered me a bit. Now, without ever testing me to see if I am wiser or worser than before, they decide I can go in the Army.
When the interview ended, Halloran went back into the house and returned the receiver to the phone. The machine began to ring and would not stop for a while. The broadcaster hurried to the studio to edit his tape.
Ali stayed in front of the house. He kept talking. Other stations, other reporters had arrived. Kids. Reporters. Cameras. Muslims. Neighbors. There was a low-grade pandemonium.
“Why are they so anxious?” he asked about the draft powers that seemed to be in control of his life. “Why are they gunning for me? All these thousands of young men who are 1-A in Louisville and I don’t think they need but 30, and they have to go into the two-year-old files to seek me out.”
Between interviews, he would fool with the neighborhood kids. He questioned a sixth-grade girl about her studies. Robert Lipsyte, a New York Times reporter, noticed that the champ also sang a little bit. Just background. The song was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” by Bob Dylan.
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
By 6:30 p.m., he was back in the dining room of the little house, sitting with assorted people around a table, interviews done, when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite came onto the television screen. The group had been waiting for this, the set dragged into view. Cronkite rolled through the day’s troubles—congressional debate on the war, possible nuclear tests by Communist China, new government in Italy, food crisis in India. A pair of battles in Vietnam were reported, 350 of the enemy confirmed dead in one, 126 in another, U.S. casualties listed as “light” in both. Correspondent Dan Rather was in Vietnam. He asked a soldier what his message to President Lyndon Johnson would be, and the soldier said, “I’d just like to let him know that I’m behind him.” Commercials were played for Kent cigarettes, Gold Medal flour, and Wheaties cereal. There was a strike in the Dominican Republic and a riot at an Indiana girls school, and the flu was sweeping the country, bed rest recommended as the best cure.
The news finally moved to Miami, Florida. Cronkite said Cassius Clay had been reclassified as 1-A by his draft board in Louisville, Kentucky. He spoke with Bob Halloran of CBS’s sister station WTVJ. Everyone kept quiet in a hurry.
“Was this a surprise?” Halloran asked.
“Yes, sir, that was a great surprise to me. It was not me who said I was classified 1-Y the last time.”
The voice that had dominated the conversations in the dining room now came from a different direction. There was the recorded Ali, back on the front lawn in the afternoon sun, saying all those things he said. He was agitated all over again for the homes across America.
“Why me?” he said in conclusion. “A man who pays the salary of at least 50,000 men in Vietnam, a man who the government gets six million dollars a year from for two fights, a man who can pay in two fights for three bomber planes….”
Ali stood at the end of the report. Everybody in the room was talking. He asked if Lyndon Johnson had heard this interview. Did Johnson watch this news or the other one with Huntley and Brinkley? Someone said he probably watched both.
“Huh,” the champ said.
At the WTVJ studios in downtown Miami, Halloran also watched the CBS Evening News. His report on the local news had run earlier and longer than the lead story. He felt good about his work. Here he was now, though, with Walter Cronkite doing the introductions.
Walter Cronkite. This was a first.
How about that?
The story had only begun. The drama that followed would cover the next five years, four months, and eight days.
[Featured Image: Sam Woolley]
From the Book: STING LIKE A BEE by Leigh Montville. Copyright © 2017 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC