Muhammad Ali discusses his book "The Greatest: My Own Story"
BROADCAST: Nov. 26, 1975 | DURATION: 00:33:58
Content Warning: This conversation includes racially and/or culturally derogatory language and/or negative depictions of Black and Indigenous people of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Rather than remove this content, we present it in the context of twentieth-century social history to acknowledge and learn from its impact and to inspire awareness and discussion. Muhammad Ali discusses his book "The Greatest: My Own Story," touching on topics including his childhood and family, conversion to Islam, stance on the Vietnam War, and experiences in jail.
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Muhammad Ali "It's the spring of 1973 and I'm coming home after a defeat. Every man, woman, and child in my hometown was, and heard, about how I lost the fight to Norton. Just like everybody else all over the world heard. The press will crowd the sport pages with headlines that remind me: 'Muhammad Ali is Finished.' 'The End of An Era.' 'Ali Beaten by a Nobody.' 'His Big Mouth Shut for All Times.' 'Most Thrilling Fight in History.' I had to make my comeback."
Studs Terkel This is the beginning in a, this is Muhammad Ali reading an opening passage from the very beautiful and moving book, by the way, "The Greatest: My Own Story", Muhammad Ali, Random House the publishers, and it's written with Dick Durham, and I was thinking, Muhammad Ali, champion, that moment: recalled. Remember how? That moment. A lot of people wanted you to be beaten. A lot wanted you to win. Do you remember it?
Muhammad Ali Yes, sir. You know, whenever I go into the ring, you can always hear the boos, the crowds, the heckles, many of them were coming for years and they're determined that they're going to see this man lose. Many of them, their main object was to see the big mouth beat. The way he talks, his superiority in boxing, his skill, he can't be that great, he's going to fall, one day he's going to get it, and they just determined to come until they see it. And if it happens and they don't see it, they'll feel bad. They just want to be there. Even if they have other appointments, or other things to do, even if they can't afford it, some make it their business to be there when that day come, because I got away with too many victories, upset too many people, whooped them many times, and shocked them, and they want to see it. Finally it happened with Ken Norton.
Studs Terkel There's something you said, Muhammad Ali. That some of the people--this is, you're hitting a very important thing. Some people who can't even afford it. Some of the very powerful want you beat--someone who can't even afford it. Wanted you beaten. Is something about their own lives missing? You see what I mean? What is it that wants to make them be part of something that even makes them feel less? You know what I mean?
Muhammad Ali I think all of them want to be great. All people want to be victorious, want to be successful. And when they see it in another man, they naturally might envy it, especially when he talks about it and brags about it, and say "I'm gonna do this. He's going to fall. I am the king. I'm the greatest." And keeps doing it. Not only this confidence they don't have, and here's a man expressing and doing it, and they just want to see him beaten, many of them. Some like it, it encourages some, but some want to see him beat because he just shouldn't be that cocky and he shouldn't be able to get away with it. "I couldn't do it. He shouldn't be able to
Muhammad Ali Yes. He was a sign painter. Still is. Mother's just a little, happy-going housewife. She had a part-time job when money was short to keep us fed and keep, kept shoes on the feet going to school. Cassius Clay was just a little kid just like everybody else going to school every day, coming home, going down the street, and kicking, playing football, running around and peeping in windows or whatever things little devil, devilish things kids do. Cassius Clay started boxing at 12 years old, and won the Golden Gloves, the Olympics, the AU, went on to turn pro, and my life wasn't too much different from an ordinary child.
Studs Terkel Well, there's something, there's a moment you describe early in the book--coming back after having won the Olympic gold medal. And before I ask you about that, your father, you always felt in the book that he had possibilities of being something even better, too, didn't he? He had these possibilities. This is one of the things that hit me about you and your life in the book, they're looking for other possibilities, and this is also your old man, your father.
Muhammad Ali Yeah, he's a great singer. He imitated Perry Como and Nat King Cole, Roland Hayes, all type of great singers. He figured if he'd left Louisville, the South, he's coming up, he had a chance to be great, and I think he could have. And it stays on his mind all the time. He could have been a great singer. Today he still tries to sing.
Muhammad Ali Right.
Muhammad Ali Yeah. I do remember reading about how he was all tore up and burned up and everything, his eyes out his head, and that really made me think about myself, and he's a kid like myself, and Chicago I think went down there and that happened, and it really made me real bitter to think about that. I explain it all in the book.
Muhammad Ali Went to the restaurant, I always was a kid who liked to experiment and look around. Think about various things and I always wonder why things happen. And I say, I got my gold medal now, I'm going in there to eat, win the champ of the world, beat everybody in the world, and I know they can't turn me down. Lady took my order and told me she can't serve Negroes, and went back to the kitchen and told the manager, he said, "I don't care about Cassius Clay." And he came out, and a little scuffle arrived, verbally, and this motorcycle
Muhammad Ali Yeah. They didn't like it, and they stood a lot of talking, and [most?] of them called me "Olympic nigger" and all this stuff, and we got to scuffling, and I beat up a couple of them, anyway, whatever, after all this scuffle and getting put out and [seeing?] the medal had no power, I just went to Jefferson County bridge and thought about all the people I'd beaten and all the countries I'd represented, and couldn't even eat in my own hometown, I said "This medal ain't worth a damn thing." I just threw it in the Ohio River.
Muhammad Ali What?
Muhammad Ali No, well, I knew Blacks couldn't eat in restaurants. What kicked it off one day before the Winter Olympics, saw this African come from University of Louisville, Kentucky going down the street and having the robes and the turbans and the little things, and they went to go in this white restaurant, and the lady [at the theater, mean, it was the white theater?], and the lady said something to the manager, he said, "It's okay, let them in. They're not Negroes." It really shook me up, they were was so Black until they were blue, I used to think it's because of our color. And as is then, you know, I had this on my mind when I went back in this restaurant years later, I said, "Well, I'm the world champion now, beat everybody in the world. They on the spot now, let them put me out." And when I got put out after all that, I said, "Man, this thing, it ain't nothing." I just threw it away.
Muhammad Ali One day we went down the street, and me and my friend Ronnie King, talk about him in the book, called him ["Tootie,"?] we put on a little Africa robe one day, we was talking, [gibberish], people looking at us real funny, they didn't know who we were.
Muhammad Ali Right.
Muhammad Ali Nowadays I don't pay no attention to it. These people were small-minded, and the same people now they probably let anybody in the restaurant. Times have changed. People ain't like they used to be.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, I watched the fight at the Riviera Theatre, the Zaire fight with Foreman. The Riviera Theatre in Chicago is a poor neighborhood, but there were some Black, but there were also some Southern white, too. And there were some D.P.'s, and they were all rooting for you, this is the interesting part. Because it seemed to be the outsiders, all the outsiders. So it wasn't just the Blacks who were rooting for you, you see.
Muhammad Ali Right. Everybody, I mean, like when I fought Joe Frazier a second time in Madison Square Garden, going into the eighth and ninth round, all the audience got up and 90% white, "Ali! Ali! Ali!" You know, racial problems and things ain't like they used to be, and people are getting educated now in their minds, and not thinking like that no more, and at the time I was coming up I was right at the end of a few things. I was on the end of all this stuff, and it was just getting ready to break, you know. I didn't experience much of this.
Studs Terkel Well, you know why I'm going to ask you a question now, why do you think it is, that always in this particular theatre, so many different people there, why were they rooting for you the outsider?
Muhammad Ali Well, I think the masses root for me because they are scuffling. They've been persecuted and they've figuring about the sky-high taxes, and whatever. They've--underdogs. People are basically underdogs as a whole. And the things that I say from Black, my people, and the freedom of all people in the way I speak out and the titles that I have and I don't let this stop me from recognizing the everyday man. I think this is what they [reckon?], whether they be Black or white, the mass of the people are hardworking people, and the things I said and the places I go and things I do and the odds have been so much against me, they see themselves in there, they don't see me or they don't see color, they see themselves and they're fighting against untold odds and looking to stop somebody from predicting things about me, like I'm going to be beat or destroyed, and they just pretend that's them, and it's so much against me sometimes until they are with me because I'm underdog, or they just like, well, it's like cowboys and Indians. You're watching a movie and you see 10,000 Indians and 12 cowboys. Now, you take the Black militants, you take the Blacks who totally believe they're most [violent?] against whites, they will be right there rooting for the whites to beat the Indians, because there's so many Indians and just a few little fellows there, they put themselves in this fight. You know, they see Indian coming, he jump on a horse and shoots him, then another Indian is crawling around the wagon and shoots him, then ten most coming this way, there's so much against him, until although in reality he might not like the white, but he's with him now because so many odds are against him. And they see myself like that, they don't see color, they just put themselves in my position. And they see the press talking this, they see the odds makers saying this, they see this is going to be a miracle if he wins, so they're pulling for me to win so I can beat so many odds, see?
Studs Terkel So the underdog, they're scuffling, and here's an underdog who's also the outsider. At the same time earlier in this conversation, those others: the envious ones. So the two currents are at work here, and you seem to be the person, in this case the heavyweight champion, who seems to have stirred both and suddenly there's ferment. I suppose one of the things in this book--by the way, it's a very beautiful book, "The Greatest", Muhammad Ali done with Dick Durham, Random House the publishers, in it, it stands that you take certain positions, and I never was aware of the amount of pressure on you when you first came out for Black Muslimism when you had first met Malcolm X, they wanted you to disavow, is that it? The pressures were overwhelming, weren't they?
Muhammad Ali Yeah, Bill McDowell, the promoter there, who's past. He heard that I was, that Malcolm X was at my house visiting, and stayed for a few days, and Muslim women were cooking, and he was disturbed when he found out that I went to a New York Islamic rally. He didn't like that, and he told me a few days I was going to fight and [king?] Miami Beach auditorium, Chris Dundee was there and everybody, boxing promoters, and they're saying, "You're Moslem, are you?" And I said, "Yes, I love it, I'm not yet, but I might join one day." He says, "Well, we'll going to have to cancel the fight, because bad publicity is going to hurt the gate." l said, "Well, if you want to cancel the fight because of my religion, cancel it." I walked out of the office, he said, "Well, [fight for?]" I packed my bus up, was in the Black side of town, getting ready to drive back to Louisville, my hometown then, he send his secretary over, some fellow from California came over pleading, "Please Champ, please Champ. Everything's okay. The fights will still be on, the promoter's just upset to find out that you're a Moslem. Please," he says. I says, "Well, as long as you can accept my religion and everything, I'll fight. But I'm not going to give it up just for one fight. And if I [defy my liege to Elijah Muhammad?], my Black people, God himself, just for some money, the hell with the fight, I'm not going to make no public statement, I'm not with that man," so after they found out, but for a while I had thought that the fight was off, the big thing where God has blessed me, I truly thought the fight was off, and I was going to really go on home and look for a job, or do something, I didn't know what I was going to do. I know I wasn't going to deny Elijah Muhammad or all my people, no, Lord, [dare gonna?], I believe if God--our law's God, and if Elijah Muhammad was a messenger of God, I said why would that add it up? Why would God punish me for standing up for truth? Anyway, packing the bus the man came back and told me the fight is still on. Now that I've took my stand, I'm Muhammad Ali, the world knows it, I'm billed as that, they have forgot the name's Clay, and I can fight anywhere I want to fight, and I got past now, so I'm now waiting for some other trial to come up. I don't know where there's going to be, something's going to come up, the [pace?] is going too good.
Studs Terkel There's always something going to come up. I'm going to ask about the big trial in a minute, your stand on the war, of course, but the name. You're always--For a long time they wouldn't accept the name "Ali." And you point out that Jack Benny's name was something else, that Dean Martin's name was something else. That Danny Thomas' name was something else. But no one ever challenges that.
Muhammad Ali Right. Well, [during the?] days I was having these name problems. I enjoyed it because I was promoting it and I was waking up other people. Lew Alcindor is named Kareem Jabbar. Ballplayer named Walt Hazzard, his name is Abdul-Rahman. Singer Joe Tex, his name is Yusuf Hazziez. LeRoi Jones, you got his name? I forgot. He's got a name.
Muhammad Ali Yeah. They all now are waking up to this, so what was I saying? That I enjoy, one night I was at Madison Square Garden, somebody was fighting, and I was supposed to be introduced, they said, "What name?" They said, "We can't call you that Muhammad." I says, "Well, I won't be introduced." So I stayed out, but they knew I was there, but they didn't call me up. It just goes to show you how you have to fight for what you believe in, you take a stand on what's right and you'll be blessed. Now they put Muhammad Ali in the Garden, puts it up in big black and white print, and first wouldn't introduce me. Things change. I mean, they don't lynch people no more. They don't--the racial problems and the castrating and the burning and the slavery, things change, you know, the things we
Muhammad Ali Yeah. I made a statement that was true. But I was just--wasn't time then, it was bold. I said I have no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Now, before it was all over, they all started saying it and got out.
Muhammad Ali Did you say "joy"? Oh, you said, "boy." Yeah, you know, well, Black or white. I think if I was a white man, I can't put down my color or race. If I was a white man, I caught more hell, because the whites have, really, privileges to go places, you know. They really are the Americans, and they have first-class citizens, you might say. We all are, but, you know, they're treated like it, and they would--the white, I think, would catch more hell than me. I had a little fight. Well, I'm not for you. I'm still catching hell. I could say we fought the Japanese, we fought in German war, Korea, we fought in all the wars, and still we don't have no land we can call ours. I could do all that. But a white man would really catch hell if he had did what I did. I had some sympathy, 'cause you know, I'm Black, a slave. But a white man, he had no excuse. He'd really been in trouble, so I don't think this happened because I was just Black, it'd have happened worse 'cause of
Muhammad Ali Yeah, and there I had so many people with me. So many long-haired young white youth, you understanding, and Blacks in the world itself that never was popular with everybody. So I wasn't out there World War II when the World War we really had, if America was in trouble I'd been in more trouble, but we just had an unpopular war that was debatable anyway, so it wasn't too hard for me. And I just got by easy. So many people went to jail. I had the public [and threat of?] trouble in other countries helped me. But what about the little man, Black or white, who's in jail for not liking it? Don't nobody know he's in jail. He's not been praised for being a, having a particular stand. I didn't really suffer. Everybody's watching me. I was rich. The world saw me, I had lawyers to fight it, I was getting credit for being a strong man. So that didn't really mean nothing. What about, I admire the man that had to go to jail named Joe Brown or Sam Jones, who don't nobody know who's in the cell, you understand? Doing his time, he got no lawyers' fees to pay. And when he get out, he won't be praised for taking a stand. So he's really stronger than me. I had the world watching me. I ain't so great. I didn't do nothing that's so great. What about the little man don't nobody know? He's really the one.
Muhammad Ali I was in the jail, and every day you wake up and looking at the bars and those little sad hallways, couldn't see outside, wait 'til they're bringing you food, have to go to sleep, no TV or nothing, and then you wake up the next morning, the same thing all day, got to raise up time, then you lay down to go to sleep, wake up next morning same thing, ain't going nowhere, then you go to sleep and wake up next morning, same thing, then night time come, you're not tired, you got turn over and over, finally you go to sleep, the next thing you know you're waking up, it's four in the morning, you're not sleepy, you got to wait 'til eight in the morning, then at eight in the morning come, you got to wait 'til twelve noon, when twelve noon come, you're awake 'til five o'clock, when five o'clock come, you wait 'til ten, then you don't want to go bed, then you roll over and you got to fight and go to sleep, the next morning you start "AAHH! AAHH! AAHH! Let me out of here! AAHH"
Muhammad Ali And then you start thinking, how can I get out of here? They can't be that damn smart, let me look at these bars, I know I can get it if I can make a run for it. Let me look over that wall. I can't get--God, somebody must have thought about this before me. Then you said, "God, how do they--can't get out of here no God-damned way. Then you have to get a job in the kitchen. That's like going downtown New York. Just, just to go to the kitchen or ride the elevator, see a new scene. I've worked in the kitchen. They says, "You can work in the kitchen or the laundry or the janitor quarters. Which one do you want?" I said, "Give me the kitchen," because that way I could get some food, see. I'd steal chicken legs and put them in my pocket and wrap it up, and they fellows would help me, and I'd go to back to my room and eat that chicken, then the next day I had to hide the bones, so I'd carry the bones back there the next day and throw them
Muhammad Ali Then you still have this, and then when you go to the waiting room, to visit the people in the waiting room, that's like being in downtown Las Vegas. Just looking at new faces and looking at men and women and other people. You know. Man, then when you get out of that jail, you run. You're so happy to be out, you just run down the street, just happy to run.
Studs Terkel When someone said to you, why didn't you, why didn't you, you could have faked it. You could have gone to training camps and just did an exhibitions and that's all. Why didn't you do that?
Muhammad Ali Well, because still I had to sign the papers, and that they used my name on stamps or something, said Muhammad Ali help serves the country which will be aiding in some kind of way, even to go over there and not to fight but just be behind the line serving the food to the soldiers to go fight. Mentally I'm still helping fight them. See, so I couldn't do nothing.
Studs Terkel One of the most moving moments in this book is the induction center. Yeah, the induction center. And they wanted you to take that step, a young lieutenant says, he called your name, he may have called you "Clay" or may have called you "Ali"--
Muhammad Ali "Clay."
Muhammad Ali Know what was going through my mind? "Clean out my cell, and take my tail on the trail for the jail without bail. Clean out my cell and take my Black tail on the trail to your white jail without bail, 'cause it's better they're eating watching television fed than in Vietnam which you fools did.
Studs Terkel The what? I never heard of him. This is a different thing entirely. There are two different languages being spoken. He speaks one, I speak one, someone speaks another. Each by is himself. That's your theory, that's your credo. Each person is unique. Is that right?
Muhammad Ali Right.
Studs Terkel Right. And the book of course deals with the various crises and how the whole world, indeed, is watching and finally triumph again, comeback. One last part, and that's the subject of pain. People see you. They watch. And in the beginning you mentioned the aspect of pain itself, pain and this particular craft.
Muhammad Ali Yes. You go through a lot of pain. You're hitting the ribs and I fought Sonny Liston a second time, I got hit in training my sparring partner, James Ellis, I speak of in the book, my rib was sore, I had to, hoping that I didn't get hit, I'm glad I got him in one round, God blessed me. I don't know what happened if he hit me in that rib. Ken Norton fight, the jaw got broke, well, the pain was terrible getting hit, every time I got hit in the teeth, rattling together [and scraping?], and I've had a lot of pain, sore hands, Novocaine ran out one fight 15 rounds and knuckles were sore, and five rounds couldn't hardly hit with that hand, that hand was hurting so bad, and all different fighters experience different pains. Ankle--fought Ken Norton second time, that one was, not only was my jaw broke, but my ankle was twisted, the coach of the San Diego Chargers had to wrap my ankle before the fight. Out there trying to play golf and clowning and twisted my ankle day before the fight. I'm going through a lot of pain, but this all pays off.
Studs Terkel And of course your use--technique. The unconventional use of the ropes and you violating all the rules. That's the other thing. You violated all the traditional rules, didn't you? In a way. You found something else, didn't you?
Muhammad Ali Well, the way of blocking punches with your hand and ducking under, I found out that punches are coming at four-one hundredths of a second. Four-one hundredths of a second, you just don't duck it that quick. Best thing is just lean back, pull out of range and then you still watching, then counter over his punch. This is against the laws, usually you supposed to weave and bob, lay on the ropes.
Studs Terkel Yeah. You have to go now. You know what I'd like? You opened reading, you opened reading the beginning when you came back to Louisville. Suppose you read this last passage, and we say goodbye for now.
Muhammad Ali Well, this is the last paragraph in the book here on the chapter the Manila thing. It says, "Should I say that the fight we had tonight is the next thing to death? Yes. What I'm saying here in this article I was so tired. The worst feeling that could have been to that I had was death itself. I felt like fainting. I felt like throwing up. Onliest thing was in my mind was Frazier's one hell of a fighter. And when the referee Carlos Padilla, the referee he looked into Joe's face, and his manager's face, Eddie Futch, I knew that they wouldn't let him come out for the 15th round. And I was so relieved because I was so tired myself. I had so much pain in my knees. My knees even buckled when I stretched out. Listen, this was a bad feeling. Right there in the middle of the ring, I just laid, felt like laying down. I was drained. I heard the blood pooling in my ears because one of my ears were bleeding, and in the middle of Joe's pounding, I could hear Joe's words coming back to me: "You one bad nigger." And I said to him, "We're two bad niggers, 'cause you bad, too. We don't do no crawling, do we?" By that time this is going through my mind, Bodine and Angelo lift me up, and they hug me and take me back to [no school?]. The screams and their crowd were so loud, and yet they were so far away. Then the crowd started pushing, shoving, reporters shouting, they want me for something. They all were looking for something from me, want me to say something, some words of comment, but I was so tired. Besides, I've already told them, and I've already told all of you reading this article. Don't you hear me? I've told you. I'm the greatest of all times!"
Studs Terkel That's an appropriate coda. Billie Holiday. "God Bless the Child." Don't worry about nothing, because he's got his own. Following the conversation with Muhammad Ali. I was thinking, Muhammad Ali's style of fighting, his rather unique style of boxing, and jazz, and there's a connection, I think, without stretching a point too much. In his last two fights he violated all the traditions and he used ropes. He leaned against the ropes, he was against the ropes, and against a fighter who, ostensibly, hits very hard. This is suicide. But what he did, as he explained, is he watches and uses and weighs, his eyes never leaving the other's arms and hands, and thus he improvised, innate improvisation, the other's strength wearing out while he uses the ropes as an ally. And so there's an ad hoc nature to this, too, the suddenness, the aware of astonishment and improvisation, that's jazz, too. I think the way Jimmy Rushing sings "Going to Chicago", and an example of another kind of improvisation. [pause in recording] Tell them little Jimmy Rushing, he's been here and gone, anybody asks you ever wrote this song. Somehow that connection, there's a relationship between Jimmy Rushing, little Jimmy Rushing and big Muhammad Ali. One young Apollonesque physique, the other Jimmy was "Mister Five by Five", yet both were possessed of that elan. So we have Nina Simone on this is--we're approaching Christmas soon as one of those ebullient songs that builds and builds, "Children, Go Where I Send Thee". That's what's known as a cumulative carol. Nina Simone. Well, how can we have a jazz program, one that has a sort of ebullience to it without Basie? And this is Basie in the Kansas City time, and a group, six, and around his colleagues will be Green, Freddie Green at the guitar, Walter Page, big one at the bass, and Joe Jones at the drums and certainly the Count, and let me try to guess who the horns are. As we hear "Basie Beat". That was Basie at the organ, playing very much influenced in this case, obviously by his mentor years past, Fats Waller, the tenor was Paul Quinichette, and the trumpet was Joe Newman. And that was not his regular drummer at the drums there, Joe Jones, that was his friend Buddy Rich. That was "Basie Beat". I thought of little John Henry, John Henry one of the heroic figures in folklore who helped build. He bought--he beat down the machine the way he died with those hammer in his hand in the building of the Big Bend tunnel. There's a little John Henry that Alan Lomax sings, and sort of a, I might call this a 'Ali-esque' kind of song, too. Alan Lomax and one of those favorites down in Texas. Little John Henry. And then there was Dinah Washington and Dinah Washington and her way of living and, short though it was, a tough one, a rough one, a sad one, the same time an ebullient one, too. And "Willow Weep for Me" is a song I once heard Billie Holiday sing way back at a little jazz place on its last legs somewhere on South Cottage Grove called The Budland and about ten people in the house and there was Billie, toward the last days of her life and as beautiful as ever, and she was singing "Willow Weep for Me", and about the 10 customers there wept for all, for themselves, of course, and for everybody. The way an artist sings it. This is Dinah, who sings it her way. You may call that a cool interpretation of that song. Not "heart on sleeve" manner of singing of Dinah Washington here, and as a result of which it's all the more emotional. Perhaps ending with Duke Ellington, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo". Muhammad Ali speaks of his shuffle, the Ali shuffle. Well, Duke wrote "East St. Louis Blues" he said long ago watching an old man shuffling at the end of a day, tired, walking on, this then is the human shuffle. "East St. Louis". Duke.