Yet this “Cassius Clay” fellow was attracting wide attention wherever he went, for himself and boxing.
By March 1963, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in a rendition by artist Boris Chaliapin who sought to capture Clay’s “playful mischievousness,” portraying him as part boxing poet. Inside the magazine, Clay was profiled in a favorable five-page story.
That was followed by a June 10th, 1963 Sports Illustrated cover of the young boxer tagged, “Cassius Invades Britain.” Clay was then on his way to fight Great Britain’s Henry Cooper in London.
These stories included Clay’s self-boasting quips, with Sports Illustrated tagging him “The Louisville Lip.” It was a style that would bring him media attention and endear him to many of his fans, while at the same time repulsing the conservative boxing world and his opponents, as well as many sportswriters and boxing fans.
But along with his boasts and bravado, there was real athletic ability and boxing talent. “He had incredibly fast hands and cat-like reflexes,” noted sportswriter Michael Silver. “His handsome face was rarely hit” – a point of pride he would often repeat in press conferences.
After his victory over Liston, Cassius Clay denounced his “slave name” and became a Black Muslim, a little known black separatist movement that practiced the religion of Islam, advocating self help for African Americans. He soon began using his new Muslim name — Muhammad Ali. He made clear at the time he would not be treated the way that other black heavyweight champs had been treated. Some of his black opponents, including Joe Frazier, refused to call him by his new name, while the boxing establishment hoped his stay at the top of boxing would be brief.
But Clay – now Muhammad Ali – became a boxing superstar following the Liston fight, as a new round of publicity elevated him to international celebrity. Life magazine put him on the cover of their magazine – not only for its domestic issue of March 6, 1964, with six pages of coverage from the Liston fight, but also in later issues using the same photo and some of the same content. Life’s international issue of May 30th, 1966, circulating in dozens of countries, ran him on the cover, as did some Life special national issues, such as its Spanish edition of July 1966. (click on covers for available copies).
Meanwhile, from 1965 to 1967 Ali defended his title against all comers – winning nine bouts, including a rematch with Liston in 1965, a fight that yielded the famous photo of Ali standing defiantly over a knocked down Liston.
Ali’s views on the Vietnam war, his religion and the black race were part of the territory he covered in public – and he received a degree of scorn for speaking out.
But one fighter, Floyd Patterson, who Ali had fought and beaten in November 1965 — a fighter who did not agree with Ali’s views — but nonetheless lent his name and image and support on behalf of Ali’s right to free speech in an August 1966 Esquire magazine cover and feature story. That piece was written with Gay Talese and entitled, “In Defense of Cassius Clay.” Ali’s press coverage by this time went well beyond the usual sports venues.
In the ring during these years, Ali was in a class by himself, few could touch him. But by the time he refused the call of Uncle Sam to serve in the military, the country was split right down the middle over the Vietnam War, and he became part of the controversy and polarization. In 1967, when he refused the draft, hundreds of thousands of Americans were doing service in the jungles of Vietnam. Nearly 30,000 had been killed by then. The champ was denounced as a draft dodger; congressmen vilified him, others questioned his patriotism and his motives.
Racial issues were also coming to the fore in new ways while Ali was making his stand. Racial unrest had broken out in Los Angeles in 1965; in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, Michigan, and a dozen other cities in 1967; and in April 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, protest and unrest occurred in more than 100 cities. The Black Power movement had begun by then as well. African American athletes at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 had given the black power salute from the medals podium, and also that summer, the James Brown song, “Say It Loud, Say it Proud,” hit No. 1 on the R& B music chart.
Ali, meanwhile, continued to be featured on magazine covers – for Esquire in 1968 and Sports Illustrated in May 1969. Esquire, courtesy of its art director George Lois, did a classic cover for its April 1968 issue, featuring Ali in a Saint Sebastian pose with puncturing arrows in his body, with head thrown back as if in great pain ( St. Sebastian was a early Christian martyr shown in some classic paintings tied to a post and shot with multiple arrows). As George Lois would in fact explain to Ali while lobbying him for the photo shoot as an arrow-riddled martyr – “…And what I am saying is that you are a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.” For the May 5, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated Ali was depicted in a cover shot draped in royal garb complete with kingly crown as the tagline asked, “Clay-Ali: Once and Future King?.” The feature story pondered the future of the 27 year-old boxing champion, then in a kind of limbo while he appealed his conviction. Then, in 1970, when an Atlanta judge allowed him to face Jerry Quarry in his first return to the ring, his fans were ecstatic. Life and Newsweek put him on November 1970 covers. And after his fight with Quarry, he was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal and Mrs. Coretta King said that he was not just a champion of boxing but “a champion of truth, peace and unity.” For his fans and admirers, Ali was carrying a lot of hopes and expectations. And this too, figured into the background leading up to the Frazier-Ali fight in March 1971.
Joe Frazier, for his part, was almost the complete opposite of Ali, quiet and hard working, not inclined toward social statement. Nor did he have the celebrity cache and media notice that Ali had accumulated. Born into a poor family on a farm in rural South Carolina, Joe Frazier was the youngest of 12 children. As a married 16 year-old in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he worked in a slaughterhouse. That was about when he took up boxing for exercise, as he had begun to gain weight. He was discovered trying to lose weight boxing at a Philadelphia Police Athletic League gym. He soon became a recognized amateur, winning three Golden Gloves titles. In 1964, he added the Olympic heavyweight championship gold medal. Upon his return from the Olympics, however, there was no money, and he took a job as a janitor in a Baptist church of North Philadelphia. There, the pastor happened to have some wealthy friends, among them F. Bruce Baldwin, executive of the Horn & Hardart restaurant chain who helped set up financing for Frazier’s boxing career. He was 21.
Over the next five years, he compiled a fearsome record or 26 and 0, winning 23 of his bouts by knockout. In the ring Frazier developed a reputation for his devastating left hook. Boxing analysts called him “a pure puncher.” He would come at opponents relentlessly, in a low and forward moving crouch. His bobbing and weaving could sometimes disguise his left hook, that could catch opponents by surprise. Outside of the ring, Frazier was described by sportswriter Michael Silver as “a decent, hardworking, law abiding, church going family man, who was too busy trying to support his growing family to get involved in any causes.” But ahead of the famous March 1971 fight, Frazier was also drawn into the soci-political currents of the times.