This Olympics Monday we’re killing three birds with one stone: profiling an (aspect of an) Olympic champion; honouring Sir Paul McCartney on his 70th birthday and honouring Muhammad Ali, as we like to do at any opportunity we have:
Signed Photograph of Muhammad Ali and the Beatles
In 1960 18 year old Cassius Clay returned from the Rome Olympics with the Light Heavyweight boxing gold medal. Nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Olympic Village’ in Rome due to his larger-than-life personality, Clay returned to a hero’s welcome in the States. Subject to the racist conventions of the time, however, Clay was still denied service in a segregated restaurant in Kentucky and was seen very much as an uppity, gobby young man, who had not yet ‘learnt his place’ in the world.
In fact, as we all know, Cassius Clay had very much ‘learnt his place’ in the world and that was that he needed and deserved to own it. In February 1964 Clay was scheduled to fight Sonny Liston, the then World Heavyweight Champion in Florida. Liston was an illiterate, intimidating, brutal boxer with shady contacts with the mafia but Cassius Clay managed to make him look attractive to many. Clay approached the fight with his customary bravado. He described Liston as a big, ugly bear and said, “Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling down lessons”.
Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times viewed the fight differently, “The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary”, while Murray Kempton of the New Republic echoed the unattractive view of many white people at the time: ” Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he is the big Negro we pay to keep sassy negroes in line.” The odds on the fight were against Clay 7-1
Into this maelstrom on the 18th February 1964 strode…our very own Sir Paul McCartney and his Beatle pals on their first trip to the States. A British photographer had apparently already tried to pose them with Sonny Liston but the then champ had refused, saying “Not with them sissies.” So, they turned to second best: Cassius Clay.
The American sportswriter, Robert Lipsyte was in Miami on the day of the photoshoot and remembers it in his memoir, ‘An accidental Sportswriter’: “The Beatles were cranky in that damp dressing room, stomping and cursing…They said that Liston would destroy Clay, that silly little overhyped wanker…Suddenly the door burst open and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles (and I) gasped. He was so much bigger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful…he was laughing. “Hello there Beatles” he roared. “We oughta do some road shows together, we’ll get rich.” The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids”
On the 25th February 1964, a week after Clay’s photo shoot with the Beatles, Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in the sixth round to become the new World Heavyweight Champion. The next day he changed his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali, ‘the Praiseworthy One’, his new name given to him by the leader of the Nation of Islam.