This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeedy
Of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speedy.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid fights great. He’s got speed and endurance.
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right,
If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts 10,
You pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans a-runnin’ with plenty of cash.
For I am the man this poem is about,
The next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
I am the greatest!
As an 18-year-old, Cassius Clay won boxing gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Three years later, when he was on the verge of fighting the heavily favoured Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight title, he produced this poem, and issued it with modifications as the flipside of a single (covering ‘Stand By Me’ on the A side). I had a copy of that 45 when I was a teenager in England, but who knows what happened to it.
He had a street-smart way with words, a natural ability to rap: rhyme, rhythm, wit and a big ego. It wasn’t for nothing that he was known as the Louisville Lip. They were all good defences in his battles outside the boxing ring, where he confronted white racism. His heavyweight titled was stripped from him when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying “Viet Cong never called me ‘nigger’.” He changed his name to Cassius X when he joined the unorthodox Nation of Islam, then changed it again to Muhammad Ali as a more standard Sunni Muslim. Prevented from fighting throughout his late 20s, he returned and regained his title–but he had lost what would probably have been his most successful years.
He was a popular favourite around the world.
Photo: Cassius Clay with his trainer Joe E. Martin, the Louisville cop who redirected the 12-year-old’s anger into learning to box.