You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Branding of Muhammad Ali

How an aging pro wrestler inspired Cassius Clay to become the most vocal athlete in America.

Dutch National Archives

The morning definitely did not show Gorgeous George in his most gorgeous light. Born George Raymond Wagner in 1915, the forty-six-year-old performer showed up at the Las Vegas radio station looking hung over and worn out. His skin had a sickly pallor; his famous platinum blond hair hanging uncharacteristically loose without his “Georgie pins.” The most famous professional wrestler in America was less than one and a half years away from retirement and two and a half away from dying of a terminal liver condition brought on by decades of heavy drinking. But at showtime, George could still muster enough energy to please the crowds.

Clay arrived in Las Vegas on the evening of Wednesday, June 21, 1961, and the next morning he met the wrestler at the station. They both had tickets to peddle. George had a grudge match—they were all grudge matches with him—scheduled for June 23 at the Las Vegas Convention Center against Freddie Blassie. Clay was fighting Kolo “Duke” Sabedong, a six-foot-seven Hawaiian of Samoan ancestry, at the Convention Center on Monday the twenty-sixth.

Turning first to Clay, the show’s host asked about his chances with the experienced, hard-punching Sabedong. The Hawaiian had a mixed career that included wins over club fighters and losses against better boxers. He had also fought contenders, though he usually did not finish those fights on his feet. When the host asked Clay about his own chances, he was circumspectly confident. “I can’t say I was humble, but I wasn’t too loud,” Clay later recalled.

The host then turned to George. In the early years of television, Gorgeous George practically invented the persona of the flamboyant, bombastic villain. After observing that the untalented “freaks, baboons, and foreigners” who passed themselves off as professional wrestlers attracted the largest audiences and purses, he asked himself, “What if a guy had a flair for showmanship and could also wrestle—would he go over?”

George Wagner reinvented himself as Gorgeous George, a villain of the first order. He dressed effeminately—long, dyed hair; gold-plated, sequined “Georgie pins”; satin outfits; reportedly an ermine jockstrap; monogrammed towels; and robes that looked like they had been lifted from Liberace’s closet—and swished down the aisle to the ring to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Once inside the ropes, his valet sprayed a fine, sweet-smelling mist from an atomizer on the robes, canvas, and, stealthily, on the referee and opponent. The Gorgeous One performed other pre-match rituals with great solemnity and formality, but once the bell sounded he was capable of committing any vile trick or underhanded tactic to win a match. Gorgeous George was, in short, the very negation of the American male athlete; the persona he originated was equal parts drag queen, aristocratic prig, and lowdown cheat. And audiences in arenas across the country and on television could not seem to get enough of him.

The host asked George, what would be the outcome of his upcoming match? “I’ll kill him; I’ll tear off his arm,” Clay recalled George saying. “If this bum beats me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off my hair, but it’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.” Floating on a sea of self-endorsement, he continued to wax eloquently about how great and beautiful he was. “And all this time,” Cassius remembered, “I was saying to myself, ‘Man, I want to see this fight. It don’t matter who wins or loses; I want to be there to see what happens.’”

Clay closely watched the match, noting the wrestler’s grand entrance illuminated by a spotlight and covered by a red velvet gown lined with white satin. George moved imperiously toward the ring, shouting that the spectators who booed him were “ignorant peasants.” It was a sensational act, and afterward Clay vowed, “[Although] I’d never been shy about talking . . . if I talked even more, there was no telling how much money people would pay to see me.” He later told Dundee about George’s performance, concluding, “This is a gooooood idea.”

Niño con boca grande!” the Cubans in the 5th Street Gym had called Cassius. But in Las Vegas his mouth, like the Grinch’s heart, seemed to grow three sizes bigger. A few days later he told sportswriter George King what to expect in the fight: “Someone’s got to go before the 10th— and you can bet it won’t be me.” There was no way he would lose, he explained. Losing a fight against a big Hawaiian just was not a possibility.

Sabedong made his most pointed statements with his fists in the ring. From the first round it was clear that Clay was faster and infinitely superior in boxing ability. But the Duke had a few dirty tricks that would have shocked even Gorgeous George. When he got a chance he hit Clay low, on the breaks, and after the bell, and he used his head as a third fist. “I threw a couple of low punches just to let him know I was there,” he later said. “The first time I hit him low, his eyes went as big as saucers. I was going to bite his ear. You know when you are in clinches you get the guy’s ear between your teeth and give it a little tug, that usually would bring water to their eyes.”

Sabedong’s problem was that he rarely got close enough to Clay to hit low, butt, or bite. Constantly moving, Cassius peppered him with jabs and hooks, landing harder punches occasionally but not often enough to take him out. The fight went the distance, but for Clay it was a learning experience. Professional boxing was not like the amateur version of the sport, where referees passed out penalties for the slightest infractions. In the pro ranks you had to expect the unexpected and protect yourself at all times. Clay departed the Convention Center a wiser boxer. And he left Las Vegas with a new bag of verbal tricks.

Before Gorgeous George departed Las Vegas, he talked briefly with Cassius. Clay had gone to the wrestling match, watched the packed house scream insults at the foppish athlete, and met with him afterward in the dressing room. “Boxing, wrestling—it’s all a show,” he told Clay. “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”

Clay got it. He understood that most beat reporters were less interested in the truth than a good tale. Every day or so they needed a story to file, and they spent their lives scrounging for copy—digging for leads, tracking down facts, conspiring for quotes. “Trouble with boxing today,” Cassius told a reporter after the Sabedong match, “is most boxers don’t want to talk. Say, ‘Yeh, no, yeh, no.’ You writer men ain’t got nothing to write about. . . . Look at Ring Magazine—it loaded with stuff about John L. Sullivan and all them old-timers. Nothing else to write about.”

He knew the solution to the sport’s woes—it was him. And he expressed it with candid specificity.

Boxing need fighters who talk a lot and kill. Fighter today, he bring two or three girls with him to the fight and go into the ring with his hair all waved silky. In the olden days a fighter go back in the woods and train and drink tea without sugar in it, getting mean. Today, temptation is abroad in the land. There’s more pretty cars these days, and you can get ’em cheap. Everything’s a dollar down, and a liquor store on every corner. Rock ’n’ roll show in town every week. But Cassius Clay go to bed at nine. I’m eating them lima beans, collard greens, okra and tomatoes, and spinach. Man, them are things that stick to your kidneys. Most guys eat crackers and soda pop and expect to stay in shape. But Cassius Clay, he a determined young man. When he lay down on a guy, that guy supposed to go down. So as I see it today, I should be champ when I’m twenty-one. You writ that?

After his short exchange with Gorgeous George, Cassius became the most vocal and opinionated athlete in America. He sounded off on topics ranging from boxing and diets to music and foreign policy, though rarely did he address racial issues or domestic politics. When he said, “The trouble is boxing’s dying because everybody’s so quiet,” he meant it, and he made it his personal mission to pump some noise into the sport. He lectured on his personal growth—“I’m mature. I’m growing a mustache. I shaved yesterday for the first time.” He rendered an opinion about his similarity to the leaders of communist nations—“Man, the way I been talking, if I didn’t back up my talk I’d have to leave town. I’d have to leave the country. Take a man like Feedel Castro. He say, ‘I gonna do this, I gonna do that.’ Next morning, rat-a-tat-tat—six people die. He do it. . . . So I talk big and that just makes me fight harder.” And, of course, he mentioned his importance to the Fourth Estate—“I’m the best friend a reporter ever had because I always give good quotes, changing them around so everybody gets a fresh one.”

Some sportswriters thought he was charming and refreshing; others found him conceited and bombastic. When Huston Horn of Sports Illustrated met Clay in 1961, he noted that the boxer was “irrepressible, impish, cocksure and sometimes utterly unbearable.” But it mattered little how they felt about him because they all wrote about him.

Clay became for the early 1960s what Joe Louis had been for the mid-1930s, a singular, transcendent force in the world of sports. In the Depression, sportswriters had competed to pin a tag on Louis, coining such monikers as the Dark Destroyer, the Tawny Tiger, the Chocolate Cobra, the Ebony Assassin, the Saffron Sandman, and, of course, the Brown Bomber, among scores of others. Virtually all referred to his skin color and destructive power. Clay’s nicknames included the Louisville Larruper, the Mighty Mouth, the Mouth That Roared, the Marvelous Mouth, Claptrap Cash, Cash the Brash, and, most famously, the Louisville Lip. They suggested neither his race nor fighting ability but alluded to the tenor and volume of his verbiage. In an age of celebrity, when fame was conferred on the loudest self-promoters, Cassius Clay was reaching for the moon.

He even dressed the part. Aware of his audience, fashion was important to him. “If the women come, the men got to follow, ain’t that so?” he asked a reporter. So his ring attire was clean and light—white shoes with three coats of polish, white satin trunks, and a white satin robe. To complete the look, he spread a thin coat of Vaseline on his arms and torso “to make me look real musclely.” He appeared almost ethereal as he danced, light-footed, in his corner before the bell and glided toward an opponent. As much as possible he tried to take the pain out of fighting—at least the pain he suffered. “Women don’t like the sight of blood . . . so I make sure they don’t see none of mine by not getting hit.” For him, boxing was a sport of speed and grace, not shuffling and slugging.

He was a self-made product, and he knew it. Frequently, he said, people he knew approached him saying, “Cassius, you know I’m the one who made you.” Maybe all they had done was give him a lift to the gym or a piece of advice. But they wanted to make sure that Cassius did not forget them when he started to write his name on the back of large checks. Number one on the list of the claimants was his father, who talked endlessly about the sacrifices he made and privations he suffered to allow his son to reach his dreams. Cassius understood his father’s motivations: “If I had a child who became rich and famous, I know I’d want to cash in too, like my daddy, and I guess more teen-agers ought to realize that they owe their folks.”

Yet the truth of the matter was that his father did not make him. “When you want to talk about who made me,” he told a reporter, “you talk to me. Who made me is me.”

“There’s only one Cassius Clay,” Dundee said. “Thank God.” Cassius was as unique as Coca-Cola, and like the Atlanta soft-drink maker, he branded and marketed himself. Often when fighters trained they advertised the training camp or a hotel where they worked out. Sonny Liston frequently wore Thunderbird Hotel T-shirts, giving a plug to the Las Vegas hotel. Grossinger’s, the popular Catskills resort, was another favorite of boxers in training, and the name adorned such heavyweights as Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson.

Shortly after he began training at the 5th Street Gym, Cassius started wearing crisp white T-shirts with his name printed in the front in bold red Spencerian script, reminiscent of the Coca-Cola logo. No other athlete in America exercised, ate, and slept in a shirt branded with his own name. Clay was years ahead of his time. The shirts revealed a conscious effort not only to market his name but also to inscribe that name onto the landscape of American popular culture through the art of self-promotion.

He had a genius for marketing himself. In September 1961 Sports Illustrated started work on their first feature about Clay, assigning Huston Horn to write the piece and Flip Schulke to contribute a full-page photograph. For most of a week Schulke trailed Clay, snapping pictures of him training in the 5th Street Gym, eating with friends, and mingling with the residents of Overtown. During a lunch at the Famous Chef Café, Cassius told Schulke that he wanted to broaden his base of appeal. “I want to get into Life,” he said. Schulke, who had recently shot some underwater photos for the magazine, replied, “I really don’t know how I can get you into Life.”

The next day when Schulke arrived at the Sir John Hotel, Cassius jumped into the pool, splashing around and throwing punches in the water. The photographer was intrigued by the trail of bubbles the punches made. They looked like the tail of a comet and reminded him of the underwater waterskiing photos that had appeared in Life. When he mentioned it, Cassius immediately invented a story telling the photographer that the underwater work was part of his training regiment. It increased his punching power and hand speed. He had learned it from an old trainer, he said. Schulke came to the Sir John Hotel the following morning carrying scuba gear and an underwater camera to photograph Clay’s unusual workout. Standing on the bottom of the pool in a perfect fighter’s pose, throwing punches that created contrails of bubbles, Cassius smiled and mugged for the camera. The results were terrific, and Life published them in the September 8, 1961, issue of the magazine, several weeks before the Sports Illustrated feature appeared.

Clay’s ability to take Gorgeous George’s shtick and make it his own, his intuitive understanding of precisely what reporters wanted and needed, and his ingenuity in breaking into Life magazine all attested to his decision not only to reinvent himself but also to redefine how others saw him. He would not be another Floyd Patterson, quiet, dignified, fearful of making a false step or offending white America. Nor would he be another Jackie Robinson, speaking out about civil rights. His search was for autonomy in a country that had historically denied black men that basic freedom.

In this sense he identified with James Baldwin, the black writer who defied every simple definition. “I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and to polish me off that way,” he wrote in his personal manifesto, The Fire Next Time. “And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a ‘thing,’ a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is.”

Cassius’s gimmick—and his mask—was the Louisville Lip persona. “I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today,” he told Howard Tuckner of the New York Times. “Man, it’s great to be great.” Tuckner responded by calling him “a professional loudmouth” and a “windbag.” But it was Clay who determined and defined the conversation, “aware that the world may despise, but never ignore, a braggart.” Since, as Cassius said, “Floyd Patterson’s got nothin’ to say, and Sonny Liston can’t say anything,” he would determine the future of boxing. Whatever Americans, white or black, desired, he would be the man in the glass booth. All eyes would follow him.

This story was excerpted from Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.