Cassius X: Sunshine and Upheaval

  15 Dec '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

In the below extract from his newest book Cassius X, Stuart Cosgrove transports us to the sticky heat and neon glare of Miami in 1963, where Cassius Marcellus Clay was making a name for himself in the heavyweight boxing scene.

Extract from Cassius X by Stuart Cosgrove

In the first bleary-eyed days of 1963 Miami woke up to a raging hangover. The city was crammed with well-wishers, con artists and the walking dead. Snowbirds, in their colourful Hawaiian shirts, had flocked to the Florida beaches from Chicago and Detroit, to escape the deafening sounds of the big industrial cities and the unforgiving northern weather. Hotels bulged at the seams and disappointed guests could be seen dragging their bags along Collins Avenue in the vain hope of a late vacancy. Inside the permafrost lobbies, where high rollers escaped the heat, men in unseemly shorts swaggered around the shimmering casinos, leaving crumpled cash tips and suspicion in their wake.

Cassius Clay had been in Miami for over two years now and he had never witnessed such levels of edgy nervousness. The city was restless and rotting to its core. According to the beat comedian Lenny Bruce, who damned urban America with faint praise, Miami was the place where ‘neon went to die’. Across whole swathes of the city neon flickered on and off, signage unsteadily jumped to life, and broken glass littered the sidewalks. The garish signs that looked so alluring on postcards were wheezing their last breath and advertising nothing more than a city facing decline. Decay had infected palms in the most shaded parts of the city, and bud rot, the lethal fungal disease, had attacked the once majestic trees, staining their drooping hands an ugly shade of nicotine yellow.

Miami had enjoyed an unrestrained growth after the war, driven by cheap air flights and the rise of air conditioning, but the boom was unsustainable. Work was short-term and unpredictable, unemployment surged and ebbed with the seasons, and the influx of immigrants from Cuba and the Caribbean put unmanageable pressure on social services. Many mid-priced hotels had struggled to keep up with refurbishment plans and repairs to hurricane damage, so swathes of the city looked grubby, dysfunctional and unloved.

Despite all of that, the myth of Miami thrived, and the city’s sunshine reputation somehow shook off harsher realities. In her
insightful book Miami, the celebrated author Joan Didion claimed that ‘Miami seemed not like a city at all but a tale, a romance of the tropics, a kind of waking dream in which any possibility could and would be accommodated’. But wrapped up in the dream Didion also saw a city situated at the geographic end of a pistol, an American city ‘populated by people who also believed that the United States would betray them’. And the man the Cuban denizens of Miami believed had betrayed them most deeply was the president himself.

John F. Kennedy was in town and his presence had added increased tension to the tumultuous self-indulgence of New Year.
The year 1963 was destined to become one of dark conspiracy, the year the president was assassinated. But something else was stirring, hidden away on the other side of this segregated city.

Soul music was rippling beneath the surface, barely audible at first, but about to break across America like an electric thunderstorm and dominate the eventful years yet to come.

It was in Miami that Cassius Marcellus Clay, a lanky youth from Louisville, Kentucky, had fashioned an outrageous dream – to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Cassius and his advisers in Louisville had identified the veteran trainer Angelo Dundee as the man most likely to advance the young boxer’s career. Dundee had left his native Philadelphia and was based at his brother Chris Dundee’s Gym on Miami’s 5th Street. So an eighteen-year-old Cassius had arrived by train from Kentucky in November 1960 to join the claustrophobic boxing academy in ‘a steamy, scruffy loft above a liquor store’, as the Miami Herald described it, on a crumbling corner downtown.

Reticent and unsure where he was going, Cassius was met at the station by his new trainer and an effusive group of Cuban boxers who drove him to an unfamiliar and heavily curtained home. The residents spoke only Spanish and the young boxer retreated deep into himself, unsure of how to communicate. As night descended, he was shown to a cluttered room near the Calle Ocho strip in the Little Havana neighbourhood, where he dumped his training bags and faced an ignominious baptism. He shared his first uncomfortable night in Miami sleeping nose-to-foot with Luis Rodríguez, the brilliant Cuban boxer who once boasted that he had the longest nose in America (his fans in Cuba called him ‘El feo’) and could fire snot that would kill Fidel Castro. In a darkened room infested with mosquitoes and the piercing smell of sweat, Cassius lay awake listening to distant Hispanic voices and Rodríguez’s thunderous snores.

An avowed enemy of Castro’s regime, Rodríguez was a lynchpin in Miami’s many hives of conspiracy and a close friend of Ricardo ‘Monkey’ Morales, the former Cuban intelligence officer who had defected to the USA in 1960, where he was contracted by the CIA as a paramilitary officer to fight secret wars and connive with his exiled compatriots, including the boxers who trained with Cassius in the 5th Street Gym. Rodríguez played the role of patriot; a propagandist to the core, he often tried to interest a distracted and disinterested Cassius in the latest gossip sweeping through the exiled Cuban community. Rodríguez had taken on the role of the gymnasium elder, showing visitors around, issuing locker keys
and trading jokes with the swarm of boxers who huddled around the ring and concealed ammunition in the ramshackle lockers. It was here amid the sawdust and the whispering Cuban middleweights that Cassius perfected his trademark shuffling dance style and the rhyming ebullience that made him famous.

Rodríguez and the restless kid from Louisville formed a close and unlikely bond, and throughout their odd friendship, they shared a belief that boxing was first and foremost part of the entertainment industry, dangerous and deadly, but entertainment nonetheless. Unsuccessfully coaching him about the warring enigmas of Cuban politics, Rodríguez recounted the names of remarkable generation of expatriates, the great Cuban boxers who had escaped Cuba and were shaping a new story for boxing. Cassius would come to know them, and share training facilities with them in the weeks and months to come. Each of their names sounded so sweet, so satisfying – Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilán and the elegant featherweight Ultiminio ‘Sugar’ Ramos. Rodríguez convinced Cassius that if he spent a day watching the quixotic Cubans move on the canvas, he too could learn to dance like the wind. Cassius listened and smiled. He warmed to Luis Rodríguez and saw a flicker of his own personality reflected in the Ugly One’s gregarious antics. ‘Rodríguez is a clown, a friendly clown,’ Robert H. Boyle wrote in Sports Illustrated, as if the era of the quixotic clown was about to revolutionise the world of boxing.

Spooked by his first sleepless night in Miami, Cassius vowed to find his own people, and within less than thirty-six hours he had convinced Angelo Dundee to stretch the 5th Street Gym budget and fund a cheap hotel room away from the Beach in the teeming Overtown ghetto. He initially stayed at the Mary Elizabeth Hotel on North West Second Avenue – described by his gym doctor Ferdie Pacheco as ‘a den of thieves, pimps and prostitutes’ – and after another week of uncomfortable nights he moved to the Sir John Hotel, the coolest R&B venue in Overtown. The Sir John was a landmark, the epicentre of Miami’s fledgling soul scene and a much more comfortable hotel, with its own swimming pool and a late-night soul club, the Knight Beat. It was to become Cassius’s on-and-off home throughout much of the next three years, and the place where his life took on a new direction. It was here in an otherwise modest hotel room that he began to transform his image, his religious beliefs and, eventually, his name.

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