The Transformation: A Glimpse into Muhammad Ali’s Time in Miami as Cassius X
Cassius X, also known as Muhammad Ali --the greatest American professional boxer, was born in Louisville, Kentucky but his spellbinding image of fame and notoriety was shaped in Miami. The fame that grew up around this young man was in large part due to his youthful fascination with the media and what was needed to project his image across America. He spoke incessantly, dressed impeccably and was always available for interviews. More than all of that, he knew how photography worked.
As he crept up the heavyweight rankings, Life magazine and Sports Illustrated commissioned a Miami-based freelance photographer called Flip Schulke to photograph Cassius at the 5th Street Gym where he trained. Schulke struck up a good relationship with Cassius and took him shopping to Burdines, the department store on Flagler Street, where Cassius tried on shirts, a new jacket and smart shoes. The manager took the photographer aside and despite protestations told him that the store did not allow “negroes” to try on clothing. Schulke, who had travelled extensively across the Deep South states as a photographer with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was accustomed to stories of segregation, was taken aback by Burdines’ policy. He argued vociferously with the manager, informing him that the boy he was excluding from the store was an Olympic Gold Medallist. Cassius calmed him down and guided him out onto Flagler Street and they finally returned to the young boxer’s adopted home in Overtown to buy the clothes.
The two men talked excitedly about photography, and Cassius asked what kind of photograph would get him onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. Schulke described a photo session he had recently completed that had been shot underwater. Without skipping a beat, Cassius told him that he trained every morning under water in the pool at the local Sir John Motel. It was a complete fabrication improvised on the spot but the idea excited Schulke and he rang round his editors to place the photographs. Sports Illustrated declined and asked for more conventional gym shots, but Life responded positively and gave Schulke enough encouragement for him to drive a car loaded with scuba-diving equipment, underwater cameras, and diving weights to the Sir John swimming pool for what turned out to be a landmark moment in boxing history. Cassius, who could not swim and had never trained underwater, took to the pool, punching furious upper cuts up through the water. The photographs, now known as “The Arc of Bubbles,” became classics of sports photography, a spread in Life magazine, and the beginning of Cassius’s realisation that photography held the key to America’s burgeoning magazine industry.
His skills in self-promotion brought journalists, photographers and eventually television crews streaming to the 5th Street Gym, and the photographs that have survived from those early Miami years are remarkable in their range and theatricality. He even appeared in one photograph training to the sounds of classical music. Aa Cassius skipped, a brylcreemed violinist from the Miami Symphony Orchestra, played alongside him. Few photographs can lay as strong a claim to capturing stardom in the 60s quite so memorably as the day in February 1964 when Cassius appeared in the ring with The Beatles, who were in Miami to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The young boxer was so convinced of the power of photography and aware of his reputation as a loudmouth, that he carried a roll of white gaffer tape in his pocket to ensure he always had a photo opportunity at hand. Waiting for the photographer to set up, Cassius would rip the tape into two pieces and shut his own mouth with an X mark. It was a routine rich in meaning, the X that he would inherit on his way to full induction into the Nation of Islam, it hinted at the symbolic white society trying to close down a voluble young black man and it was a zany stunt set up to bring even more attention to the greatest sportsman ever.
Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali is available at Amazon (amazon.com/Cassius-X-Transformation-Muhammad-Ali/dp/1641603542),
and at Chicago Review Press (www.chicagoreviewpress.com/)