They met in Las Vegas, at a radio station, while promoting themselves, which seems entirely appropriate. Both were in the business of mayhem as a spectator sport. One was a rising star, the other was fading, but willing to pass along his wisdom. It was June 1961.
The younger man was 19, a handsome boxer from Louisville, Ky., named Cassius Clay. A year earlier, he won a gold medal at the Olympics. Then he turned pro, and now he’d come to Vegas to fight a huge Hawaiian heavyweight named Duke Sabedong. A fight promoter brought him to the radio station to hype the bout.
Clay had already earned the nickname “Gaseous Cassius” because he liked to brag, brashly predicting which round he’d knock out his opponent. But Sabedong was the toughest fighter he’d faced and his prediction for the 10-round bout was uncharacteristically subdued: “Somebody’s got to go before the tenth, and you can bet it won’t be me.”
After that, the interviewer turned to his other guest, who was America’s most famous wrestler. Born George Raymond Wagner, he changed his name to “Gorgeous George.” Gorgeous, as he liked to be called, wore long, dyed, platinum-blond hair and enjoyed strutting into the ring wearing a long red gown and matching nail polish. A decade earlier, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gorgeous George was one of the first big stars in the new medium of television, right up there with Milton Berle and Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Now, at 46, his wrestling skills were waning but not his prowess in the great American art of shameless self-promotion.
“I am the greatest!” Gorgeous bellowed when the radio interviewer asked about his upcoming match with Fred Blassie. “I cannot be defeated! All my so-called opponents are afraid of me, and they’re right to be afraid— because I am the king! I’m warning everybody right now: If this bum I’m fighting messes up the pretty waves in my hair, I’m going to kill him. I’ll tear off his arm! And if that uneducated punk somehow manages to beat me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off all my beautiful hair—and then I’ll take the next jet to Russia! But that won’t happen, because I am the greatest!”
Clay watched this performance in wide-eyed wonder. And George wasn’t finished bragging yet.
“I am the Gorgeous One!” he announced. “Not only am I the best wrestler, the most highly skilled, with the greatest technique, but I’m also the most beautiful wrestler who ever lived! That’s why all these curs, these ignorant brutes, don’t want to take me on—they’re afraid of my brilliant style of wrestling. And they know the fans only want to gaze on my manly beauty.”
“Man, I want to see this fight!” Clay thought as he listened to the Gorgeous One rant. “It don’t matter if he wins or loses. I want to be there to see what happens.”
So Clay went to the Convention Center to see George wrestle. The place was packed. After a few prosaic preliminary matches, the lights dimmed and the arena went dark.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcer hollered, “Gorgeous George is here!”
A spotlight illuminated a place at the head of the main aisle. There was a dramatic pause, and then Gorgeous George stepped into the light, wearing a red velvet gown lined with white satin. His blond hair, permed into a marcel, shimmered in the spotlight. Slowly, he promenaded toward the ring as loudspeakers played “Pomp and Circumstance.” In the crowd, people cheered, booed, stomped their feet, screamed insults and threw things. Several times, the Gorgeous One paused to insult the hecklers.“Peasants! You’re all ignorant peasants!” Which made the peasants howl even louder.
After that dramatic entrance, the actual wrestling match was a mere footnote. For the record, the referee ruled it a draw, disqualifying both wrestlers for fighting in the aisles. But the official outcome didn’t matter to Clay, who understood that he was watching a master showman. Grinning, he visited the locker room to pay his respects. George greeted him warmly. “You can stop calling me ‘sir,’” he said. “Just call me Gorgeous.” Sensing that the young boxer was a kindred soul, the aging wrestler passed on some sage advice.
“Boxing, wrestling—it’s all a show,” he told Clay. “You gotta get the crowd to react. You saw that crowd out there. Most of ’em hated me and the rest of ’em wanted to kiss me. The important thing is, they all paid their money, and the place was full….You’ve got your good looks and you’ve got a good mouth on you. Talk about how pretty you are. Tell them how great you are, and a lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your big mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”
Later, Clay raved about Gorgeous to his trainer, Angelo Dundee: “I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. And I said, ‘This is a goooood idea!’”
Inspired, Clay took to reciting poems extolling his greatness. He wore a crown and a red robe with ermine trim and “Cassius the Greatest” embroidered on the back. He talked about how “pretty” he was and derided the champion, Sonny Liston, as a “big ugly bear.” He swore he’d turn Liston into a bear rug and he repeatedly recycled the Gorgeous George rap he’d heard at that Vegas radio station: “If Sonny Liston whups me, I’ll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he’s the greatest and take the next jet out of the country.”
Boxing fans detested Clay’s braggadocio and, just as Gorgeous predicted, they were eager to pay money to see somebody shut his big mouth. They figured Liston could do it with ease. The champ was a scary, sullen thug who’d won his title by knocking out Floyd Patterson in the first round—and then did it again in the rematch. “The loudmouth from Louisville is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a ham-like fist belonging to Sonny Liston,” sportswriter Arthur Daley predicted in the New York Times.
But when the two met in the ring on February 25, 1964, Clay danced around the sluggish Liston, pounding his face to pulp until the frustrated, bleeding champion quit after the sixth round.
Clay leaped around the ring, pumping his fists in triumph. “I am the greatest!” he yelled. “I am the greatest thing that ever lived! I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old! I must be the greatest! I’m the king of the world!”
Soon, the new champion changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became exactly what he said he was— the greatest fighter, and one of the most famous humans, on the planet.
His mentor, Gorgeous George, didn’t live to see Ali’s many triumphs. George died in December 1963. He was buried wearing an orchid-colored robe in an orchid-colored casket. His hair was perfect.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.