Grady and the Champ

For better and worse, Muhammad Ali left his mark on a generation of Miami boxers

After Clay's workouts, Ponder rode around town with Rudy and the boxer in his pink Cadillac. As the world was beginning to learn, Clay loved attention. He enjoyed being seen walking "The Stroll" — as Second Avenue in Overtown was known then — with his retinue of admirers; he loved to take his Cadillac to the schools. One afternoon when Ponder was riding in back, Clay and Rudy pulled up to Miami Northwestern Senior High, and adoring students mobbed the car. By all means, the scrawny, grinning Ponder should have been one of them (when he left Georgia, he left school behind as well). But instead he was in the back seat of Cassius Clay's Caddy, and when the fighter rose to his feet to greet the crowd, so did Ponder. "Man, I stood up and waved at all them kids like I was somebody," he recalls nearly a half-century later, laughing and then shaking his head. "But I wasn't nobody."

For all the theatrics, life at home with Clay was quiet. The boxer never drank, never smoked, never had parties. Sometimes he and Rudy screened mobster movies for friends on the porch. But most nights Clay returned tired from a long day of training, Ponder by his side; the two ate a quiet supper together ("He could eat a whole chicken by himself"), and Ponder went to bed while Clay stayed up reading. The teenager never thought to ask him what he was reading every night. "I imagine it was the Holy Koran," he reflects.

To train for a match against Doug Jones, Clay left in 1963 for New York, one of a handful of stops along the way to his Miami Beach championship bout with Sonny Liston the next year. Ponder says he missed Clay terribly at first, but had understood all along that his idol would leave him. "He was the champ. He had to go."

Ali took him in as a runaway; three years later Grady Ponder was one of the best boxers in Miami
Aleem Fakir
Ali took him in as a runaway; three years later Grady Ponder was one of the best boxers in Miami

Grady Ponder moved in with a brother in Hollywood, took a job washing dishes in Miami Beach, and began training to be a boxer.

His only ambition — to become as great a boxer as Cassius Clay — had been sparked back home, in Sylvania. Ponder was the son of sharecroppers, the 10th of 15 children. His family was poor, and by the time he was eight years old, Ponder was working full days in the fields, mostly picking cotton. He attended school only after the harvest was done, usually a month or two after classes had begun. When he did go to school, he usually went barefoot.

Ponder had learned the basics of boxing from cousins, who derived pleasure from dragging the younger kids out of the house and forcing them to fight each other in the dirt street. Ponder learned to dodge punches, watch opponents' hands, and take advantage of openings.

His life changed when he turned on the TV set one night and for the first time saw Cassius Clay fighting. Back then Clay was by no means the most famous boxer in America. He was a kid with a risky style of fighting — lowering his hands, relying on sheer speed to dodge punches — and an unbelievably loud mouth. Long before he had proven himself a champion, Clay talked like one.

The impact of Clay's attitude on Ponder was profound. His brother had once "spoke back" to the man who owned the land his parents farmed, and the white landowner had nearly had the boy locked up. At the time, Ponder hadn't thought much about it — it was "the way things were." But seeing Clay changed that. "There was this young black guy," he remembers, "fighting these white guys.... I said, 'I want to be exactly like Cassius Clay.'"

Ponder was hardly the only young, poor black kid in Miami who dreamed of becoming the Champ. In the early Sixties, boxing was still the second most popular sport in the nation (behind baseball), and even before Clay came to town, Miami was a hub. The city was full of places to box. On NW 79th Street there was the Little River Auditorium, a small gym that was converted into a boxing arena where every Thursday night 400 or 500 people would pack in for a night of fighting — two four-rounders, two six-rounders, and the main event, an eight-rounder. Sometimes area bars would set up a tiny ring in the back and host fights. One of these jerry-rigged arenas was the bar at the Sir John Hotel in Overtown — better known for prostitution, gambling, and drugs than for boxing. In Liberty City there was the Palace, a dive that occasionally hosted bouts. The best fighters in the world — Sugar Ray Robinson, Luis Rodriguez, Joe Frazier, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter — all passed through Miami.

But Clay's arrival was different. At the time, the 20-year-old wasn't even considered the greatest boxer in Miami. Before coming to town, he had fought only one professional fight, a six-rounder against the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. But that didn't matter: By the time he stepped through the ropes at the Miami Beach Auditorium, Clay was a celebrity.

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