By Michael E. Miller
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Despite his successes, Ponder was growing increasingly frustrated with the fights — or the lack thereof — he was getting. The wait between bouts was sometimes two, three, four months. The fights Goodman did arrange were often outside the country — Trinidad, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas — where decisions inevitably went to the home boxer. "The reasons I was going out of town for all those fights is that those were the only kinds of fights Mac could get," he reflects.
Meanwhile, for the first since he came to Miami, Ponder was beginning to think about more than boxing. During the time he had lived with Clay, he had been oblivious to the change taking place in his idol, even as it happened quietly before his eyes, in those late-night sessions with the Koran. Even then Clay had already become involved with the Nation of Islam, but — partly at the request of his handlers — the rising star kept his beliefs to himself. But the day after he returned from defeating Liston in 1964, Clay went public with his new identity, appearing by Elijah Muhammad's side on television and announcing his new name: Muhammad Ali.
Ali's conversion to Islam didn't mean much to Ponder. But when he heard Ali would be in Miami later that year to speak at the Liberty City mosque, he went there, hoping to reunite with his idol. The last they had spoken, Ponder was a 14-year-old dropout without a plan; now he was a champion-to-be.
Ali never showed up, but Ponder politely stuck around to hear the sermon. The language moved him. "I had never heard black people talking like that before," he says. A few weeks later he returned for another meeting. In early 1965 he joined the Nation, privately renouncing his "slave name" and taking the moniker Grady X. Later he would change his name to Aleem Fakir. Publicly he still fought as Grady Ponder.
Ponder's shot for a title came November 18, 1967, against Bunny Grant, the British Commonwealth Lightweight Champion, at the National Stadium in Kingston. For the first and only time in his career, Ponder was given a warm reception abroad, largely thanks to Cecil Bustamente Campbell, better known as Prince Buster, the Jamaican ska legend. Buster met Ponder at the airport and instantly befriended him, insisting Ponder stay with him and escorting the young boxer all over the island.
Ponder says he never thought to wonder why a famous musician should take under his wing a foreign boxer who was predicted to lose to a popular national champion. In fact Prince Buster was acting on the orders of Captain Sam, then head of Mosque 29 in Miami, to which Ponder belonged. Buster, himself an ex-boxer, had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 — like Ponder, shortly after meeting Muhammad Ali, who had personally invited him to attend a talk there.
Captain Sam was a big fan of Ali's and attended all of his Miami fights. In Ponder he saw another young "lion," another Black Muslim, devoutly religious, who appeared to be following in Ali's footsteps. He told Prince Buster to look out for Ponder and help him win.
On the night of the fight, more than 6000 Jamaicans packed the National Stadium to see Grant, their own champion, defend the title he'd brought to the island after beating Love Allotey in Ghana. They cheered wildly as Grant stepped into the ring. And then a funny thing happened: Grant found himself staring into the eyes not of Ponder but of Prince Buster, who stood beside the young American as his second. Buster and Grant had been good friends; the musician had even accompanied the champion to London for a previous fight. But now his former ally stood beside the opponent, staring down Grant as hard as he could. The Jamaican boxer looked surprised, and so did the crowd. Probably because of Buster's presence, the thousands of onlookers received Ponder more warmly than they would have another foreign opponent.
The bell rang. For the first five rounds, Grant couldn't seem to catch the young fighter. "Grady was excellent — to see this young guy come with this style and outmaneuver [Grant]. It was his moves, his accurate punching," Buster recalls. "He could shift well, he could step in well, he threw good combinations — and so fast, man. Believe me, I was proud."
Ponder was too fast for Grant to connect often, but the American's careful defense and backpedaling cost him: He landed few blows to Grant's body or head, and he was beginning to tire. In the eighth round, Ponder opened up a cut above Grant's left eye — a feat Grant tempered in the ninth and tenth rounds when he pushed Ponder to the ropes and pummeled him. But Ponder fought back to the very end.
The fight was close but, Ponder says, not that close. At the last bell, he was sure he had won. Indeed the Jamaican Star reported Buster was so sure of Ponder's victory that the musician lifted the would-be champion back into the ring and held his arms up in victory. The crowd cheered; they thought the match was his too.