Grady and the Champ

The National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, was packed to capacity as Grady Ponder stepped into the ring to face local favorite Bunny Grant. Five years earlier, in 1962, only three days after Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain, the immensely popular Grant had fought British Commonwealth Lightweight Champion Dave Charnley and beaten him in that venue, claiming the title for himself and the island.

Now Grant was not particularly worried about his young American challenger. Boxers like Ponder were often sent abroad to fight title-holders. The contests made a pile of money, and the young fighters — who almost always lost — got their cut and went home.

But Ponder had come to win. Back home in Miami, leaders of the local Nation of Islam mosque were supporting him in his title bout. Black Muslim boxers weren't exactly a dime a dozen, and young Ponder reminded the mosque members of another fighter they had backed.

Ponder danced, throwing amazingly fast left jabs at the champion. Grant was caught off-guard: His opponent was a no-name, 19 years old, a child. But Grant couldn't touch him. Round after round Ponder danced, jabbed, retreated, outmaneuvered. The 6000-strong Jamaican crowd even began to cheer for the young American.

Around the fifth round, both boxers began to tire, and Grant landed a few clumsy punches. Bunny Grant had been favored to beat Grady Ponder two to one. But almost everyone agreed: From the beginning of the match, it looked like Ponder, not Grant, would walk away a champion.

Grady Ponder came to Miami in 1961 on a Greyhound bus that dropped him off downtown. Clutching a brown paper bag containing his clothes, he gazed around. He had never seen a city before. The night before, the 13-year-old runaway had left his home in Sylvania, Georgia, with a single purpose: to find Cassius Clay.

He knew from television that Clay trained at the Fifth Street Gym, so he asked a passerby for directions. The stranger answered in gibberish. Frightened, the teen repeated himself, but to no avail. The man, Ponder discovered later, was speaking Spanish. The boy had never heard Spanish or any other language besides English. He didn't know others existed.

When he finally worked up the nerve to ask another person, Ponder learned the gym was in Miami Beach, not Miami, and that the public bus that went there cost 25 cents. He didn't have the money. He'd bought his bus ticket with $7.50 that he'd borrowed from a friend across the street. (Twenty years later he would find that friend in Orlando and try to repay him. The friend would refuse.)

Eventually he caught a ride with a sympathetic stranger and made his way to Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, to a dingy building with a sign reading "5th Street Gym; Nationally Known Boxers Training Here Daily; Public Welcome Upstairs." He walked through the door and climbed the stairway. The air grew more stifling with each step, until he reached the gym, which was broiling. The place was empty. Ponder sat down on a bench and waited for Cassius Clay. This was as far as his plans went.

An hour later he heard footsteps on the stairs, and into the gym walked his idol. He had come alone — no entourage, no anybody. It was just Ponder and Clay, looking at each other. The teen was unable to suppress his joy: "Cassius Clay!"

Clay was 20 years old. Standing six feet three inches tall, he towered over the boy. "How you doing, champ?" the boxer replied.

As Clay worked out, Ponder remained seated on the bench, staring at his idol. Four hours later, when Clay finished and began to head for the door, Ponder was still watching.

"You need a ride home, champ?" asked Clay, walking over to him.

"I got nowhere to sleep," blurted Ponder.

"Okay, champ," Clay said simply. "Grab your stuff. You can stay with me until you get yourself together."

And just like that, Grady Ponder moved in with the greatest boxer in the world.

Clay had come to Miami to train under the legendary Angelo Dundee shortly after winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, a victory that propelled the brash boxer to sudden fame. Upon returning home to Louisville from the Rome games, he had been greeted at the airport by cheerleaders, 300 fans, and a 25-car motorcade. (He liked the attention so much he threw a parade for himself a week later.)

When the boxer invited Grady Ponder to live with him in his Liberty City home, he didn't ask the boy who he was, where he had come from, or why he had run away. Ponder doesn't even recall being asked his name that first night. Clay simply called him champ.

"That's the amazing thing about it," Ponder says now. "He never did pry. He gave me money, food, a room, and all that stuff. 'Champ, get your stuff together' — that's all he said." For a year Ponder lived with Clay in the house he shared with his brother Rudy at 15th Court and 49th Street.

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Isaiah Thompson