Gorgeous George & Muhammad Ali: The Orchid and The Butterfly
It’s 1961. Brash young John F. Kennedy had just succeeded old, modest Ike as U.S. president, effectively archiving the 1950s. In Las Vegas, Sammy Davis, Jr. is at the Sands, and now, in this just-integrated city—in theory, at least—he can even stay there overnight.
Gorgeous George, 46 and nearing the end of his career, is wrestling Freddie Blassie at the new Convention Center later in the week. And 19-year old boxer and Olympic champion Cassius Clay is in town, too, for his seventh pro fight, vs. Kolo “Duke” Sabedong, a hulking six-foot-six Hawaiian. Both bouts are being promoted by Mel “Red’’ Greb, who’s brought The Human Orchid and the man who will become The Greatest to this radio station together to hype both events.
When asked about the outcome of his 10-rounder against the 31-year old Sabedong, young Clay says mildly that, “Somebody’s got to go before the 10th, and you can bet it won’t be me.” Later he will remember: “I can’t say I was humble, but I wasn’t too loud.” Then the interviewer puts the same query to George, who’s been waiting quietly, wearing his usual loud clash of colors and a knit tam over his blond curls. George hunches forward over the short, fat-headed microphone, and erupts:
“I am the Gorgeous One! 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! If this bum I’m fighting messes up the pretty waves in my hair, I’ll tear off his arm! And if that uneducated punk somehow manages to beat me, I’ll take the next jet to Russia! But that will never happen, because I am the greatest!”
Young Clay smiles. He knows it’s a performance but still finds himself thinking, “Man, I want to see this fight. It don’t matter if he wins or loses; I want to be there to see what happens.”
After the interviews George, always affable with fellow athletes, invites the kid to come and see him work. Well after 10 p.m., the lights finally go dark for the main event, and the announcement booms through the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, Gorgeous George is here!’’ A spotlight swings to catch him at the top of the main aisle, and the boxer sees the wrestler in a voluptuous, form-fitting red velvet gown. And even from this distance he can make out the unnaturally bright blond color and the intricate waves of the Gorgeous marcel.
The Sensation of the Nation begins to make his way to the ring, parading regally to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The boxer sees the fans stand up, hears them spewing insults and curses—he feels the heat. “When he got to the ring, everyone booed,” Muhammad Ali would later tell Angelo Dundee, the trainer, and other confidants. “I looked around and I saw everybody was mad. I was mad! I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat, and his talking did it. And I said. ‘This is a gooood idea.’ ”
More likely Clay saw 5,000 people, but no matter: The lesson was clear. After the Blassie match Clay and Greb visit George in the locker room and he begins to mentor the 19-year old boxer. Nearing the end of his run, George passes the torch. “You saw that crowd out there,’’ he says. “Most of ‘em hated me and the rest of ‘em wanted to kiss me. The most important thing is, they all paid their money, and the place was full.
“You got your good looks, a great body, 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.”
Obviously, Cassius Clay had it in him—the charisma and showmanship, the quick wits, not to mention his “pretty’’ good looks. He could already float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Yet over the years, well after he became Muhammad Ali the Muslim, the civil rights activist and war resister, he continued to give credit to Gorgeous George Wagner, the white man, for schooling him in the liberating, self-aggrandizing swagger of the man you love to hate.