On an hour-long flight from Louisville to Chicago in the late ’50s, Cassius Clay prayed he wasn’t going to die.
The teenage Clay, then a dominant amateur boxer, said he hadn’t developed his phobia of flying, one also held by his father, until that fateful flight on a twin-engine jet. “Many times I’ve searched my mind to find where the fear originated,” he said in his 1975 autobiography. Clay recalled how the plane on the flight to Chicago experienced so much turbulence during a storm that “some of the seats were torn from their bolts on the floor.”
“I really thought it was our last ride,” remembered Joe Martin, Clay’s coach, according to Jonathan Eig’s “Ali: A Life.” “And I mean Cassius was praying and hollering! Oh, man, he was scared to death.”
That fear stayed with Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, for most of his transcendent career. So what would Ali, who died in 2016 at 74, say to Wednesday’s news that Louisville is naming its airport after a man who famously hated air travel? “I’m not afraid of the fight,” he told reporters before a 1961 bout. “I’m afraid of the flight.”
As the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, Mayor Greg Fischer said in a news conference that Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport would serve as a reminder that while the boxer belonged to the world, the Kentucky city was his home.
“Muhammad became one of the most well-known people to ever walk the earth and has left a legacy of humanitarianism and athleticism that has inspired billions of people,” Fischer said. “It is important that we, as a city, further champion the champ’s legacy. And the airport renaming is a wonderful next step.”
For years as a young fighter, Ali was able to avoid jets and take trains and Martin’s station wagon to his fights, according to David Remnick’s “King of the World.” But that would all change in 1960.
In May of that year, Clay had to get to San Francisco to qualify for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. If the 18-year-old ever wanted to accomplish his goal of being one of the youngest heavyweight champions in the history of boxing, he had to immediately overcome an opponent not named Floyd Patterson or Sonny Liston — one that the man who called himself “the greatest” couldn’t outbox or trash-talk.
“You’re going to have to fly, son, if you want to be a fighter, fly to places all over the world,” said his trainer, Dick Sadler, according to Ali’s autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story.” “It’s a strange fear. But to you it’s real. You’ve got to either overcome it or give up boxing.”
Local media called Clay’s decision to fly to San Francisco “a big one,” adding that if he didn’t take to the air for that fight, then “he might have to ride a lot of buses before he gets anywhere in professional boxing.”
Eig wrote that even though Martin persuaded Clay to fly, the flight hit turbulence over Indiana, causing the charismatic fighter to bend over and again pray for his life. “He went to an army supply store and bought a parachute and actually wore it on the plane,” said Martin’s son, Joe Martin Jr.
While Clay’s supernatural confidence in the ring showed during the Olympic qualifiers in San Francisco, it was nowhere to be found when it came to flying back to Louisville. Instead of flying home with Martin, Clay pawned a gold watch, one of his prizes, to get train fare.
But Clay and his team had an even larger problem than San Francisco: The 1960 Olympics were in Rome.
“When the team was ready to go to Rome, I told Martin I wouldn’t fly,” Ali said in his autobiography. “I’d be willing to take a boat, but the thought of flying over the ocean sent chills up and down my spine.”
Seeing that his fighter was serious, Martin, a police officer who had first offered to teach Clay how to box when he was a boy after he reported his bike had been stolen, took him to Central Park in Louisville for hours in hopes of talking him out of throwing away his chance at gold.
“I calmed him down and convinced him if he wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world, then he had to go to Rome and win the Olympics,” Martin told HBO, according to the Guardian.
He did just that, winning the gold medal as a light heavyweight. Clay pointed to another reason for his sudden courage.
“What I was afraid of most was the plane crashing, and nothing would satisfy me until I called the Air Force and asked them to give me a record of plane flights between Rome and America,” he said in his autobiography. “They said they couldn’t even remember the last time one had crashed. That calmed me down enough to take the flight to Rome.”
The fighter’s aviophobia would come up again. At 21, about a year before he became heavyweight champion for the first time, Clay was scheduled to fly back to Louisville from New York after defeating Doug Jones in March 1963. Ali suddenly grew concerned about his afternoon flight at Newark International Airport, according to Eig.
“When was the last crash?” Clay asked loudly, waiting to board the plane. “When was the last crash?” He had to be hushed by one of this traveling partners, worried that they would get tossed off the flight.
Ali’s colorful personality allowed for him to openly joke about his fear of flying in a 1970 interview with historian Jim Jacobs archived by the Boxing Hall of Fame. The interview was conducted in the lead-up to his fight with Jerry Quarry, Ali’s return to the ring after he was barred for more than three years for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. To Ali, a turbulent plane scared him much more than Quarry or Joe Frazier, the rival he would fight for the first time months later.
“The only thing [that] scares me is when I’m on a jet and the lady says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been informed by the pilot that we are coming into a thunderstorm. We tried to get around it, but we can’t. It might get a little choppy, so please fasten your safety belts, and we will resume serving dinner in five minutes,’” Ali said, shaking his right hand as if it were a rocky airplane. “And when they get scared and tell you to fasten safety belts — and then I’ll see the stewardesses’ eyes big and I see the lightning and the dark cloud. And all of a sudden — Bam! Plane started shaking, the wings flopping, and I think about the plane splitting and the long fall, and I say, ‘Why did I have to rush? I could have took a bus. Oh Lord, if you just let me off of here, I’ll take a train the next time.’
“Boom! The plane’s shaking and falling,” he continued. “And I say, ‘If I get off this plane, I’ll whoop any man in the world.’ ”
By the ’80s, Ali had finally conquered his fear of flying, writing that the activity had become “automatic.” He’d later talk about how much he enjoyed sitting in the cockpit with the pilots, saying how he wanted to buy his own plane and helicopter. Ali got so comfortable that his safety had almost become secondary.
“Once, when a flight attendant instructed him to buckle up, Ali replied, ‘Superman don’t need no seat belt,’” Eig wrote. “To which the flight attendant answered, ‘Superman don’t need no plane!’ ”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.