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Muhammad Ali's first title defense, a first-round TKO of Sonny Liston in 1965, propelled Ali to the status of icon. In Ali's training camp before the fight was an icon from an earlier era: Lincoln Perry. He was the first African-American movie star, who went by the stage name Stepin Fetchi. The relationship between the two men is the subject of an off-Broadway play called Fetch Clay, Make Man.
By the spring of 1965, Muhammad Ali had spent less than a year as heavyweight champion of the world. He had recently joined the Nation of Islam and shed his former name, Cassius Clay. Ali was a newlywed, his friend Malcolm X had been assassinated, and boxing fans considered him an underdog in the upcoming fight against Sonny Liston.
Playwright Will Power knew all that. But then, Power saw a photo of Ali that contained an image Power did not expect.
"I was like, what?" Power said.
In the picture, palling around with Ali was actor Perry, who gained enormous fame — and then something approaching enormous infamy as Fetchit. To Power, schooled as he is in African-American history, this photograph and the circumstances behind it simply did not make sense.
"I learned about Muhammad Ali and learned about Stepin Fetchit. But I learned about them as being polar opposites," says Power.
But in 1965, Ali and Fetchit came together in pursuit of a legendary boxing tactic that the great Jack Johnson was rumored to have employed: the anchor punch. Ali called Fetchit his secret strategist. The boxer reached out to the former Hollywood star who had been friendly with Jack Johnson to learn more about this magical punch.
Fetch Clay, Make Man shows that Ali was obsessively driven. He was bragging, plotting, envisioning, even when just shadowboxing.
All of this — the relationship, the secret strategist, the anchor punch — is true. Well, true as far as a punch with mystical man-stopping properties can be. But Ali did credit the punch with being the tool that dropped Sonny Liston in the first round.
It is not an accident that much of the play centers around a mystical technique.
Des McAnuff, director of Fetch Clay, Make Man says: "I do think the play is not just realistic, though you might call it 'mystic realism.'"
Perry understood that with his role, he was creating a myth — and he viewed his character Fetchit as a trickster. Ali was of course mythic in the sense of godlike, but also, in the sense that Ali understood archetypes.
Ray Fisher, the actor who portrays Ali, talks about the aspects of the play that resonate with him: "The idea of people wearing masks, you know, trying to be who you want to be, especially in society that views you as less than that..."
History shows that Ali won that struggle: He won the fight, he defined himself, he came to embody his nickname "The Greatest." Lincoln Perry, on the other hand, never got to play a character other than Stepin Fetchit. While Perry earned a small fortune, he wound up spending a large one. But he was perceptive, telling a reporter before the Ali-Liston fight: "People don't understand the champ. But one day he'll be one of the country's greatest heroes. He's like one of those plays where a man is a villain in the first act and then turns out to be a hero in the last act."
In this piece, Stepin Fetchit gets a turn at, if not heroism, then a bit of redemption. Fetch Clay, Make Man plays at the New York Theatre Workshop through Sunday.