I just finished David Remnick's fine book on Muhammad Ali, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. In his introduction, Remnick lays out his thesis:
In the early sixties, Floyd Patterson cast himself as the Good Negro, an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration, and Christian decency. Sonny Liston, a veteran of the penitentiary before he came to the ring, accepted the role of the Bad Negro as his lot after he discovered that he would not be permitted any other.... Each man, in his own way, represented the world that Muhammad Ali would encounter and then transcend.
The following passage sent me off to YouTube to watch Clay (before he became Ali) in action (to hear him talk, that is):
Clay, in fact, was the latest showman in the great American tradition of narcissistic self-promotion, a descendant of Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill by way of the dozens. Clay gave credit to his predecessors when he was aware of them, but he was insistent on his originality—and rightly so.
Here are some videos of Clay that made me laugh with amazement and appreciation.
A two-part TV interview before the Liston fight, with some very funny responses to audience members' questions:
And here's Clay after defeating Sonny Liston: