After winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Cassius Clay returned home triumphant to the United States, stopping first in New York. There, the 18-year-old light-heavyweight from Louisville toured the town for the next 48 hours. He stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, hit up Times Square, tried his first slice of cheesecake, and visited Birdland, the famed jazz club on Broadway. Though he was legally able to drink by then, he had no interest in doing so. Still, he wanted to celebrate his Olympic win in style, so he ordered a Coke.
“And put one drop of whiskey in it,” he told the bartender.
That may very have been the only drop of alcohol Clay — who became Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam in 1964 — would ever try in his 74 years on Earth. He lived a remarkably healthy lifestyle, never smoking, nor eating pork; he didn’t enjoy soda, and he most certainly eschewed alcohol.
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Which makes it all the more amazing that Ali’s professional boxing career, launched in the first few months after his return from Rome, would be in large part funded thanks to a Kentucky whiskey distillery, which remains an indelible part of his legacy, even today.
A former leading man on Broadway, Bill Faversham Jr. eventually gave up on that racket and by the end of World War II, found himself living in Louisville. There he got a job at Brown-Forman, then known for producing Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester, and Early Times whiskeys. By 1960, Faversham had risen to vice-president, in charge of sales in 18 states. He was a Kentucky bigwig, but not the biggest wig in town by any stretch of the imagination.
A longtime fan of the “sweet science” — he had worked out in the late-1920s by sparring with fellow actor Spencer Tracy — he, like many others, was well aware of his city’s local boxing sensation ever since Clay had won the prestigious amateur boxing title, the Golden Gloves, in 1959.
After Clay returned from his exploits in Rome, Faversham noticed the boxer had been unable to come to an arrangement with a sponsor. With plans to go pro, Clay would need money to support him while he trained for his first fights. Faversham figured it would cost around $20,000 (about $185,000 today) to fund the boxer before he would start winning purses that would begin paying dividends to his benefactors.
Faversham’s boss at the distillery certainly had the money for such a gamble. William Lee Lyons Brown was then chairman of the board at Brown-Forman, his family’s business, and a Foghorn Leghorn-like caricature of a southern gentleman. He too was a boxing fan, having fought for the U.S. Naval Academy team during his time in Annapolis.
These two whiskey execs would form the basis for what they called the Louisville Sponsoring Group (LSG), bringing aboard nine other Louisville locals. The group featured captains of industries spanning from tobacco and horse breeding to newspaper publishing and liquor wholesaling, as done by syndicate member Vert Smith, who sold a reported $4.5 million of booze per year. In this still-segregated city, most were also members of the esteemed, and then-whites-only Pendennis Club, the private social club that continues to stand by its apocryphal claim that the Old Fashioned cocktail was invented there.
Each man contributed $2,800 to the sponsorship fund, with Faversham getting a free half-share for organizing things. This was merely “an amusement, … a minor investment, a lark” for these wealthy man, according to David Remnick in his 1998 Ali biography “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.” Still, they wanted Clay on board. The Clay family had already turned down one sponsorship group and had hired a local lawyer, Alberta Jones, who took them to a meeting with Faversham.
He offered Clay a $10,000 signing bonus, plus a guaranteed annual salary of $4,800, as well as covering all of his expenses, not to mention offering him the group’s business insights. This was considered rare in an era when boxers like Sonny Liston were mostly funded by the mafia who would often fleece them, or worse. (Sports Illustrated would even label Ali’s arrangement as “a unique and uplifting sight” for the always-shady boxing industry.)
There’s something very Louisville about the relationship,” says Graham Shelby, director of the recent documentary “City of Ali.” “Louisville has its problems like any other place, but there’s also a conviviality about the city. And Ali shared that affection for it — it’s why Brown-Forman would want to invest in him.”
In October 1960, Clay won his first professional fight, against a moonlighting West Virginia police chief. By December he was living rent-free in the seedy Mary Elizabeth Hotel in Miami. Every day he would jog four miles over the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach and the 5th Street Gym, on the second floor of a building on South Beach, to work out with his $125-a-week trainer Angelo Dundee. At this point, it was no sure thing that Clay would one day be a cash cow, never mind an icon.
“If anyone had told me a year ago that Cassius would develop into an international figure, I would have said he was smoking marijuana,” claimed LSG member William Sol Cutchins as late as 1963.
Of course, even though these were alcohol and other professional vice sellers, they were glad Clay didn’t partake. Still, when you read articles from the time, you can easily detect the dormant racism wanting to burst forth in these white muckety mucks working with such a brash, young African-American. But, aside from having a big mouth, Clay was a model citizen, so they begrudgingly seemed to have put up with him.
“Since Cassius doesn’t smoke or drink or chase around, I can stand it,” Smith bluntly told Sports Illustrated.
By that same token, these 11 white men loved to smoke, drink, and “chase around.” W. L. Lyons Brown would provide Brown-Forman’s company DC-3 propeller plane to fly the sponsors to every Ali fight in these early days. And, after each resulting victory, the men would celebrate by smoking Viceroy cigarettes (provided by Cutchins, then president of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation) while slugging bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Ali, on the other hand, would usually celebrate with a glass of orange juice and some ice cream.
The LSG was losing money early on, but that didn’t really matter for the time being. People like Brown thought simply being associated with the rising star would allow his Old Forester or Jack Daniel’s, perhaps, to access a whole new demographic:
“You know it doesn’t hurt sales in the Negro market if some of Clay’s sponsors happen to be strongly identified with shall we say — consumer products.”
Endorsing Some Whiskey
But, was it a good deal for Clay?
For each fight, he would take half of his winner’s share — that was a mere $7,165.75 before taxes for a 1963 knock-out of Charlie Powell — and half would be split by the 11 sponsors. There was the same arrangement for his personal appearances, like the $500 he made for a one-minute appearance in the 1962 Jackie Gleason picture “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
Still, Clay earned $45,000 (around $400,000 in today’s money) in 1962, which isn’t too bad. The LSG, however, was still in the hole, chalking up around $27,000 in expenses per year, or more than half of the syndicate’s share of Clay’s purses.
By the time a 19-0 Clay was set to square off against world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in February 1964, no one, including his own sponsors, expected him to win. Thus, after his sixth-round upset victory, the Group scrambled to find a place to celebrate. (Gleason was so sure Clay would lose that beforehand he had a side bet where he promised to down “five belts of Old Overshoe [a derisive nickname for Old Overholt] for every round Blabber Mouth was still on his feet.”)
The LSG eventually ended up at the luxe Roney Plaza Hotel on Miami Beach, drinking Champagne with Budd Schulberg, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and other big name fight fans from the era. Clay, meanwhile, headed to the Hampton House Motel for a quiet, sober evening with Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and NFL superstar Jim Brown, as depicted in Regina King’s 2020 film “One Night in Miami.”
Clay was becoming more and more radicalized by this point. A couple of days after beating Liston, Clay publicly announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and would now be going by the name Cassius X. (The following month, he was ultimately renamed Muhammad Ali.)
Many white people viewed these so-called “Black Muslims” as a hate group and, not surprisingly, Clay’s newfound beliefs didn’t exactly mesh with having white liquor magnates managing his career. So, despite the fact the LSG had him under contract through 1966, they were concerned about the dangerous territory their boxer was entering as he was finally becoming profitable to them — and how his outspokenness might affect their businesses.
“The white want me hugging on a white woman, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I’m promoting black as the best,” Ali told Sports Illustrated. (Amusingly, the one time he would ever promote whiskey was for an unaired Irish tourism spot back in 1972.)
“They want me advertising all this stuff that’d make me rich but hurt so many others.”
After the LSG
Unexpectedly, the whiskey industry that helped launch Ali’s career — and which he never took part in — would remain in his life until the very end of it.
If, in his 1977 book “The Greatest: My Own Story,” Ali’s ghostwriter Richard Durham intentionally portrayed the LSG as a “bloody-minded band of white businessmen who regarded their charge as little more than property to exploit,” that wasn’t truly the case behind the scenes. The LSG remained loyal to Ali and continued to look out for his best interests, even trying to help him find ways to avoid serving in Vietnam after he was drafted in 1967 without damaging his public image, according to Remnick.
And, despite the things he may have said in public, Ali actually remained on good terms with most members of the Louisville Sponsoring Group after their contract expired. When Faversham had a severe heart attack Ali even drove from Chicago, through the night, to visit him in a Louisville hospital. (Faversham would die in 1978; the final member of the LSG, Gordon B. Davidson, would die in 2015.)
After his career was over, the Brown-Forman distillery continued to support Ali in any way it could. In 2011 it donated some $10 million to the Muhammad Ali Center, part of which underwrote its new Brown-Forman Pavillion. The outdoor event space, overlooking the Ohio River, opened in 2014 and Ali and his wife at the time, Lonnie, were the first to visit. Since Ali’s death in 2016, Brown-Forman has continued their relationship, helping fund Shelby’s film, as well an Ali educational program to go along with it.
“The Brown-Forman/Ali relationship is evidence that people don’t have to agree on everything to do meaningful work together,” says Shelby.