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The Man Who Put Down Clay

Candace Opper | Longreads | June 20, 2016 | 4,365 words

How do you get to know a father—or a man—who defines himself by one single, insurmountable achievement?

Posted inNonfiction, Story

The Man Who Put Down Clay

How do you get to know a father — or a man — who defines himself by one single, insurmountable achievement?
Photo courtesy of Candace Opper.

Candace Opper | LongreadsJune 2016 | 15 minutes (4365 Words)

My father’s fifteen minutes came and went the night he won an arm wrestling match with Muhammad Ali. (Ali was Cassius Clay at the time, but Ali is the household name, and if I am to get any use out of my father it is the brief awe I inspire from his proximity to greatness.) The match went down in the middle of the night at a truck stop in Connecticut, 1965. My not-yet-father, Joe, would have been 33, a Korean War vet cum small-time boxer who had once made his way to Madison Square Garden. At 6’4” and 255 pounds, he loomed over the average man, and was known around those parts as the undefeated arm wrestling champion — or “wrist-wrestling,” as it was then commonly known. This title and the ways it once mattered are now, like my father, extinct.

Clay and his entourage were cruising the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound sometime between his two infamous matches with Sonny Liston. Somewhere along I-95 their bus allegedly broke down and they holed up at Secondi Bros Truck Stop, an infamous 24-hour greasy spoon in my father’s hometown. Joe sometimes worked for the Secondis, so whichever goombah was lucky enough to be hustling diner coffee that night didn’t hesitate to call him down there to challenge the champ.

This is how my father came to wrist-wrestle one of history’s greatest athletes. The details of the event have been extinguished with time, perhaps because I only ever half-listened but more likely because my father harped on what he thought mattered: that he’d won. “I think Clay was a little embarrassed, getting beat so easy,” he’d say at the end of a story he told me every time we saw each other. I’d raise my eyebrows in feigned amazement, and he’d smile at me with the patronizing greediness of someone who knows a secret about you that you don’t yet know.

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