About seven years ago, I went to an auction at Sotheby’s and saw a photograph by Flip Schulke of Muhammad Ali,then Cassius Clay,in the Miami years before the first Liston fight. It was the only boxing photo in a large lot of photographs that had nothing to do with sport, so of course it immediately caught my eye. This was before Corbis and Getty had put their archives online and therefore before I had spent countless hours looking at old pictures of Ali. I had never seen images from that moment before. Clay was skinny and young, unmarked by the battles to come and full of the electricity of knowing how good you are before you’ve had a chance to prove it. In the photo, taken in Angelo Dundee’s 5th Street Gym in Miami, Clay’s side-stretching, hands behind his head as he leans left, eyes tracking the camera. He’s wearing a t-shirt that says Cassius Clay,in a Coca-Colaish font where a script C with a long tail stands in for the first letter of Cassius and Clay. Confronted by such beauty, I could only think one thing: I need that mother——- t-shirt.
I didn’t know it then, but that thought would come to define my working life. As I’m happy to recount to anyone with a passing interest and a spare hour and a half, I remade the shirt for myself, but the reaction it got when I wore it made clear I wasn’t the only one who needed that t-shirt or who wanted to talk about boxing, racial politics in the 60s, the beauty of hand-lettered fonting, or the night Cassius Clay ‘shook up the worldâ€ with a stunning victory and a sudden change of names. I showed the Cassius Clay shirt to my friend Isa Salaabi, who would later become a founding partner of the brand Nom de Guerre but at that time, owned Isa, a store on North sixth street between Berry and Wythe in Williamsburg. Isa was the first store that I had ever seen sell the now ubiquitous mix of rare sneakers and rarer t-shirts, and it gave me a context for how the Cassius Clay shirt should be presented and sold. When I made the next batch of shirts, I had the American Apparel tags cut out and a brand name screenprinted into the inside of the neck in engraver’s old English. No Mas was born.
The problem,especially as I got more serious over the years about pursuing No Mas as a business as well as a calling,was that this touching story of sporting passion finding its perfect outlet was also a clear admission of trademark and right of publicity infringement on exactly the man to whom I wanted to pay tribute. I had and made some justifications, but while for other shirts arguments of parody or political speech rang true, as time passed I knew very clearly that the Cassius Clay was a straight up bootleg. So was the photo on the hangtag that came with it,scanned from a dog-earred copy of Flip Schulke’s book of Ali photographs: ‘The Birth of a Legend, Miami, 1961-1964â€.
Last month, Rob Walker did a story in the New York Times magazine about how I went from making unlicensed Cassius Clay t-shirts to licensed Cassius Clay t-shirts, which was also, of course, the story of how my dream finally came true. Those events and their chronicling have been amazing developments for me and for No Mas in all sorts of ways, but maybe the most important was to reconnect me with my original mission. As has now been revealed to me, it wasn’t only to make and sell Cassius Clay t-shirts, it was to honor the sources of my inspiration,both the man and the photograph.
So there is a coda to Rob Walker’s story. He received an email from Gary Truman of The Flip Schulke Archive complaining of the unauthorized use of that same picture of Cassius Clay side-stretching. As an illustration for an interview I had done for his web site a couple years ago, I had given him a scan of the image and he had posted it along with the interview. Now Gary Truman was asking him to take it down. Through my friend Steve Coe at Worn Free, my partner in the licensed Ali t-shirt enterprise, we had licensed a different image of Ali at the fifth street gym in Miami wearing the same Cassius Clay shirt (seems like Muhammad, like me, liked to wear that shirt a few days in a row). I had let Steve handle that side of things,both because he’s more experienced with image licensing and because I knew I had some unauthorized usage skeletons in my Flip Schulke closet. But when Rob forwarded me the note from Truman, I realized this was my chance to come all the way clean, and I jumped. I wrote an email to The Schulke Archive copping a plea,confessing my past usage and offering to make right on it the same way I had with Muhammad Ali Enterprises, paying a back royalty and working out a fair rate moving forward. I am happy to report that Gary Truman and the Schulke family accepted my offer. And that brings my Cassius Clay Confidential to a happy and tidy close.
But fortunately for my fellow pugilist-legalists, my adventures in licensing have only just begun. There are more past wrongs to right, t-shirts to make, and athletic legends to stalk. As the journey continues, you’ll get the skinny straight from the horse’s mouth in semi-regular installments right here on No Mas and in simulcast at our new frequency The Rumble. And if anyone has a hot tip on an old t-shirt that needs remaking, I know how to take care of my sources and you know where to find me.