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Muhammad Ali's first title defense, a first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965, helped solidify Ali's status as a boxing titan. In his training camp for that fight was an unlikely face from an earlier era. Lincoln Perry was the first African-American movie star under his stage name Stepin Fetchit. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the relationship between the two men is now the subject of an off-Broadway play. It's called "Fetch Clay, Make Man."

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: In the spring of 1965, Muhammad Ali had spent less than a year as heavyweight champion of the world. He had just become Muhammad Ali, shedding his slave name, Cassius Clay, when he joined the Nation of Islam. He was recently married. His friend Malcolm X had been assassinated. He was an underdog in his upcoming fight against Sonny Liston. Playwright Will Power knew all that. But then he saw a photo of Ali at the time, a photo that contained an image that Power did not expect.

WILL POWER: I was like, what?

PESCA: There, palling around with Ali, was the actor Lincoln Perry, who gained enormous fame - and then something approaching enormous infamy - playing the part of the stereotypically kowtowing and shiftless Stepin Fetchit. To Will Power, schooled as he is in African-American history, this photograph and the circumstances behind it simply made no sense.

POWER: I learned about Muhammad Ali and I learned about Stepin Fetchit, but I learned about them as being polar opposites.

PESCA: But in 1965, the two came together in pursuit of a legendary boxing tactic that the great Jack Johnson was rumored to have employed: the anchor punch. Ali, who called Fetchit his secret strategist, reached out to the former Hollywood star who had been friendly with Jack Johnson. And as "Fetch Clay, Make Man" shows, Ali was driven, bragging, plotting, envisioning even when he was just shadowboxing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN")

RAY FISHER: (As Muhammad Ali) Come on, Sonny Liston. Big ugly bear? Show me what you've got. That's it? That's all? Oh, too bad for you, Sonny. Too bad for you.

PESCA: All of this - the relationship, the secret strategist, the anchor punch - it's true by the way. Well, you know, as 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 Liston in the first round. It is not an accident that much of the play centers around a mystical technique. Director Des McAnuff.

DES MCANUFF: I do think the play is not just realistic, though you might call it mythic realism.

PESCA: Fetchit understood that he was creating a myth. He viewed his character as a trickster. Ali was, of course, mythic in the sense of godlike, but also in the sense that Ali understood archetypes. Actor Ray Fisher who plays Ali talks about what aspects of the play resonate with him.

FISHER: 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. To me, I mean, I feel like that's something that everybody can relate to. You know, I feel like everybody, at some point or another, has had this struggle to be who they want to be.

PESCA: History shows Ali won that struggle. He won the fight. He defined himself. He came to embody the nickname The Greatest. Lincoln Perry, on the other hand, never got to play a character other than Stepin Fetchit. While he earned a small fortune, he wound up spending a large one.

But he was perceptive, telling a reporter before the Ali-Liston fight, quote: "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.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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