Battle in the Barrens
Over breakfast at Fort Dix, a lowly private named
Robbins delivers a verbal knockout to a future
champ named Cassius Clay. By Randy S. Robbins
It’s a gray, late-August morning in ;;;;. A gentle drizzle falls on Fort Dix. Languishing since long before
reveille in the bleary-eyed drudgery of
KP duty, Private Lenny Robbins—not
yet ;;—is, along with the rest of the
kitchen crew, enjoying breakfast as best
he can in the nearly empty company
Although a soldier for less than
five months, Robbins, a dining-room
orderly—aka DRO—knows to arrive
early at the mess hall in order to claim
the easiest job: condiment filler. The
later a DRO arrives, the worse his
task. The most egregious slacker must
scrub pots and pans; Robbins wants
no part of that.
Fort Dix’s ;;th Infantry Division,
the Statue of Liberty Division, had
distinguished itself mightily in both
world wars and now stood ready to
defend America against Soviet aggres-
sion. Robbins, a rifleman in Charlie
Company (who years later would attain
the rank of my father), wears the black,
thick-framed glasses ubiquitous in
that era of aesthetically unenlightened
eyewear. He doesn’t give much thought
to the Russians, the Chinese, or other
Elsewhere on the base, the United
States boxing team has been training
for the XVII Olympiad. The team is
scheduled to depart for Rome that very
While Robbins dines leisurely, if
unenthusiastically, on his corned beef
hash and powdered eggs, an entourage
of civilians enters the mess hall.
Robbins pays the strangers no mind
as they sit down at an adjacent table.
Then one of them speaks.
“Hey, KP,” says this powerful-looking
“Hey, KP,” he repeats. “Get me the
young man. “Get me the salt!”
Robbins peers at the fellow, obvi-
ously a boxer. But even the lowliest
private outranks a civilian, and steeled
by his chevron-less uniform, Robbins
replies, “I don’t take orders from you.”
The muscular civilian eyes the
doughy, bespectacled soldier, while the
boxers murmur incredulously.
“Get it yourself,” Robbins barks back.
He perceives a slight grin from the
civilian. The boxer has met his match.
DOWN GOES CASSIUS! DOWN
Robbins has scored the quickest—
and only—knockout of his career.
One of the smaller Olympians ap-
And so ends the Clay-Robbins bout.
proaches Robbins. “Do you know who
that is? He’s going to be heavyweight
champion one day. That’s Cassius Clay!”
“Who cares?” responds Robbins. The
private returns to his hash. Clay shoots
him one last knowing smile.
The defeat could have spelled doom
for the brash young fighter. But—as the
truly great often do—he turned this
stunning setback into grist for his will,
pummeling all comers in Rome to claim
A decade later, Clay (by then Muhammad Ali and a three-time world
heavyweight champion) moved to a
home in Cherry Hill. Robbins lived but
;; miles away in Willingboro. One day,
his neighbor, a marketing bigwig of
some sort, boasted that the Rolls Royce
parked in his driveway the previous
evening belonged to Ali.
The geographic rope-a-dope contin-
ued when Robbins purchased a home
less than a mile and a half from Ali’s.
The champ never came knocking—but
just the same, Robbins never kept the
saltshaker on the kitchen table.
Sadly, unlike with Joe Frazier,
Sonny Liston and Ken Norton, there
was no rematch of the Clay-Robbins
bout—no Thrilla in Cherry Hilla—
though fate clearly provided ample
opportunity. Perhaps one knockdown
was enough for Ali. Perhaps Robbins didn’t want to press his luck. Or
perhaps they were both content to let
those few words exchanged good-naturedly as cocky ;;-year-olds stand
for all time.
Randy S. Robbins is a South Jersey-
bred writer and editor.
POISED FOR GREATNESS
The future Muhammad Ali (front and center,
where he belongs) with fellow members of the
1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team and their coaches.
Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won light-heavyweight gold at that year’s Olympics in Rome.