CASSIUS MARCELLUS CLAY was not born into the land of opportunity. But the environment that greeted his arrival molded the character that would grow into Muhammad Ali. His birth went unnoticed to the vast majority of Louisville’s 300,000 residents on January 17 1942. But it meant the world to his father who, like all of his male ancestors tracing back six generations to tobacco plantation slaves, also answered to the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay.
And it was his father who inadvertently illustrated to young Cassius how difficult life remained as a result of that ancestry.
The boy asked his maker for a bicycle but was told, “We ain’t got that kind of money.” Cassius wanted to know why. His father pointed to the dark skin on his hand. “That’s why, son.”
Cassius refused to accept that colour would dictate his destiny like it had his father.
“Dad was one of the most gifted men I’ve ever known,” he remembered, long after changing his name to Muhammad Ali. “He was a natural actor and singer. He was known as the fanciest dancer in Louisville. I always thought if he could have grown up where blacks had freedom and opportunity, how different life would have been for him.”
By the age of 12, Cassius had acquired that bicycle. He would ride it loudly and proudly, consciously drawing attention wherever he went. It would be the theft of his shiny ride that provided the next turn in his horizon.
He burst into a police station to inform them of his loss, and told an officer he wanted the culprit caught so he could “whup him badly.” The sympathetic policeman, Joe Martin, advised the tearful Cassius to go with him to the local gymnasium and learn to fight should the opportunity for revenge arise. It was there that Martin taught him to box.
Within four years his naturally unorthodox style, based on making his opponents miss rather than wading in all punches blazing, landed him the Kentucky Golden Gloves championship. He went onto to claim six State titles, and national titles, at both light-heavyweight and heavyweight. All that remained absent from his trophy cabinet was an Olympic medal. But Clay had his eye on the paid ranks. He had already turned up at the hotel of professional coach Angelo Dundee and asked him to be his trainer. But Joe Martin advised him against walking away from the vested game.
“In boxing an Olympic champion is as good as number 10 ranked pro,” his mentor informed him. “Win a gold medal in Rome and your earning capacity will be off to a good start. And think of the worldwide publicity you will receive.”
That was all Clay needed to hear and he was selected for the Olympic trials in San Francisco. Scared of flying, 18-year-old Cassius crouched down in his seat on the aeroplane and loudly prayed for survival.
He safely arrived at his destination, and was selected for the 1960 Games. Yet again he had to endure a terrifying journey to Rome, but once there, his talent and confidence made it all worthwhile. Within a few days everyone in the Olympic village was aware of the brash, but eloquent and charming, teenager from Louisville. He told them all he was going to win the gold medal.
The already prophetic Clay did just that, easing past all-comers before fighting hard in the September 5 final to beat Poland’s Zbiegniew Pietrzykowski and claim the top prize. He stood proudly on the podium, his black muscled frame shimmering above the three white men wearing inferior medals below him. That gold was the first symbol of breaking away from his roots. Cassius Clay was on his way.
The following morning, world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson visited his hotel. Clay thanked him for coming, and was honoured by his presence. While Floyd remained typically modest and quiet, Clay became increasingly noisy and excited.
“Look after that heavyweight title,” he said to Patterson. “Keep it warm for me in the next two years when I will be ready to take it off you.”
It took him a little longer than that. Four years later, Clay was king of the world.