IT’S the summer of 1960. A teenager stands under a sign that reads “Sugar Ray’s” at Seventh and 124th in Harlem. He shifts nervously, scanning the avenue, waiting for a god. After three hours a purple Cadillac pulls up.
“Mister Robinson?” the teenager says. Sugar Ray Robinson, the consensus choice for the greatest boxer of all time, notes his tall, golden frame and handsome face.
“Yes, ol’ buddy, what can I do for you?”
“Mister Robinson,” he answers, “you don’t know me but I’m on my way over to Rome. I’m going there for the Olympics. I’m going to win an Olympic gold medal.”
“Good luck,” Robinson says.
“My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.”
THE teenager was named for his father, a sign-painter and dreamer, who was named for a statesman in antebellum Kentucky.
The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a slave owner-turned-abolitionist who was loved and loathed accordingly. Standing 6ft 3ins and strikingly handsome, he offended his southern enemies with his mouth before following up with his fists. He did not stop at emancipating his slaves; one, Frank Clay, was deemed “ever my friend.”
In Louisville, some claimed that the teenager’s blood went back to those slaves. Others whispered that the teenager’s blood went back to the eccentric fighter who freed those slaves.
Something Lost, Something Gained
In modern America, destiny isn’t announced from on high so much as nudged toward when we’re low.
In the fall of 1954, a 12-year-old boy dashed into a basement gym, out of breath and in tears. Someone had stolen his bicycle, a red Schwinn with white-wall tyres, while he was upstairs at the annual black merchants’ bazaar. A police officer was there. He approached the boy, who launched into a tantrum promising revenge on the thief. “Well,” the officer said, “you better learn to fight.”
The officer’s name was Joe Martin. He ran the gym during his off-duty hours and produced a local amateur boxing program that was broadcast across Kentucky. It was called “Tomorrow’s Champions.”
Six weeks after his first boxing lesson, Cassius Clay competed for the first time and won a split decision. The fight was televised.
“All of a sudden,” he said years later, “I had a new life.”
He barely graduated Central High School with a certificate of attendance, but he gained something that would protect him from adolescent pitfalls with its insistence on radical self-reliance; something that would draw him away from fields where glory is shared and reward him with the attention he craved. For the boy who would become Muhammad Ali, boxing was nothing less than a star in his pocket.
“I’m going to whip everyone,” he would say while shadowboxing in the living room before amused family members. Hints of future conquests came early. Clay was already his own best press agent by the time he told Louisville about an upcoming amateur bout against Charley Baker. A local merchant warned him about the so-called “bully of the West End.”
“I mean, people wouldn’t even talk too loud around Charley Baker,” the merchant told the Courier-Journal. “He was huge and muscular.” Clay wouldn’t hear it. “I’m gonna whip him,” he promised. And he did.
A dazzling style emerged during those formative years. It was built on rhythmic, near-hypnotic movement behind lightning jabs, feints and an extraordinary ability to detect openings a half-second before they appeared. The result was an offense that felt like a series of surprise attacks. As his height climbed over six feet and his musculature began to resemble Michelangelo’s David, Clay still fought like a welterweight on wheels against opponents who were increasingly bigger, stronger and slower.
It was a style rooted not in the tried-and-true methods passed down in the gyms like a holy writ, but in the rebellion of a student who couldn’t sit still in class. It also masked real deficiencies. He held his hands too low and tended to drop his right while jabbing. His left hook was a slap. He couldn’t fight at close quarters. Some of the criticism was true – Clay would never command a skill set to rival boxing’s advanced technicians. Much of the criticism was not true. Hall of Fame trainer Cus D’Amato would wring his hands at his tendency to pull back to avoid getting hit and throw punches without proper torque, but went too far when he argued that what he was watching was not a good fighter, much less a great one. The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling saw a lot of wasted movement and considered it proof positive that Clay would not last 10 rounds as a professional. Boxing insider and eyewitness Joe Rein saw nothing rugged about the amateur: “I’d have bet the ranch he was gonna be one more Olympic bust.”
José Torres, a former Olympian and world light-heavyweight champion in the sixties, looked at both sides of the subject and saw a genius. “Ali knows when he’s doing wrong,” he said in 1971. “He invites you to take advantage of it. But Ali is two steps ahead. He knows what your next two punches are going to be.”
Caput Mundi, 1960
He was two steps ahead of nearly every amateur he faced. His record was reportedly 100-8. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves Championships, the 178lb National Amateur Athletic Union title in 1959 and 1960, and two National Golden Gloves titles in a row. He was 17 when he coaxed trainer Angelo Dundee into letting him spar a professional. Willie Pastrano was a top light-heavyweight contender at the time. “The kid beat the hell out of me,” Pastrano admitted afterward.
The press, already enamoured by his wit and charisma, recognised his talent. After he stopped an opponent 45lbs heavier to win the Intercity Golden Gloves in New York, the AP called him “Uncle Sam’s brightest Olympic boxing prospect.” That was in March 1960.
By the end of May, he had won another national title and hustled through the Eastern Regional and US Olympic Trials without a loss.
By August, Cassius was in Rome for the XVII Summer Olympics. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t cross the Rubicon in a chariot with a laurel atop his head. Nor did he bellow beneath ancient monuments like a reanimated praeco. What he did was charm the people – he mingled. He was part of a little social group that included another highly decorated amateur in the super-welterweight division, Wilbur “Skeeter” McClure and Wilma Rudolph, the winner of three gold medals in the sprint. McClure recalled a polite young man who “didn’t resemble in any way what he turned into later”, even if he did manage to raise eyebrows at the weigh-in. Instead of settling into the brooding tension expected of gladiators, he waved to the people and talked and talked about what was coming, as if he knew.
The boxing competitions took place in Rome’s newly-constructed Palazzo dello Sport, which was modelled, appropriately, after the circular arenas of antiquity. Under the aluminum dome of the Palazzo, Clay stopped Belgium’s Yvon Becaus in two on August 30 and then decisioned Gennady Shatkov of the USSR in the quarter-finals two days later. Australian Tony Madigan, 30, faced him in the semi-finals. Despite a textbook style, Madigan could not find the answers to defeat the flash and dazzle of boxing’s best bad student.
On September 5, Clay readied himself for the Olympic final. In the opposite corner was a Pole “with a name,” said Liebling, “that it took two rounds to pronounce.” Zbigniew Pietrzykowski was an 11-time Polish champion, a five-time winner of the European Boxing Championships and a three-time Olympic medallist by the time he was finished with a 367-bout amateur career. When he faced the 18-year-old American, he was 25 and already held several national titles. But his experience wouldn’t be a problem for Clay; the fact that he was a southpaw would be.
Lefties have been a pain in the nose since the first itinerant prizefighter began challenging all-comers on the outskirts of towns. The reason is simple: Most people are right-handed. Fighters improve their craft by constantly practising it and become accustomed to what they see most often. In other words, their muscle memory is programmed by the familiar. The southpaw is unfamiliar. Clay’s athletic style was no less programmed than the technician’s, and no less reliant on familiarity.
At the first bell, Clay came out circling to his left. This was well-advised. Right-handed fighters are told to move to their left, to keep their lead foot outside of the southpaw’s lead foot, which naturally lines up their right hand with the southpaw’s chin. Clay’s decision to respect boxing’s textbook was out of character. It may have been rooted in insecurity; it was, after all, a southpaw who defeated him in the 1959 Pan Am finals. McClure remembered his dismay: “I didn’t understand how to box him!” The southpaw remembered too. “By the end of round two, [Clay’s] lower lip looked like a red chili pepper.”
Pietrzykowski probed with his right as Clay circled with nervous energy. Seventy-two punches went zinging toward the Polish southpaw in that first round, though there were few thumps. Pietrzykowski was shifting his weight on his back foot, away from the punches, but seemed too intimidated to counter. In the last minute of the round, he scored catch-up points when Clay lingered too close. In the second round, Pietrzykowski began landing lefts to the head and body until Clay began leading with right hands that looked like blurs and drew blood. Things got desperate, and disparate, in the third round after three rights transformed half the Pole’s face into a crimson smear. Exhaustion set in and Pietrzykowski’s stand-up style suddenly looked old-fashioned as he weaved unsteadily and retreated on heavy legs. As the seconds ticked to close the contest, youth triumphant paused, posed, and proceeded to dazzle the crowd with a quick shuffle of his feet.
It was the perfect colpo di grazia. At the final bell, Cassius Marcellus Clay walked back to his corner and 18,000 Italians roared their approval of his beauty and bravura.
When he stood atop the victory pedestal in the ring, in the Palazzo, in the Eternal City, his head was bowed. He seemed strangely subdued, like a pensive prophet who could see what was coming, who knew. The roar of 18,000 would become millions, the gold medal only a glimmer of the glory ahead.