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Who beat Muhammad Ali in the amateurs?

Muhammad Ali
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Chris Kempson investigates Muhammad Ali's amateur career and reveals how good he was in the unpaid code

GIVEN the recent death of Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr) and the imminence of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games, it seems appropriate to look at the great man’s achievements in the amateur ring. Let us start with his Olympic achievements in the Rome Games in 1960, which culminated in a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, which in turn, lit the touch paper for his fabulous professional career. He was a brilliant amateur and made many people become interested in our sport with the way he performed in Rome; especially to large numbers of onlookers who had not even heard of him before then.

He boxed four times to win gold. In his first bout, in the second series of the light-heavyweight competition, he stopped the relatively unknown and lightly regarded Belgian boxer, Yvon Becaus, in the second round. Thereafter, he was to meet three world class amateurs to reach the pinnacle of his sole Olympic journey. Next up in the quarter-finals was the Soviet Union’s ‘hard man’, the 1956 Olympic middleweight champion, the big punching captain of the Soviet boxing team, Gennady Schatkov, so often the scourge of GB internationals (and many other European countries’ boxers too for that matter). All five judges voted for the 18-year-old American, with the lightening feet and reflexes. He was rapidly becoming the revelation of these Games in the Olympic boxing ring. Everyone, not just in boxing, was taking notice of him and that was just how it was to stay.

The semi-final matched him with ‘old foe’, rough, tough Australian, 30-year-old Tony Madigan. Ali again breezed through with the votes of all five judges. The two met had met previously, a year earlier when Madigan was unanimously outpointed in the final of the Intercity Golden Gloves light-heavyweight championship in Chicago. Madigan who boxed in three consecutive Olympics was a well-travelled amateur boxer, often competing in the UK as well as the USA. In fact he won an ABA light-heavyweight title here in England in 1954 and was also a losing finalist too a year earlier, beaten in the final by the late Henry Cooper who himself later on had two unsuccessful encounters with Ali. Make no mistake, Tony Madigan was one of Australia’s best ever amateur campaigners and remains so to this day. When, here in England, he boxed for the then Fulham ABC.

The Rome final on September 5 1960 saw Ali again win with the votes of all five judges when he defeated Poland’s outstanding southpaw, the tall, rangy and skilful, Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, who put in a game performance, but there was to be only one winner, the brash young American, who was destined for further ring greatness over the ensuing years. I have watched their contest many times and, I believe, the Pole did rather better than some commentators have given him credit for, but he was properly outpointed by the very impressive and unstoppable Clay. Both Schatkov and Pietrzykowski presented Clay with different problems over their respective styles, but as soon as he had worked both of the them out, he eased to victory on each occasion.

Schatkov, Madigan and Pietrzykowski each had considerably more experience at international level than the young Ali, but each could not dent the young American’s style as he slalomed on to a gold medal and international acclaim. Schatkov boxed in two Olympics (1956 and 1960), Madigan in three (1952, 1956 and 1960) and Pietrzykowski in three (1956, 1960 and 1964). So as I said, Ali was up against real Olympic and world class opposition, which he handled with aplomb and assuredness.

In essence, operating within the communist political systems that Schatkov and Pietrzykowski boxed under, they were both, in all but name, very, very experienced pros, whilst the globetrotting and very experienced Madigan had worked out in amateur and no doubt professional gyms alike during his various visits to the UK and especially the USA.

Some critics might have said that Schatkov and Madigan could have had their best days behind them. Also In Schatkov’s case he was asked to move up to light-heavyweight, to accommodate another Russian boxer at middleweight, namely Yevgeny Feofanow who took a bronze in Rome. Both were still formidable foes as indeed was the Pole, Pietrzykowski, who reigned supreme in his country and so often in Europe too, from light-middleweight through to light-heavyweight. Ali’s winning bout over the Pole brought the curtain down on his amateur career, the rest is very much glittering history. Certainly, there have been more successful Olympic champions than Ali, those who have won three or two gold medals but were any as charismatic as Ali? Probably not, although the late Teofilo Stevenson had much going for him too, in a publicity sense, during his long reign as a three-time Olympic gold medallist.

Let us look at some of the many highlights in the then Clay’s amateur pedigree, his debut taking place on November 12 1954, taking a split decision over fellow novice, Ronnie O’Keefe. Although there are conflicting details of his record in his amateur days, suffice to say, he did lose a few contests – perhaps little more than a handful- when wearing the vest, his achievements hugely outweigh any number of his registered losses. Invariably, he won when it mattered most, the true hallmark of an outstanding champion of the ring. Yes, he may have been beatable in either code; but his achievements and his successes made him one of the finest Olympic champions of the post Second World War era. I tend to be dismayed whenever there is conjecture over boxing records, especially those in the amateur code and, being a bit of a ‘details buff’, I thrive on accuracy and certainty and do not always understand or indeed recognise, why discrepancies occur; but clearly they do.

Clay won well over 100 contests at the very least and some scribes put it around a third higher than that, or even higher than that in the region of 175 bouts; all very confusing and difficult to take in. With such a celebrated amateur star it is so disappointing that his record is not definitive and exact enough and I do wonder why? Perhaps individual record keeping was not considered to be so important in the 1950s and 1960s?

We can identify some of his losses as follows: his first loss was apparently, aged thirteen to James Davis in the Louisville 118# Novice Golden Gloves tournament in February 1955, a loss to John Hampton followed after a points success over him. In 1957 he won and then lost on points to Donnie Hall. That year, he had two further triumphs over Hall, interspersed with a cut eye first round stoppage loss to Terry Hodge. He won and then lost to fellow Louisville boxer, Jimmy Ellis. Ellis went on later to win the WBA heavyweight crown in 1968, he lost to Ali in the twelfth round in 1971 in an NABF Heavyweight title contest.

In 1958, he was stopped by technical decision in the second round by the big punching Kent Green, in the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament of Champions in the light-heavyweight category.

In 1959, in the US Pan American Games Trials he dropped a split decision to Amos Johnson in the final of the light-heavyweight class in Louisville. Later that year Johnson won the Pan American Games title in Chicago.

His last loss, as far as we can ascertain came in 1960 (Olympic Year), prior to the Olympic trials in San Francisco. He boxed Percy Price of the Marine Corps to see if he could gain a slot at heavyweight in the team for Rome. He lost to Price and then went into the light-heavyweight trials which he won to book his place for Rome at light-heavyweight. Price went to Rome, but did not earn a medal, losing in the quarter-finals to the eventual bronze medallist, Josef Nemec of the then Czechoslovakia.

Be that as it may, championships were collected with alarming regularity signalling his ring potential and prowess, few got the better of him in those early days and he marched on collecting titles and ultimately a place on the American team for Rome in 1960. Rome was where Ali ‘boxed away’ for the first time and what an impact he made in Europe and of course on the whole world.

At the risk of not including all of the great man’s amateur achievements, due in part to the lack of any overall agreement of the precise number of victories he achieved wearing a vest, I have documented as many of his title triumphs that can hopefully be mostly verified more or less as being accurate, but I must stress that sadly it is not guaranteed as a faithful record of his many amateur successes:

Louisville Novice Golden Gloves and Louisville Open Golden Gloves; Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions light-Heavyweight champion; Intercity Golden Gloves light-Heavyweight Champion; twice National AAU light-heavyweight champion (1959 and 1960); US Pan American Games Trials finalist; Kentucky Golden Gloves Heavyweight; Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions Heavyweight Champion ; Intercity Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion; US Olympic Trials Light-Heavyweight Champion (securing selection for Rome Olympics) and the rest is certainly history. Some respected sources have stated that he was six-time Kentucky State Golden Gloves Champion, but I have not been able to verify their claim.

There is my personal tribute to a great Olympic champion and who was much, much more besides. My only remaining regret is that I along with others have not done proper justice to his amateur record, which sadly remains uncertain for whatever reasons.

Rest in peace CHAMP. Very many thanks for everything you gave us in your boxing life. We shall miss YOU.

Boxing News’ 168-page tribute to Muhammad Ali, The Greatest is available here

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