The story of how young Cassius Marcellus Clay wound up in boxing has been told time and time again. It reads as if it a movie script. However, this story is better than fiction. Clay was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Ky. Growing up, Clay understood his place in the framework of the country – he was a black child of the middle class. But Toni Morrison, who worked on Ali’s autobiography as a young editor, noted that was not the best situation in which to be raised. Because not only was he middle class, “but black middle class, black southern middle class, which is not white middle class at all.” (1)
On an October afternoon in 1954, a 12-year-old Clay attended an annual convention of the Louisville Service Club at the Columbia Auditorium with a friend. He arrived at the black merchant bazaar upon a new $60 red and white Schwinn. However, after Clay and his friend indulged themselves with free popcorn and ice cream they left the auditorium to find that their bicycles had been stolen. A tearful Clay was directed to the basement of the auditorium where a policeman was manning the boxing gym. Joe Martin listened to young Cassius boast about a statewide hunt for his precious bike and heard the threats he was making to the thief if he was ever caught. After a while, Martin asked of Clay, “Well, do you know how to fight?” Clay quipped back, “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin’s best advice to the hot-tempered preteen was to come back around the gym and learn to fight. “Why don’t you learn something about fighting,” Martin suggested, “before you go and make any hasty challenges?” (2)
Martin went on to become Clay’s first trainer and was with him through an explosive six-year amateur career. Martin’s widow Christine recalled those early days with Clay.
“I was about as involved as Joe, except for the actual training," she said in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal. "I would drive those boys everywhere. Indianapolis, Chicago, Toledo.
"In those days, the black boys couldn't go into the restaurants, so I didn't take any of the boys in. I'd just go in myself and get what they wanted, however many hamburgers per boy, and bring it back to the car.
"Cassius was a very easy-to-get-along-with fellow. Very easy to handle. Very polite. Whatever you asked him to do, that's what he'd do. His mother, that's why. She was a wonderful person.
"On trips, most of the boys were out looking around, seeing what they could get into, whistling at pretty girls. But Cassius didn't believe in that. He carried his Bible everywhere he went, and while the other boys were out looking around, he was sitting and reading his Bible." (3)
Following his 108-bout amateur career (which garnered him 100 victories, just one loss, national titles in both AAU and Golden Gloves competition and an Olympic gold medal) Clay set his sights on the heavyweight championship. Less than two months after the 1960 Olympics, Clay, still only 18, signed a professional contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, made up of 10 local businessmen. The group agreed to pay him $10,000 cash and a guaranteed $4,000 a year for two years. Any money Clay made above the guarantee would be split 50-50 with the sponsors, who agreed to take care of all travel and training expenses. In a prepared statement that called Cassius Clay "one of the nation's outstanding young athletes," the group summed up how Louisville felt about the fighter's amateur career, and the hopes it held for his future: "Each of the 10 members of the group has admiration for Cassius Clay as a fine young man and confidence in his ability as a boxer. The principal purpose of the group is to provide hometown support for Cassius' professional career and to aid him in realizing the maximum benefits from his efforts." (4)
After 19 professional fights, all victories and most of which were decided prior to the seventh round, Clay got his chance at the one he deemed “The Bear.” Sonny Liston was the most feared heavyweight of the time – the Mike Tyson of his day. He was seen as a thug due to his upbringing on the streets of St. Louis and the time he spent in jail for armed robbery. Clay entered the fight as a prohibited underdog. Even those in his own camp were unsure with how Clay would perform – worried more about serious injury than whether their fighter would win. However, Clay’s trainer – the legendary Angelo Dundee – believed that styles make fights and that Clay had the style to beat Liston. Dundee was right. Clay’s fancy footwork and dizzying combinations baffled the suddenly plodding and slow-footed Liston for six rounds. At one point, Clay recalled, “I hit him with eight punches in a row until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like, ‘Yeah, you old sucker! You try to be all big and bad!’ He was gone. He knew he couldn’t last… I missed with a right that would have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before. I knew he wasn’t due to last much longer.” Just before the bell rang to end the sixth, Clay hit Liston with two powerful left hooks. Many are still wondering how the champ made it to the corner. However, in between rounds Liston told he corner, “That’s it.” While they didn’t understand it at the time, Liston was telling his team that he was not going back out to fight in the seventh. When they applied the Vaseline to his face and put his mouthpiece back in, Liston spit it out and told them one last time, “I… said… that’s it!” (5)
The two would meet again on May 25, 1965 in a fight that lives forever in boxing lore. In the first minute of the first round, Clay – who switched his name to Muhammad Ali following the first Liston fight – knocked Liston out with perhaps the most famous punch in the history of the sport. In what has been called a “phantom punch” Liston is dropped by Ali, who stood over him with his right arm still cocked and yelled, “Get up and fight, you bum! You’re supposed to be so bad! Nobody will believe this!” Almost immediately, the crowd began to chant “Fix. Fix.” And thus, one of the great boxing debates was born. (6)See the punch