Cassius Marcellus Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali, won the gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight division by defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski from Poland.
The victory helped catapult Clay in a career where he would eventually become an international sports superstar as well as controversial cultural figure here in the United States.
In Rome, the 18 year-old teenager from Louisville, KY Clay unwittingly captured another title outside the ropes. Because of his magnetic personality, Clay became known as the Mayor of the Olympic Village.
Clay’s outgoing personality was equally on display in Italy as his incredible speed and agility in the ring.
All sports fans surmised that the loquacious and gifted boxer was destined for greatness. However, few knew the overall magnitude of the boxing success, polarizing publicity and iconic celebrity that would eventually envelop him.
54 years later, I remember one of the sports world’s most recognized figures today by sharing this chapter excerpt, simply called Ali, from my sports comic entitled Favorite Single Named Athletes.
The Greatest, The People’s Champ, Mr. Phantom Punch and The Louisville Lip are several nicknames that Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. acquired during his time as a professional boxer.
But, when people hear the name Ali, there is only one man who comes to mind. Appropriately, he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee into the #11 spot in Favorite Single Named Athletes.
Muhammad Ali, as he became known later in his career, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. A local cop named Joe Martin introduced him to boxing. After Clay Jr. reported his bike stolen, Martin recommended that he learn to box to guarantee that no one would ever mess with him again. Few did.
Ali’s unique boxing style made him an extremely tough opponent to face. Known as a headhunter boxer, Ali rarely executed body shots. He intentionally made every hit count in his favor by looking for the opportunity to get a clean shot at his opponents’ heads.
Also, his movement inside the ring and style of boxing were quickly dubbed the Ali Shuffle. Those watching him fight compared his motions to that of a dancer. He adopted this fast-paced style as a kid and continued to develop his technique as his boxing career evolved.
By age 18, Ali had collected six Kentucky Golden Gloves and two National Golden Gloves. He also gained a great deal of exposure by winning two National AAU Titles Matches.
In 1960, the 18-year old Cassius competed in the Olympic Games in Rome and won the gold medal. He proved to his fans and the world at large that he was young, talented and spirited. People instantly fell in love with his athleticism, bold style of boxing and, of course, his mouth. During a time when boxers seldom spoke with reporters, Ali made it a point to engage with the media.
While Ali was training for his fight against Sonny Liston, he met a Nation of Islam minister by the name of Cap’n Sam. Cap’n Sam introduced Ali to Nation of Islam Spokesman Malcolm X and the two became instant friends. Ali was so impacted by his friendship with Malcolm X, he credited his upset victory over Sonny Liston to the support and guidance of the Nation of Islam.
By beating Liston, Ali was named the 1964 Heavyweight Champion of the World. Directly following his winning match, he publicly announced his decision to join the Nation of Islam. Soon after, he legally changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The name change honored his commitment to the Nation of Islam and Ali demanded others recognize him by his new name.
In 1967, Ali refused to join the Armed Forces and aid in the United States’ efforts in the Vietnam War. By doing so, Ali received a great deal of attention, not in the most positive light. He strongly believed that fighting in war directly opposed his religious beliefs.
In true Ali fashion, he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He competed in a handful of fights following his public disapproval to join the war. Shortly after, most states chose to revoke his boxing license and he took a hiatus from the sport.
During the boxer’s 3½ year break from boxing, he traveled the nation speaking out against war. He quickly emerged as a national figure. He was the first famous athlete of his generation to raise such a topic publicly.
Finally, as the country was beginning to change, Ali sought to stage his comeback. The first fight following his exile was tough. While the people saw some aspects of their former champ, they also recognized he had lost some of his former speed and fluidity.
Just when the people were beginning to lose hope, Ali announced the biggest fight of his career that he called The Rumble in the Jungle. This highly anticipated matchup against defending Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was set to take place in Africa.
Ali was smart. He knew his Ali Shuffle would tire him quickly. He couldn’t afford to dance in that heat. Therefore, Ali developed a new method called The Rope-A-Dope. Ali submitted to allowing Foreman to beat up on him for seven rounds, causing Foreman to exhaust. In the 8th round Ali came off the ropes and scored a knock out. By defeating Foreman, Ali found himself back on top in the #1 spot.
Ali concluded his career with an overall record of 56 wins and 5 defeats. 37 of his 56 wins were won by knockout! He fought to obtain the crown three different times during his professional career, a feat that that had never been accomplished before that time.
Ali has earned many honors and has been recognized for his athleticism and overall contributions to the sport. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. The BBC honored him as its Sports Personality of the Century. Even GQ Magazine recognized him as Athlete of the Century.
There’s no surprise why Ali is a real knock out at #11 in Favorite Single Named Athletes – available for only 99 cents on Amazon.
MIKE – thee ultimate talking head on sports!