Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky….as he had a sister and four brothers….and was named for his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr…..who himself was named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay….also from the state of Kentucky…. for he was a descendant of slaves of the antebellum South….and was predominantly of African descent….with smaller amounts of Irishand English heritage. Clay’s father painted billboards and signs….and his mother, Odessa O’Grady Clay was a domestic helper. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius Jr. and his younger brother Rudolph “Rudy” Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali) as Baptists. Cassius Jr. attended Central High School in Louisville….where he grew up amid racial segregation. His mother recalled one occasion when he was denied a drink of water at a store….saying “They wouldn’t give him one because of his color….and that really affected him.”….for he was also affected by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till….which led to young Clay and a friend’s taking out their frustration by vandalizing a local railyard….and that is when Clay was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin….who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief’s having taken his bicycle….when he told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told Clay he had better learn how to box first….as initially, Clay did not take up on Martin’s offer…but after seeing amateur boxers on a local television boxing program called Tomorrow’s Champions….Cassius Clay was interested in the prospects of fighting for fame, fortune, and glory….and in the last four years of Clay’s amateur career….he was trained by boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.
Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954 against local amateur boxer Ronnie O’Keefe….which he won by split decision….then he went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles….two national Golden Gloves titles…an Amateur Athletic Union national title….and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Ali said in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics….he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant and fought with a white gang. The story was later disputed, and several of Ali’s friends, includingBundini Brown and photographer Howard Bingham, denied it. Brown told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one!” Thomas Hauser’s biography of Ali stated that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it….for Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta….where he lit the Olympic torch to start the games.
Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960 by winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker….and from then until the end of 1963….Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. He defeated boxers including Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper….as Clay also beat his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore in a 1962 match….as seen in this treasure of a video.
These early fights were not without trials….as Clay was knocked down both by Sonny Banks and Cooper. In the Cooper fight, Clay was floored by a left hook at the end of round four and was saved by the bell….going on to win in the predicted 5th round due to Cooper’s severely cut eye….but even then, Clay showed his unbelievable talents to recover from a devasting blow. During the fight with Doug Jones on March 13, 1963….which turned out to be Clay’s toughest fight during this stretch….which was a match between the # 2 and # 3 heavyweight contenders respectively ….as Clay and Jones fought on Jones’ home turf at New York’s Madison Square Garden….when Jones staggered Clay in the first round….and by the end of the fight….the unanimous decision for Clay was greeted by boos and a rain of debris thrown into the ring….while heavweight champ Sonny Liston watched on closed-circuit TV….who quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder. The Jones fight was later named “Fight of the Year” by The Ring magazine.
In each of these fights, Clay vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities….as he called Jones “an ugly little man” and Cooper a “bum”…..while Clay was embarrassed to get in the ring with Alex Miteff cuz Madison Square Garden was “too small for me”. Clay’s behavior provoked the ire of many boxing fans….while his provocative and outlandish behavior in the ring was inspired by professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner. Ali later stated in a 1969 interview with the Associated Press’ Hubert Mizel that he met with Gorgeous George in Las Vegas in 1961 and that the wrestler inspired him to use wrestling jargon when he did interviews.
After Clay left Moore’s camp in 1960, partially due to Clay’s refusing to do chores such as dish-washing and sweeping….that is when he hired Angelo Dundee….whom he had met in February 1957 during Ali’s amateur career….to be his trainer. Around this time, Clay sought longtime idol Sugar Ray Robinson to be his manager, but was rebuffed.
By late 1963, Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title….and the fight was set for February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach….as Liston was an intimidating personality and a dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Based on Clay’s uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights….along with Liston’s destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first-round knock outs….Clay was a 7–1 underdog….and despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup and dubbed him “the big ugly bear”….saying “Liston even smells like a bear….and after I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Clay turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus by shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight”. Clay’s pulse rate was measured at 120, more than double his normal 54….as many of those in attendance thought Clay’s behavior stemmed from fear….causing some commentators to wonder if he would even show up for the bout.
The story of “The Championship”….as the fight was billed…..was to take place on February 25, 1964….but that is a story for another day….cuz I have that fight in its entirety in my boxing section of Imasportsphile….however, soon after the Liston fight….Clay changed his name to Cassius X….and then later to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam and affiliating with the Nation of Islam….and the legend of Muhammad Ali began….as the legend of Cassius Clay was to end.