Perhaps there’s no greater image from the sport of boxing that Muhummad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in victory. However, the truth is that the story of Cassius Clay isn’t that simple. And, it’s the story of a legend that makes Muhammad Ali a ’Ville sports legend.
The career of Muhammad Ali is one filled with controversy and personal demons, but it’s also one filled with success and victory. Perhaps it’s just that yin and yang of Ali that made him such a notable sports figure of the last hundred years.
Born in Louisville in 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.’s life was one filled with injustice to a large degree, both racially and in a class sense. Clay developed early on a belief in work ethic; a belief that would eventually make his story a success story. In fact, it was that ethic that trainers would comment on when Ali was a teenaged fighter working his way up the boxing ladder in the region; that and his “sass” was often what typified the young fighter.
The truth is that there might have been no Muhammad Ali if not for Police Chief Joe Martin. A young Clay came to Martin after his bike was stolen one day, and he told the officer that he was going to beat up the person who stole it. To this, Martin replied that if he was going to beat up anybody he’d better learn to fight.
So, that’s just what Martin did, taught him how to fight.
Several Golden Gloves championships later, Clay went on to fight for the American boxing team in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he took home Gold. It was at this point, though, that people began to really take notice of Clay. Proudly fighting out of Louisville, the young man took on all comers and, more importantly, learned how to promote himself, flamboyantly telling everybody that he was the greatest, followed by him going out and proving it. Bottom line, Don King has got nothing on Ali.
It was during this time that the transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhummad Ali occurred. Inspired by noted civil rights leader, Malcom X, Clay took up the Muslim faith, changing his name first to Cassius X, then to the famed Ali name.
More controversy followed after Ali refused to join the military during the Vietnam war for religious reasons, and his boxing license was revoked. Yet, it’s not for these controversies that Ali is known as the greatest. It’s for how he handled them. Winning some of the biggest bouts of all time, Ali seemed more than happy going down the list of top notch fighters: “Big” George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and – of course – his biggest rival “Smoking” Joe Frazier, against which he had a record of two and three.
Still, while these fights made him famous, it was his conduct outside the ring, finding a verbal sparring partner in Howard Cossell, that he became a star. Ali was a masterful writer as well as fighter, as proven by his record of 56-5. And, for that reason, he is a sports legend of the Ville.
Image: D. Rose