Muhammad Ali

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Ali is probably the greatest as well as the best-recognized sports personality of the twentieth century. He brought heavyweight boxing matches to areas of the world never before regarded as important in boxing circles.

Early Life

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, the son of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., and Odessa Lee Grady Clay. His father was a commercial artist specializing in sign painting; he also painted murals for churches and taverns. His mother sometimes worked as a domestic for four dollars a day to help support the family. Some of the Clays trace their name to Ali’s great-great-grandfather, who was a slave of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a relative of Henry Clay and ambassador to Russia in the 1860’s.

Ali became involved in boxing at an early age. Unlike most boxers, however, he was reared in a lower-middle-class environment. His father often remarked that eating and sleeping were Ali’s two most strenuous activities. Ali’s bicycle was stolen when he was twelve. The boy reported the theft to a Louisville policeman who gave boxing lessons in a gymnasium operated in Ali’s neighborhood. This white policeman, Joe Elsby Martin, was to guide Ali through most of his outstanding amateur boxing career. After six weeks of boxing lessons, Ali had his first fight, weighing in at eighty-nine pounds. He won a split decision and was regarded as an average boxer at that time. Yet two characteristics had already manifested themselves in Ali, his dedication to his newfound interest, a dedication to make himself into “the greatest” (a slogan he adopted relatively early in his career), and his propensity toward talking back to people, particularly his detractors. He was known as a smart aleck, a sassy person.

Ali attended Du Valle Junior High School and was graduated from Central High School in Louisville, 376 in his class of 391. He was known more for his marble-shooting and rock-throwing prowess than for any interest in academics. Ali’s first exposure came in Louisville, when he was booked for fights on “Tomorrow’s Champions,” a local weekly television boxing show. By this time, he was also training four hours a day under Fred Stoner, a black trainer at the Grace Community Center, a gymnasium in the all-black section of Louisville. Ali later said that Stoner molded his style, his stamina, and his system.

During his illustrious amateur career, Ali won one hundred of 108 fights, six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships, and two national Amateur Athletic Union championships. During his last two years as an amateur, he lost only once, to Amos Johnson in the 1959 Pan-American Games trials. By this time, he wanted to box professionally, but Martin convinced him to remain an amateur and enter the 1960 Olympics, as this would give him national recognition and ensure his professional success. Ali, who was already advertising himself as the next heavyweight champion of the world, stopped off in New York City on the way to the Olympic Games in Rome and visited Madison Square Garden, then the mecca of professional boxing. He won the light-heavyweight title at the Olympics and returned to the United States in triumph. Soon afterward, however, he was refused service in a restaurant in his hometown and had to fight a white motorcycle gang leader to escape from the restaurant. This incident so embittered him that he threw his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio River.

When Ali turned to professional boxing in 1960, he was already six feet, three inches tall. In his heyday, he weighed more than two hundred pounds, usually weighing in at around 220 pounds. Ali did not look like a boxer. His rather large, round face was unmarked, and he was not muscle-bound. Body-building has long been anathema to boxers; heavy surface muscles restrict the movement of hands and arms, and Ali’s forte already was speed and defense in the ring. Indeed, one of his most celebrated slogans was “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Three days before his first professional fight, on October 29, 1960, Ali signed a contract with eleven white businessmen from Louisville and New York City. These men were willing to invest in a potential heavyweight champion. Known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group, it was headed by William Faversham, Jr., vice president of the Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation. Ali received a ten-thousand-dollar bonus for signing, a salary of four thousand dollars annually for the first two years and six thousand dollars annually for the following four years, as well as having all of his expenses paid. He was also to receive fifty percent of all of his earnings.

Ali began his professional training under former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Angelo Dundee soon supplanted Moore, also becoming Ali’s de facto manager during Ali’s early professional career. Angelo was calm under fire and saved Ali’s championship at least twice. He was an excellent cornerman who had come up through the ranks. His brother, Chris Dundee, was at the time promoting a weekly fight card on Miami Beach. Angelo joined Chris, and they established their training headquarters on the second floor of a two-story building on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, in Miami Beach. This gymnasium later became known as the Fifth Street Gym and was probably the best-known and most respected training center in the United States.

Ali won his first seven fights as a professional, beginning with the defeating of Tunney Hunsaker. Some of his early fights were held in Louisville, and his first national television exposure was against Alonzo...

(The entire section is 2334 words.)