Who would've thought that a stolen bike was the key to the beginning of the Muhammad Ali story? But it was.
In 1954 in Louisville, Kentucky, 12-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay's bike was stolen while he and a friend were at the Columbia Auditorium.
Young Cassius found a cop in a gym, Joe Martin, and boiling with youthful rage, told Martin he was going to "whup" whoever stole his bike. Martin admonished, "You better learn to box first." Within weeks, 89-pound Cassius had his first boutâ€š and his first win. For the next 27 years, Cassius would be in that ring. Even in his youth, he had dreams of being heavyweight champion of the world. But his life would take turns that no seer could've predicted.
Young Cassius dedicated himself to boxing with fervor unmatched by other young boxers. Indeed, it was his only activity. As a teenager, he never worked. He boxed and trained. He had 108 amateur bouts. According to Joe Martin, Clay set himself apart from the other boys by two things: He was "sassy," and he outworked all the other boys. The work paid off: six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships; two National Golden Gloves championships; two National AAU titles before he was 18 years old. And the son of Odessa, whom he lovingly referred to as "Bird," and Cassius senior, "Cash," to everyone, won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960 in Rome months after his 18th birthday.
Although Cassius returned home to a parade, Louisville was still, in 1960 part of the segregated South. Even with a medal around his neck, Cassius was refused service at a local restaurant.
At the time, Cassius was managed by the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a consortium of wealthy local white businessmen. The LSG, as it became known, put young Cassius with veteran trainer, Angelo Dundee, after failed attempts with the Mongoose, Archie Moore, and a turn down by Ali's boxing idol, Sugar Ray Robinson.
The early years
With Dundee in his corner, from his Miami base, Cassius blazed a trail through the heavyweight division with his unorthodox style that defied boxing logic. He was a "headhunter." He never threw body shots (he adopted this style in his youth because he had reach and because he didn't want to get close enough to get hit). And he "danced."
Because of Clay's powerful legs — maybe the strongest in the history of boxing — he literally floated in the ring. He invented the "Ali Shuffle;" a foot manoeuvre where he would elevate himself, shuffle his feet in a dazzling blur, and sometimes deliver a blow while dancing.
The third element that Clay brought to boxing was his mouth. He never shut up. He became known as, "The Louisville Lip." It was more than banter; it was a constant harangue. In a time when boxers never talked to the media — their managers always spoke for them — Clay did all his own talking. He even went so far as to predict the round. "To prove I'm great he will fall in eight!"
While training for his title bout against the fearsome heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, Clay met Cap'n Sam, a Nation of Islam minister of the local Miami mosque. Cap'n Sam introduced Cassius to NOI spokesman, Malcolm X. Malcolm and young Cassius bonded on a deep level. Malcolm brought Cassius into the Nation of Islam. Despite the 7-1 odds, Clay upset Sonny Liston in Miami and became heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. The next day, Clay announced to the world that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that his name was Cassius X. The X reflecting the unknown name that was taken from him by the slave owners centuries before.
The national response was immediate, negative and intense. Cassius X, soon to be given the name Muhammad Ali, by NOI founder, "The Messenger," the honourable Elijah Muhammad, chose to disassociate himself from his friend and mentor Malcolm X after the Messenger suspended Malcolm. Herbert Muhammad, eldest son of Elijah, was installed as Ali's new manager as Ali continued to defend his crown against all comers.
In 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating, Ali was called up for induction into the Armed Services. Ali refused induction on the grounds of religious beliefs. He was, in fact, a practising Muslim minister. This refusal led to the now-famous Ali quote, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong..."
The national furor over that comment combined with Ali's refusal to be inducted into the Armed Services, caused virtually every state and local entity in America to cancel Ali's boxing licenses. Ali's fight with Ernie Terrell became famous when Terrell incensed Ali at the weigh-in by calling him "Clay." Ali pounded him in the ring with taunts of, "What's my name?!!"
After fighting Zora Folley in March 1967, Ali did not fight again for 3 1/2 years. He was stripped of his championship title, his passport taken; all his boxing licenses were cancelled. He lost an initial court battle and was facing a five-year prison term. Ali made money during his exile by speaking at colleges. He was the first national figure to speak out against the war in Vietnam. In 1970, after a 3 1/2 year layoff, and with the mood of the country changing, Ali staged his comeback, first against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, then Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, then for what was billed as, "The Fight of the Century," his first match against undefeated champ, Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.
Ali fought valiantly, but lost. The two and a half year exile had cost Ali his legs. He could no longer dance. He lost that night in the Garden, but months later he won his biggest fight, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and upheld his conscientious objector claim. Ali was free of the spectre of jail, and free to travel to box anywhere in the world. Several matches followed, including an unexpected loss to ex-Marine, Ken Norton; a win in their next bout; an uninspired win against Joe Frazier. But these matches were but window dressing for the biggest match of Ali's career: The Rumble In the Jungle. George Foreman was a fearsome champ. He had thunder and destruction in both hands. He had easily knocked out Ken Norton and had lifted Frazier off the mat with one blow.
Promoter Don King got the government of the African nation of Zaire to guarantee the unheard of sum of 10 million dollars for the fighters. In Kinshasa, Ali derived strength from the African people. They adored him. They yelled, Ali Bomaye! (Ali kill him). Going into the fight, Ali was 3-1 underdog. His fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, had a jet ready to spirit Ali away to a neurological hospital in Spain after the fight. But Ali had other ideas.
Because of the heat, Ali realised he couldn't dance from Foreman for the whole fight. He invented "The Rope-A-Dope," a strategy that allowed Foreman to pound on him until Foreman tired. His corner men yelled at him to get off the ropes, but Ali persisted with his strategy for seven rounds and then in the eighth round, when Foreman was spent, Ali came off the ropes and scored a shocking knockout! Ali was the king again.
After the legendary "Thrilla In Manila," the rubber match against Frazier, who some have deemed, the greatest boxing match ever, Ali fought and lost to young Olympic Champion Leon Spinks. He subsequently regained his title against Spinks, thus becoming, at that time, the only man in heavyweight history to win the crown three times. Ali ended his career 56 wins (37 by knockout) and 5 defeats.
Ali has inspired millions worldwide. He gave people hope and proved that anyone could overcome insurmountable odds.