Cassius Clay was born on January 17th, 1942. His parents were Cassius Clay, Sr. and Odessa Clay. Their younger son was Rudy Valentino Clay. His father was black but his mother came from mixed blood responsible for Ali’s milk chocolate skin.
In October of 1954 at the age of twelve Clay had a new bike, a $65 red and white Schwinn. On that day after leaving his bike and going with his friends to go to a bazaar held by the Louisville Service Club he returned and the bike was gone! Clay was in tears when someone told him there was a police officer at the Columbia Gym. He went there to the basement and there is when he met policeman Joe Martin. Martin listened to Clay rambling along of what he was going to do to the kid that stole his bike. “Well, do you know how to fight?” Clay replied to Martin “no, but I’d fight anyway”. Martin told him to come back to the gym and learn how to box.
After six weeks of training Clay had his first fight against a kid named Ronnie O’Keefe with both boys weighing 89 pounds. Clay won a split decision after three rounds one minute each. This is when yelling “the greatest of all time” started. “Cassius really knew how to fight when he was in trouble,” said Martin. Clay never smoked or drank and would get up in the morning and run for miles.
“All he wanted to do was run and train,” said Jimmy Ellis. This was the same Ellis that would win the WBA heavyweight title years later after Clay, then, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to go in the Army and possibly to Viet-Nam to fight.
At 18 Clay had already compiled an amazing amateur record. There have been three different versions of it but 99-8, with two National Golden Gloves championships, and two national AAU titles. Losses were to Terry Hodge, Donnie Hall but reversed it four times. One of those losses was in splitting with Jimmy Ellis in the two fights they had in 1957 against one another. Others were to James Davis and John Hampton in 1955. In 1958 he was stopped by Kent Green. In 1959 lost to southpaw Amos Johnson at the Pan Am trials and Percy Price in the Olympic Trials. That’s six to whom he lost to. Not only was Martin helpful but so was Fred Stoner who was black. Many years later while in the UK Clay, then Ali was honored on their version of “This is Your Life” and gave more credit to Stoner after Martin was introduced appearing on the show. Even at an early stage of his career Clay would say “This guy must be done, I’ll stop him in one!”
In 1957 trainer Angelo Dundee brought in his future world champion Willie Pastrano to Louisville to fight John Holman. Clay was there and had Dundee paged from the lobby. Dundee had to keep his eye on Pastrano and Clay got Dundee on the phone. “I’m Cassius Marcellus Clay and I’m the Golden Gloves champion and I’m going to win the Olympics,” said Clay. Dundee asked Pastrano if he wanted to meet this kid. Clay and his brother Rudy came up to their room. “Years later when Pastrano came back to Louisville Clay asked to spar him. He was 17 and Pastrano was going to fight Alonzo Johnson. “I reluctantly agreed to let him spar for 2 rounds,” said Dundee. Wille came out of the ring and I said, “Whoa, Willie, you’re stale, no more sparring for you.” Willie said, “Bullshit, the kid beat the hell out of me.”
In the summer of 1960 a young journalist named Dick Schapp met up with Clay and Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, from Toledo, OH. He asked them if they wanted to meet “Sugar” Ray Robinson.
In 1960 Clay was afraid to fly. He won the Chicago GG as a heavyweight but at the AAU as a light heavyweight he defeated 3 opponents before beating two future professionals in Billy Joiner and Jeff Davis. In the finals he lost to Percy Price, a Marine who never turned professional. In the Olympic trials as a light heavyweight Clay defeated three opponents including a good amateur named Allen Hudson in the finals by KO.
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome Clay beat Yvon Because, of Belgium by RSC2; Gennadi Schatkov of Russia 5-0; Tony Madigan of Australia 5-0; Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland in the finals 5-0 to win the Olympic Gold Medal!
Clay saw then World Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson at the Olympic Village and went over and introduced himself. Clay later said “Floyd congratulated me with a milquetoast handshake. It hurt me. That cat insulted me and someday he’ll have to pay for it.”
Clay made his debut on October 29th, 1960, he beat Tunney Hunsaker, in a 6 round match at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Days after dispatching Hunsaker, he was off to Ramona, CA, and the training camp that Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champ had dubbed the Salt Mine.
“In the back of my mind, I thought to myself, here, finally, is someone who could have knocked out Joe Louis, ‘cause, God knows, I couldn’t have.” Moore tried to put his style into Clay to score early knockouts. Clay rebelled saying “I want to be a heavyweight Sugar Ray.
Faversham persuaded Angelo Dundee to take on Clay. Dundee had good memories of meeting Clay when he came to town with Pastrano. Clay would win his next four fights in Miami Beach with Donnie Fleeman, 35-11-1, stopped in the sixth and final round due to a rib injury. One of the regulars at Fifth Street Gym were Ferdie Pacheco, a doctor who ran clinics in the black and Hispanic ghettos. He worked with Dundee in corners for various fighters.
“Angelo had the reputation, and Ali respected that a lot,” Pacheco said. “He was also strong when he needed to be strong and weak when he needed to be weak. Angelo knew he was the second banana in the show. “He’s got the connection and the complexion to get me the right protection which leads to a good affection,” said Ali.
Luis Sarria, Muhammad’s exercise guy and his masseur, put him through endless calisthenics, which is big in boxing. That’s why his body grew so fast from a little kid’s body to such an impressive body. He came in here at about 189 pounds and he was over 200 like a snap. And all muscle.
The new heavyweight champion Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson came to town for a rematch with former world champion Floyd Patterson. The publicity man for the fight was Harold Conrad, who felt putting Clay on the undercard would help draw a bigger crowd.
Ali made Johannsson look silly trying to hit the moving target of Ali. It was in June of 1960 and Ali didn’t turn professional until October after winning the light heavyweight Olympic Gold Medal in Rome, Italy.
Ali had 61 professional fights going 56-5 with 37 stoppages. In his fourth fight he defeated substitute Jimmy Robinson, 4-4. It was the only time Ali faced someone that didn’t have a winning record.
Ali turned professional in October of 1960 and won his first six fights before a scheduled ten rounder. In that fight he fought 6:06 Duke Sabedong and it went the distance. In February of 1962 he was dropped for the first time by Sonny Banks but dropped Banks in the second and stopped him in the fourth.
Ali met Billy Daniels, 16-0, and had a fight of it cutting Daniels in the second round that would eventually cause the stoppage in the seventh. Then he had a stoppage of Argentina’s Alejandro Lavorante, 19-3. He would end 1962 with the former light heavyweight champion Archie “Old Mongoose” Moore, 185-22-10, remembering how hard Moore was years before having Ali in his salt mine camp in San Diego. This is when his predictions of the rounds he would stop his opponents saying “Moore in Four!”
In March of 1963 Ali had one of his career toughest fights defeating Doug Jones, 21-3-1, with two of the judges only having him ahead at the end 5-4. He would venture out of the country next for the first time to London where he had a controversial bout with British & British Empire Champion Henry Cooper, 27-8-1. Ali was knocked down in the fourth round. Before the fifth round started it’s assumed his trainer Angelo Dundee cut into his gloves causing enough of a delay to have Ali’s head cleared in replacing that glove. Ali would go onto stop the “bleeder” Cooper in the fifth.
It would be eight months of inactivity for Ali awaiting a world title fight with the “Big Bear” Sonny Liston, 35-1, in February of 1964 in Miami Beach. In this fight and the rematch the rumors have still the stench of “fix”, for over fifty years. Liston was a mob owned fighter with a criminal record as long as his 82″ reach. Being a big favorite the mob would bet on then still Cassius Clay. One rumor had the mob whack Liston with a baseball bat on his left arm eliminating his jab that had been known to knock out the teeth of an opponent. What was strange in that fight was an ointment got into the eyes of Clay and he wanted to quit on the stool. Dundee slapped him in the face and told him to “go out there and run!” He did just that until he could see well enough to give damage to the left eye of Liston, but it was the shoulder that Liston claimed he couldn’t lift to use that kept him on the stool after six rounds. The scorecards showed the fight was even at that point.
It would be fifteen months before the rematch due to one reason the now Muhammad Ali had a medical issue. The fight would be held in of all places Lewiston, Maine. Liston’s then valet told this writer year’s later outside of Joe Frazier’s gym that he knew before the fight Liston would tank. “We were in the car with me sitting shotgun and Sonny in the back. We pulled up to a red light and several kids on the corner started laughing and pointing toward Sonny. When I turned around he was sweating like a pig. I knew he was going to take a dive,” said Ted xxx.
Former world heavyweight champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott was the referee. He also had mob connection while champion. Before a mere crowd of 2,434 in attendance Ali leaning back delivered the notorious “anchor punch” that only Dundee said he saw land on the chin of Liston. Walcott lost complete control of the count and Ali wouldn’t go to a neutral corner standing over Liston yelling at him to get up! Liston rolled around the ring like he was just waking up in the morning but didn’t want to get up. The “knockout” was timed at 2:12 of the first round!
After over a year Liston would have his next four knockout wins in Sweden over a nine month period before returning to the states and never being considered for a title fight. Only some four years later did he enter an elimination tournament losing to Leotis Martin being knocked out in nine rounds.
Getting back to Ali’s career, after the second Liston fight he continued giving his opponents nick names with former champion Floyd Patterson, 43-4, being called “the rabbit!” His next four fights after stopping Patterson were out of the country in such places as Toronto, Canada, London, UK, twice and Frankfurt, Germany. That fight was against southpaw European Champion Germany’s Karl Mildenberger, 49-2-3. It took Ali twelve rounds to end it while still having trouble fighting southpaws since he always circled to his left right into the power of a southpaw. Only George Chuvalo went the full fifteen rounds with Ali in Canada.
In November of 1966 Ali would return to fight in the states having one of his best performances stopping muscle bound Cleveland Williams, 67-5-1. Williams was not the same fighter he was two years prior to this bout having been shot by a highway patrolman. Three months later Ali would decision Ernie Terrell, 39-4, who refused to call him Ali, but Clay. Ali gave him such a beating having him on the ropes pushing his face along the ropes damaging one of Terrell’s eyes. Ali would have his final fight before exile the following month easily defeating Zora Folley, 74-7-4, by knockout in seven rounds.
Refusing induction into the military in April of 1967 Ali would be in legal trouble for over three years before returning to action. He was never the same as before now opponents were actually able to hit him much easier. This is when his “second career” started with Jerry Quarry, 37-4-4, stopping him on cuts in three rounds in Atlanta, GA.
Two months later Ali would stop Argentina’s Oscar Bonavena, 46-6-1, in the fifteenth and final round scoring three knockdowns for the vacant NABF title. This would set the stage for his return to “take back his title” from “Smokin” Joe Frazier, 26-0, who was called “the Gorilla”. It wasn’t clear when Ali moved into Frazier’s area in the 70th and Overbrook section of the city, but he did all he could to shake the “unshakeable” Frazier prior to the bout. Frazier had defeated the tournament winner Jimmy Ellis for the WBA & WBC titles in four rounds.
From the start you knew it wasn’t the same Ali not having the same footwork or hand speed that once dominated the division. Otherwise Frazier would not defeat him. Ali was behind going into the fifteenth and last round only by a round (on referee Arthur Mercante and this writer’s scorecards) but when Frazier dropped him it was obvious Ali would suffer his first defeat in thirty-two fights. Oddly it would be Frazier going to the hospital not Ali afterwards for safety precautions.
It would take some four and a half years before Frazier and Ali would meet again with Frazier then an ex-champ. During that period of time Ali went 12-1 only losing to Ken Norton but won the rematch. After Ali’s defeat was the first time this writer met up with Ali in center city Philadelphia. Norton had broken his jaw but Ali went the distance with him in March of 1973. I saw a crowd across the street and thought someone jumped out a window or off the roof. Here it was Ali being confronted by one of Philly’s critics. He looked like and sounded like the lawyer from the Amos n’ Andy show telling Ali “next time you fight Norton be a man, not a boy”. Ali replied “play with him like a toy?” Everyone but this individual was laughing because Ali loved doing rhymes. Then it was said a second time “be a man not a boy” and Ali responded with “did you call me Roy?” We all laughed with that one. Two weeks later I saw Ali’s previous house and the new one in Cherry Hill, NJ. I went over and knocked on the door and his second of four wives Belinda answered and I asked to “see the champ”. I was left in and Ali proved to be one of the funniest individuals I ever met. He was definitely one of a kind in and out of the ring!
Six months after losing to Norton Ali would win a hard fought split decision. Two fights later he had the rematch with Frazier easily winning at the same venue MSG. No fanfare in this one. Frazier actually tried to box which was certainly a mistake while Ali was more offensive.
Then came what was known as “The Rumble in the Jungle” with Ali meeting “Big” George Foreman, 40-0, in Zaire, Africa in October of 1974. A big underdog to regaining his title Ali made up his “rope-a-dope” style staying on the ropes allowing Foreman to punch himself out. This style would have consequences in the future taking all those punches from his opponents. Even Dundee it’s been said didn’t know Ali would resort to this style yelling “keep off the ropes!” The fans loved Ali which was another reason Foreman was rattled prior to the fight. Ali was ahead going into the eighth round when he knocked Foreman out. Unlike Frazier, Foreman always gave Ali credit for the win.
In Ali’s next fight he took on Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, 31-9-2. Most felt Wepner stepped on Ali’s foot dropping him to the floor in the ninth round as Wepner went back to his corner with his arms raised in “victory!” His trainer told him “don’t look now but Ali’s up and he looks pissed!” Ali would give Wepner a bloody beating the rest of the way before stopping him in the fifteenth and last round. Before the fight Wepner told his wife “tonight you will be sleeping with the champ!” She asked him afterwards “what room is Ali in?” This fight it was said inspired actor Sylvester Stallone to write the film “Rocky”. I know of no other fight fan that didn’t like it as I didn’t.
In Ali’s next fight it would end in controversy against Ron Lyle, 30-2-1, with Ali behind 43-49, 45-46 and 46-46, when referee Ferd Hernandez stepped in during the eleventh round with Lyle doing Ali’s “rope-a-dope” blocking punches without return and not looking hurt stopping the fight at 1:08 of the round. Lyle complained and there would be no rematch.
Two fights later would be the trilogy bout with Frazier for Ali called “The Thrilla in Manila” in the Philippines. Going into the fifteenth round Ali could only lose by knockout but sat between rounds looking exhausted. He would later say “it’s the closest to death I ever experienced.” In the other corner sat a battered face swelled Frazier not be allowed to come out for the round by his trainer Eddie Futch. Referee Carlos Padilla did an excellent job not allowing Ali to hold Frazier behind the neck or Frazier to use his forearm to the throat.
The controversy before the fight was when Ali showed up to meet the head of the country with his future wife the beautiful show girl Veronica Porsche being introduced as his wife causing his wife Belinda to fly to Manila and confront Ali in the hotel room. Rumors were she had a black belt in martial arts and caused a ruckus.
Two fights later Ali would meet well-schooled boxer Philadelphia’s Jimmy Young, 17-4-2. It seemed Young was penalized by the judges by spending too much time against the ropes causing him to lose what this writer considered a very close decision.
Two fights later Ali had this third fight with Norton winning by scores of 8-6, 8-7 and 8-7. There would be no fourth fight. Two fights later Ali met whom he called “The Acorn” hard hitting Earnie Shavers 54-5-1. Ali survived the powerful punches of Shavers to take the decision. In February of 1978 in his next fight he met up with former Olympic Gold Medalist Leon Spinks, 6-0-1, who showed no fear or respect for Ali defeating him by split decision. Spinks would be stripped of his WBC title for refusing to fight Norton instead of giving Ali a rematch for his WBA title. Ali was in shape for this one and dominated Spinks for the decision. It would be the first time for someone to gain the title three times. In this writers opinion this is when Ali should have retired permanently.
Ali wouldn’t fight for two years before returning to the ring much out of shape. This writer remembers seeing him sitting in his Deer Lake, PA, camp looking fat as a pig. I asked “you and Max Baer had the best physiques of all the heavyweight champions but look at the condition you are in so why would you fight Holmes?” He patted his large stomach and replied “I like my ice cream!”
Holmes being one of the most unpopular boxers in the game would make Ali suffer for all the gym beatings Ali gave him as his sparring partner. After ten rounds of getting beat to the body and head without any remorse Holmes was crowned champion when Ali couldn’t come out for the eleventh round. Ali had lost every round on the scorecards and be the only fight he ever was stopped in as a professional. Even then he didn’t retire until what would be his final fight a year later.
Ali traveled to Nassau in the Bahamas to take on the hometown fighter Trevor Berbick, 19-2-1, coming in at a career high in weight of 236 ¼ taking a beating over ten rounds losing a lopsided decision. Ali ended up with a career record of 56-5 with 37 wins by knockout.
Ali would go onto marry a fourth time to Lonnie who lived across from his mother’s house. She would stick with Ali until his death on June 3rd, 2016 at the age of 74.
Ali gave himself the nickname “The Greatest” but few would deny it for there was only one showman in and out of the ring like “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali!