Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky.
The eldest of two boys, he was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who himself was named after the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name.
His father painted billboards and signs to support his family while his mother took care of her two sons.
He 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 taking his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told him he better learn how to box first.
As a result, he began his training as an amateur boxer.
For the last four years of Clay’s amateur career he was trained by boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.
Clay 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.
Then sometime after returning home from Rome, he lost his gold medal.
Clay’s amateur record stood at 100 wins with only five losses.
Cassius Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960 at Freedom Hall in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
The Eighteen year old Clay faced off against 30 year old Tunney Morgan Hunsaker, a veteran of 25 professional fights as well as the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.
This famous fight ended with Cassius Clay winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker.
In a thumbnail profile of the fight reported the following January, young Cassius Clay remarked that Hunsaker’s style was far different from what Clay had been exposed to as an amateur and Olympian. Clay even admitted to nervousness going in, and that Hunsaker’s aforementioned pro style, had given him trouble.
This respect appears genuine, as it was repeated in Muhammad Ali’s autobiography where he stated that Hunsaker had dealt him one of the hardest body blows he ever took in his career.
After the fight Hunsaker reportedly said, “Clay was as fast as lightning … I tried every trick I knew to throw at him off balance but he was just too good”.
Ali and Hunsaker went on to become good friends and stayed in touch over the years.
After this first professional win, Cassius Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout by the end of 1963.
These early fights were not without trials. Clay was knocked down both by Sonny Banks and Cooper. In the Cooper fight, Clay was floored by a vicious left hook at the end of round four and was saved by the bell. The fight with Doug Jones on March 13, 1963 was Clay’s toughest fight during this stretch. The number two and three heavyweight contenders respectively, Clay and Jones fought on Jones’ home turf at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jones staggered Clay the first round, and the unanimous decision for Clay was greeted by boos and a rain of debris thrown onto the ring (watching on closed-circuit TV, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder). The fight was later named “Fight of the Year”.
In each of these fights, Clay vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities. Jones was “an ugly little man;” Cooper was a “bum.” He was embarrassed to get in the ring with Alex Miteff. Madison Square Garden was “too small for me.” This audacious behavior, unlike that of any fighter in recent memory, made him controversial and disliked by most writers, many former champions and much of the general public.
Then, at the age of 22, he won the world heavyweight championship in 1964 from Sonny Liston in a stunning upset. Shortly after that bout, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned.
Ali would then go on to become the first and only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion.
Today, Ali is generally considered to have been the greatest heavyweight boxer in history.
Then, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984.
Ali also received a replacement for his 1960 Olympic gold medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
I had the opportunity to meet Ali at an event in the early 90’s, where he impressed me with his dignity in the face of his condition and exhibited dedication and patience as he signed an autograph I will always cherish.
He is and always will be “The Greatest!”
Now WE know em