‘Never put your money against Cassius Clay, for you will never have a lucky day.’
Boxing greats, Cus D’Amato, Oleksandr Usyk and Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. all have one thing in common – they were all born on 17 January. However, only one grew into the moniker of ‘The Greatest,’ and his journey leading up to that was no easy ride.
Herman Clay (Jr’s grandfather), named his son in honour of the man with the same name who actively campaigned against slavery during the 1800’s. In turn, Cassius Sr Christened his son with the same name.
Born on 11 November 1909 in Jefferson County, Kentucky, Cassius Sr was a colourful and sometimes spiteful character who liked a drink, painted, decorated, had talent as a musician and accordingly to his son was, ‘The fanciest dancer in Louisville.’ However, after a few drinks Sr often became a loose cannon, clocking up offences for assault and battery, reckless driving and various other public disturbance charges.
Jr’s grandmother on his father’s side was the great granddaughter of Archer Alexander, a former slave, who was used as the model for the controversial Emancipation Memorial in Washington, which has Alexander kneeling at Abraham Lincoln’s feet.
Sr married 16-year-old Odessa Lee O’Grady in 1934 and they soon made their residence in Louisville, Kentucky. They had two children. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr and Rudloph Valentino Clay. Odessa’s maternal grandfather (Tom Moorehead) was the son of a white man and a slave called Dinah, while her paternal grandfather was a white Irishman from Ennis, County Clare who went by the name of Abe O’Grady and emigrated to America in the late 1860’s. Muhammad Ali, as he would be known later on, ended up fighting in Croke Park, Dublin in 1972 and was widely welcomed as he expressed his love for the country and his heritage.
Odessa brought up her children as Baptists and young Jr along with brother Rudolph attended Central Highschool, Louisville. Jr struggled with his academia due to his dyslexia and was branded as stupid and incapable. Thankfully he was able to transcend the small minded negativity and ignorance which surrounded him.
Aged 12, Clay Jr had a defining moment which put him on the path to future greatness. After having his brand new bicycle stolen while attending a fair at the Columbia Auditorium, the distressed future champion was informed by someone that there was a police officer working in a basement below the building who he could report the incident to. Still fuming from the theft, young Cassius walked into the basement in search of the policeman, who turned out to be a gentleman by the name of Joe Martin.
The basement turned out to be Martin’s boxing gym and as the aggrieved Clay entered said gym in tears, he let loose with a tirade of his intentions of what he was going to do when he caught up with the thief. Martin let Clay get everything off his chest then advised that boxing would be useful to him, should he catch up with the thief. A clever move from Martin as he was about to put the kid on a journey of self-discipline instead of thuggery.
Cassius Clay and Joe Martin
A few weeks later, Clay started training with Martin and about a month after that, he’d already won his first amateur contest by split decision against 14-year-old Ronnie O’Keefe. The bout was televised live by Louisville television station, WAVE-TV. In fact, over the next four years, pretty much every fight he had in Louisville was filmed live, often featured as part of a programme called, ‘Tomorrow’s Champions,’ which was certainly very fitting in Clay’s case. To the young fighter’s delight, each time he was featured on television, he received $4, which was a tidy sum back then.
Under the careful tutelage of Martin, Clay demonstrated from the early days his natural ability to hit, and not get hit. He could also take punch. Martin’s successor was Fred Stoner for about a year, however, it was the infamous cutman, Chuck Bodak who trained Clay from 1956 for the last four years of his amateur career. Bodak, known for his trademark headbands amassed a very impressive resume to say the least. He worked with around 60 world champions during his lifetime, including Rocky Marciano, Thomas Hearns and Oscar De La Hoya.
As a high school student, Clay won six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships and two national Golden Gloves. However, the pinnacle of his amateur career came on 5 September 1960 at the Olympic Games in Rome. With a name like Cassius Marcellus, you’d think the 18-year-old sensation would have naturally been excited to head to Roman surroundings, but with a massive fear of flying, this was not the case. He even considered turning professional to avoid the flight, but in the end he boarded the plane, albeit he wore a parachute!
Clay wins Gold at the 1960 Olympic Games defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
After winning his preliminary contests at the Palazzetto dello Sport, Clay came up against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. The Polish fighter who had won three European titles back to back and boasted 231 amateur contests to his name, had previously won bronze as a middleweight at the 1956 Olympics, losing to the triple gold medalist, Hungarian legend Laszlo Papp. Going into the final both fighters had won all their preliminary bouts 5-0. Despite Pietrzykowski’s pedigree, he lost the final 5-0 to one of boxing’s finest ever athletes. The Pole went on to have future success at the 1964 Olympics, winning bronze in the light heavyweight division. The heavyweight category was won by a gentleman known as Joseph William Frazier. More about him in the next BVB feature.
Despite being the Olympic light heavyweight champion, his hometown of Louisville was steeped in racism and segregation. Whilst in his euphoric slipstream, Clay proudly wore his gold medal out and around town, but on one particular day he tried to get served in a restaurant and they promptly refused him, reminding him of his skin colour. Clay made his way to the Second Street Bridge and threw his medal into the Ohio River. The piece was never retrieved and it took until the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta before Clay (now known as Ali), was presented with a replacement.
Angelo Mirena, better known as Angelo Dundee is often said in the same breath as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, however he had already been training great fighters such as Luis Manual Rodriguez and Willie Pastrano, long before he hooked up with Clay. If you are not familiar with Pastrano, it’s worth looking up his highlights on YouTube. You’ll notice distinct similarities between him and Clay in terms of footwork, jabs and ringcraft.
Although Clay officially became Dundee’s charge in his second fight in 1960, the pair’s first encounter happened in February 1957 when Pastrano was fighting in Louisville against John Holman. Clay, having only just turned 15 years old tracked down Dundee’s hotel and said, ‘I’m Cassius Clay. I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world. I want to speak with you.’ In an interview with ESPN years later, Dundee said. ‘I covered the phone with my hand and told Willie, ‘There’s a madman who wants to talk with me. Should I invite him up?’ Willie, who was very laconic said, ‘Sure, we have nothing better to do.” Despite being charmed by young Cassius, nothing more came of their encounter, until Clay contacted Dundee shortly after winning Olympic gold. The rest is history.
Clay vs Hunsaker
Less than eight weeks after stepping off the Olympic podium in Rome, Clay had his professional debut against Tunney Hunsaker, in his hometown of Louisville. Hunsaker possessed a record of 17-9-1 and interestingly, Clay, throughout his 61 fight pro boxing career never fought anyone with more losses than they had wins. Clay weighed 192lbs, 17lbs north of his light heavyweight limit, while Hunsaker, barely a modern day cruiserweight, weighed in at 186lbs. With a 12 year differential between the pair and over eight years of pro boxing experience behind Hunsaker, Clay very comfortably beat his fellow Kentuckian over six rounds. The future Greatest did admit after the fight that Hunsaker’s body blows rated amongst the hardest he’d taken, while Hunsaker said, ‘Clay was fast as lightning…… He was just too good.’ They pair became good friends and Hall of Famers. Clay in the square ring, while Hunsaker was enlisted into the Law Enforcement Hall of Fame after almost 40 years of service as a police officer.
A number of people wanted to train Clay as he entered the pro ranks, including Cus D’Amato and Rocky Marciano. However, Clay’s management decided Archie Moore was the man for the job. After a short spell with Moore and a distinct clash of personalities, Clay started training with Dundee.
Within 13 months Clay had amassed 10 victories without loss, but in his eleventh contest he had a little wake up call. On 10 February 1962, Clay was knocked down in the first round by Sonny Banks, as the pair headlined at Madison Square Garden. It was hardly the New York debut Clay had wished for, but thankfully he put Banks on the canvas in the second session and the fight was over in the fourth. Sadly, Banks died three years later as a result of injuries sustained in his fight with Leotis Martin.
Clay vs Archie Moore
After stopping his next four opponents, on 15 November 1962 Clay came up against his old trainer Archie Moore, who was 26 years Clay’s senior. Admittedly, Moore was at the end of his career, having had his pro debut in 1935, seven years before Clay was born, but fresh off a majority draw against Willie Pastrano, a few thought the Old Mongoose might still have a trick or two up his sleeve. Clay, now weighing north of 200lbs quickly dispelled such thoughts from the media and stopped Moore in the fourth round.
On 18 June 1963, Clay came to Wembley Stadium and walked away with his first contentious win against our very own Henry Cooper. Seconds after the opening bell Cooper came at Clay with his full offensive and in under 30 seconds had him holding on. One punch in particular that was whistling past Clay’s jaw on a number of occasions was Cooper infamous left hook.
Clay in training camp for Henry Cooper
By the end of the third session, Clay had opened a nasty cut over Cooper’s eyebrow. Undeterred by the 21-year-old, Cooper unleashed the left hook once again in the dying seconds of fourth round and this time Clay was on seat of his pants. Despite getting to his feet at the count of three, Clay was dazed and wobbling as he made his way back to his stool. What happened in the next minute goes down in boxing folklore.
Clay’s esteemed trainer could clearly see his charge was in plenty of trouble and knew Cooper would finish him off with barely a minute to go before the next round. Video footage points towards Dundee’s corner using smelling salts to revive Clay, which would have instantly disqualified him if he’d have been caught. Aware of the clock ticking down the dying seconds, Dundee called over the referee Tommy Little to highlight a split in the seam of Clay’s glove. Little was having none of it and motioned Clay to start boxing again as the next round started. The delay added between two to four seconds, but without a doubt, in Clay’s predicament, every second counted.
Henry Cooper drops Clay in round four
As the round started it was clear that Clay’s head was now clear and he went to work on Cooper’s eye. After two minutes and 15 seconds, Cooper’s face was a bloody mess and Clay had come good on his prediction of a fifth round stoppage. After the fight, Clay gave Cooper credit. ‘I underestimated him. He’s the toughest fighter I ever met.’
Clay as predicted wins in five rounds
Clay had earned his right to challenge for the world title, but many feared him taking on the fearsome Sonny Liston after he demolished former champion Floyd Patterson, twice in under three minutes. After being floored heavily against Cooper, many believed Liston’s power would send Clay to sleep for several minutes. He possessed strength, a ramrod jab, intimidation, mob links, but more importantly to Clay, he possessed the WBA and WBC belts.
The moment the date was set for 25 February 1964 at the Convention Centre, Miami Beach, Clay started taunting Liston nonstop. He had already made his mark as boxing’s biggest braggadocio, but he was now widely known in boxing circles as The Louisville Lip as his jibes against Liston hit an all time high. Despite not being the sweetheart of boxing, Liston’s popularity with the media was greater than Clay, mainly because they didn’t appreciate his disrespect to the champion. Of the 46 journalists from 17 countries who attended the fight, 43 picked ‘The Ugly Bear,’ (Clay’s moniker for Liston) to win. Clay on the other hand said, ‘Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.’
Liston had a lighter than normal training camp for Clay, due to two reasons. Firstly, he was suffering from a condition which affected his joints called bursitis, specifically in his left shoulder which didn’t allow him to train at full steam, but secondly because he didn’t think Clay was a bonafide heavyweight and that he could take a punch. In brief, Clay was a clown, a loudmouth and was in essence supposed to be cannon fodder for Liston. His intention was to repeat the Patterson scenarios and take Clay out early. Clay had been accurate with 12 of his pre fight predictions up to that point and claimed Liston would go in eight rounds. Sonny on the other hand believed the young challenger would drop in two. Neither turned out to be accurate, albeit one of them was very close.
Clay had joined a group known as the ‘Black Muslims,’ when he was 18 and this caused major problems for the fight. Despite the promoter threatening to cancel the fight if Clay didn’t renounce his stance on the Nation of Islam, and Clay refusing, the fight went ahead. The principal spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X agreed to keep a low profile until fight night, but he would however sit ringside to see his man in action.
At the weigh-in ‘Gaseous Cassius’ turned up with a jacket which said, ‘Bear Huntin,’ intent on getting under Liston’s skin. When the champ appeared, he launched a heap of tirades his way, to the point he was restrained and later fined $2,500 for his behaviour.
Clay weighed in at 210lbs, Liston 218lbs. Despite acting the clown, in the build up to the fight Clay had been studying Liston very carefully as a person and a fighter. He spent time working out ways to break him down psychologically and looked at his strengths as a fighter and forged a plan how to negate them. Also, during Clay’s public workouts, he was intentionally unimpressive for the onlookers. Come fight night, Clay was no clown.
As the fighters were waiting for the bell to sound, Liston swayed from side to side in his corner whilst Clay was rhythmically bouncing on his feet as if skipping rope. As the bell went for round one, Liston put Clay on his back foot, looking to conclude the fight early, whereas Clay contently bounced on his toes in reverse gear, keeping his hands low while leaning out of harms way from Liston’s punches. After having success with a number of straight jabs to Clay’s midriff, Liston unleashed a left hook which whistled past Clay’s jaw. Undeterred by Liston’s menacing figure, Clay forced the fight to the centre of the ring, jabbing Liston’s head and body at will, often throwing in right hand leads into the mix. As Liston attempted to land his own retort, Clay simply moved his head side to side or backwards, inches from Liston’s assaults. It was poetry in motion to watch. With about 30 seconds left in the round Clay let loose a six punch combination, followed a number of one-twos. The champ was rattled, but not hurt. Impressive opener from the challenger.
Clay vs Sonny Liston 1
As Clay sat in his corner yelling to the media, the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis was on commentary and pulled no punches when he said, ‘Clay completely outclassed Liston in that round.’ He did however add, ‘I hope he doesn’t get overconfident, otherwise he’ll get knocked out.’
Liston started the second round with greater success, connecting with a lunging left hook, but Clay was never in any danger as he was always moving in the opposite direction of Liston’s attacks. The champ did however manage to connect with a number of shots to Clay’s body, but kept missing with the follow up assaults to the head. Clay had already started to compute Liston’s strategy and was countering the tactics with every move. The more damaging shots were certainly landed by Liston, however, Clay’s moral victory came by standing in front of him, taking his assaults to the body and responding with his lightning jab while moving off at angles. As long as he didn’t stay still, Liston couldn’t land big.
Clay vs Sonny Liston 1
First minute of round three Clay unleashed a number of lightning combinations, hurting the champion and forcing him to the ropes. Despite trying to unload his own assault, Clay once again landed with frighteningly accurate and fast hands. The champ’s left eye was swollen and cut, while his nose was bleeding. Despite Liston still being extremely aggressive, his punches were falling short of the target. Round four followed suit, with Liston right eye also swollen.
Going into round five, Clay was ahead 3-1. However, as he walked back to his stool for the end of the round he was blinking uncontrollably and shaking his head with his eyes closed. He was obviously in distress. The most credible theory is that Liston’s gloves had been laced with a corrosive substance in between rounds three and four and said substance was now taking effect. Aware that his charge was in trouble, Dundee put his finger into the corner of Clay’s eye, then touched his own eye. Angelo said after, ‘Whatever was in there burned like hell.’ He then proceeded to pour water over Clay’s eyes and wiped them with a fresh towel.
Clay vs Sonny Liston 1
As the round chimed for the fifth session, Clay came out blinking furiously, while Liston came at him looking to close the show. Despite a nonstop attack from the champ, Clay, much heavier on his feet than the previous four rounds, managed to weather the downpour of blows from Liston, while looking at him through seriously impaired vision.
Liston quits on his stool
As Clay came out for round six, he had his legs back, his vision and was now on a mission to payback any skulduggery which he had been in receipt of. His jabs were thrown with far more intent and weight, while he owned the centre of the ring, happy to show Liston he was comfortable to trade with him without retreating. After the first minute Clay started to rain Liston’s face with a variety of combinations, adding lumps to his already swollen face. Liston’s deflated responses were single shots which failed to hit the target. Another round to Clay.
About 10 seconds before the seventh round Clay was bouncing on his feet ready to go to work, whereas Liston sat on his stool with a swollen face and a dejected soul. As his corner waived off the fight, citing their charge was unable to continue due to a shoulder injury, Clay was performing the famous ‘Ali shuffle, swiftly followed by a lunge over the ropes to the media to shout, ‘I am The Greatest.’ The contest was Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1964 and probably the bookies least favourite fight as odds for Clay to win were as wide as 8-1 against the challenger.
'I am the greatest, I'm king of the world'
In Thomas Hauser’s book, ‘Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,’ Ali is quoted as saying, ‘It frightened me just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight….. I was scared.’
The rematch awaited. Many still believed Liston would poleaxe Clay, while media were still coming to terms with a champion who was the complete opposite to Joe Louis or Floyd Patterson. In other words, he didn’t keep his mouth shut and acted disrespectfully. Either Clay’s days were numbered, or boxing was on the cusp of something special. Find out more in next month’s instalment…..
Paul Zanon, has had nine books published, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and has contributed to a number of boxing publications, including, Boxing Monthly, The Ring, Daily Sport, Boxing News, Boxing Social, amongst other publications.