Cassius Clay’s journey from young fighter form Louisville Kentucky to political activist, philanthropist and cultural icon Muhammad Ali, has its beginnings at the Olympic Games. In 1960, the light-heavyweight set out on the road to greatness with a comprehensive victory over Pietrzykowski to take gold at the Olympics in Rome.
However, this significant first step on the road to greatness almost never happened as the young Clay was afraid of flying. Having taken internal flights in the US before this would be his first external and long haul flight and Clay looked into the possibility of taking a boat to Europe to meet up with the team in Italy. It is hard to reconcile the fearless personality of later years with the callow nervous youth but when the possibility of sailing was denied Clay swallowed his fear and stepped on the plane.
At the Olympic village in Rome Clay gained the nickname ‘Mayor of the Village’ for his ebullient qualities, as a junior member of the US team he took a back seat but even at this early stage his charisma was evident as he sought as many handshakes as possible. His fighting style was unorthodox and exciting to watch and he quickly became a favourite with the home crowd.
Through the opening fights Clay boxed well and utilised his show-off style to great effect with the home supporters. But in the final he came up against Polish boxer Zbigniew ‘Ziggy’ Pietrzykowski – an experienced and canny south-paw fighter. The first round saw Clay somewhat taken by surprise by the big Pole’s style and he took a number of heavy blows to the head. The second round wasn’t much better but he did manage to stay out of too much trouble. The third round however, saw the American change his style completely. He abandoned his gloves-down, fancy footwork style in favour of a more guarded pragamatic approach. He was already behind on points and needed to take the third convinsingly to have a chance of winning, which he did.
The rest of the fight was Clay’s as he grew in stature Pietrzykowski wilted. The fight was an exhibition not only of Clay’s technical prowess but a characteristic to his fghting that would ultimately set him apart form all others and that was his ability to understand his opponent and adapt his style accordingly.
As Olympic moments go this was iconic in that it was a portent of the great changes that were afoot in society. The image of the young Cassius Clay on the rostrum above Pietrzykowski, to his right the bronze medallists Giulio Saraudi and semi-finalist Tony Madigan is instructive of a new breed of fighter – young, black, gifted and proud. The world could not have known they were in the presence of greatness, but greatness is not an overnight achievement and this gold medal in Rome was an important milestone on the road to that greatness. Four years later Clay was to beat Sonny Liston against the odds to become the Heavyweight Champion of the world. The next day he changed his name to Cassius X, then to Muhammad Ali, ‘the Praiseworthy One’, a name given to him by the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Famed as much for his struggle to change society outside the ring as much as his prowess in the ring, Clay returned to the United States to a society in turmoil. The American Civil Rights Movement was stirring. He received a ‘heroes’ welcome but there was still an entrenched racism in certain parts of America and Clay’s arrogance was not only sneered at but seen as threatening. In his 1975 autobiography Muhammad Ali states that he through his Olympic medal into the Ohio river after being refused service at a ‘whites-only’ restaurant and fighting with a white gang. Whether this is true or not is debateable but Ali was given replacement medal when he returned to the Olympic stage for his second iconic Olympic appearance in 1996 Atlanta when he lit the pyre with the Olympic torch to start the games.
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By Hugo Mc Cafferty