50 Years Ago, The Legend Began

Cassius Clay burst on the scene at the Rome Olympics 50 years ago.

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    September 5th marks the 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, winning the Olympic light heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Rome. Clay defeated Zbigniew
(Zigzy) Pietrzykowski of Poland for the gold medal.

    Clay, of Louisville, Ky. was only 18 at the time of his Olympic triumph. As the legend goes, he got into boxing at age 12 after having his bicycle stolen. A Louisville police officer and boxing coach, Joe E. Martin, directed young Clay toward boxing, but there was also a boxing trainer at a local community center, Fred Stoner, who gave Clay advice and guidance in the early days of his boxing career, becoming the future legends’ initial mentor.   

    Clay won six Kentucky state Golden Gloves titles, two National Gold Gloves titles, and the AAU national title under Stoner’s tutelage before trying out for and making the U.S. Olympic Team in 1960. As an amateur, Clay posted a record of 100-5.

    Virtually unknown outside of Louisville, Clay was just one of several promising young boxers on the U.S. team. Painfully shy, Clay was remembered by teammates as private, yet fun-loving. Just convincing him to get on a plane was quite an achievement, and one wonders what debt of gratitude the world owes to Joe Martin, the Louisville policeman, for it was his persuasiveness that got the terrified 18 year old to board.

    Safely in Rome, Clay dispatched his opening opponent, Yvon Because of Belgium, relatively easily. His next opponent was Russian Guennadiy Shatkov, the defending Olympic middleweight champion from 1956. Clay’s
superior skills led him to victory despite Shatkov’s huge experience advantage. In the semi-finals, Clay faced Australian Tony Madigan. The two had met before in the National Golden Gloves a year earlier. Clay fought smartly, fending off Madigan’s aggressive tactics brilliantly and was awarded a unanimous decision. The 25 year old Pietrzykowski provided an unorthodox finals opponent, being one of the few lefthanders Clay had met up with. The Pole, a three time European champion and Olympic bronze medalist, started off strong, but once Clay, again displaying unusual patience and maturity for an 18 year old, figured out Pietrzykowski’s awkward style, he virtually toyed with his veteran opponent, opening a cut over the Pole’s left eye early in the last round.

    Turning professional not long after returning to the U.S., Clay began his steady climb through the ranks. When he “Shocked the World” on February 25, 1964, defeating Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship, everyone knew who Cassius Clay was.    

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1 Comment
  1. Posted February 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Nice article – strange to think Ali was shy when he was young!

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