On January 17, 1942 - at about six thirty p.m. - the biggest sporting legend of the twentieth century was born in Louisville, Kentucky.

When Odessa Clay and her husband Cassius Marcellus looked proudly at their tiny son on this winter day in Louisville they didn't dare to dream that the six and one half pound human being they held in their arms would one day be the heavyweight champion and one of the most popular men of the world.

At a closer look, one can date the first boxing activity of Cassius Marcellus junior to the same year. His mother used to tell people that his first K.o.-punch was aimed at her face when the six-month-old infant hit her so hard that she had to have two teeth pulled out.

Cassius grew up in West End Louisville, a black area, together with his younger brother Rudolph who later changed his name into Rahaman. Their father painted religious and commercial plates while Odessa Clay worked as a cleaning woman and cook in white upper-class families. Although the Clays were not wealthy, young Cassius and Rudolph always had something to eat and to wear. Contrary to most of his later foes, Ali had a carefree childhood.

At the age of twelve, Cassius got into boxing rather by chance. His new Schwinn bike had been stolen and this way he met police officer Joe Martin who besides ran a boxing gym. The furious lad told Martin that he would whip the thief if he found him. Martin suggested to Cassius that he teach him firsthow to box properly. Cassius agreed and attended Martin's gym regularly from then on.

In his first years as a boxer, Cassius Clay held some features that he would keep during his whole career: He bragged all the time how strong he was and that no one could beat him. Because of this he wasn't liked by the audience who could watch him live or via TV on Tomorrow's Champions, a show produced by Martin and broadcasted on a local station. His style was very unusual. Back then Cassius was already faster than most of his opponents. So he used his hands not as guard but held them at waist height while avoiding the punches of his opponent just with his reflexes and footwork.

Young Cassius was successful with his unorthodox style. In 1960, eighteen-year-old Cassius had won all amateur titles available (amongst others the National Golden Gloves in Chicago) and qualified for the Olympic trials. After he had been knocked down in the first round of the final by a black army champion named Allen Hudson, Clay countered and won by technical knockout in the third round.

He had earned the right to travel to Rome with the US Olympic team in 1960.

Rome 1960

Copyright 2000 by Johannes Ehrmann
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