How Muhammad Ali won Olympic gold

Victory for Cassius Clay at Rome 1960 put American boxer on the path to be 'The Greatest'

It all begins with a stolen bike.

When a 12-year-old Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, went to a fair at the Columbia Gym in his hometown of Louisville back in 1955 his pride and joy - a red and white Schwinn bicycle - went missing.

Having quickly gone from two wheels to no wheels, the boy Ali was incandescent with rage, promising to "whoop" the thief if he ever laid hands on him.

His angry outburst caught the attention of a local police officer, Joe Martin, who invited him to channel his fury by taking boxing classes at his gym.

The rest, as they say, is history. From that chance encounter a legend was born.

Within six weeks, Ali had won his first fight.

Within six years, Ali had a gold medal hanging around his neck at the Olympic Games in Rome.

Muhammad Ali participated in the Kentucky Golden Gloves tournament when he was 15
Muhammad Ali participated in the Kentucky Golden Gloves tournament when he was 15Muhammad Ali participated in the Kentucky Golden Gloves tournament when he was 15

Journey to Rome

Ali travelled to Rome 1960 to represent the United States as a callow, relatively unknown 18-year-old.

In fact, the then-light heavyweight nearly didn't travel to Italy at all.

A turbulent flight to California for the Olympic trials had put Ali off flying.

Only after some more gentle encouragement from his mentor, Joe Martin, was Ali persuaded to get on the plane.

The teenage boxer did insist on taking a parachute on board for the journey - just in case.

Muhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal as an 18-year-old
Muhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal as an 18-year-oldMuhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal as an 18-year-old

Olympic Gold

As befitting a man nicknamed 'the Louisville Lip', Ali soon began making his presence felt around the Olympic village, becoming a hugely popular figure.

But as well as making friends outside the ring, Ali began making an impression inside it too.

In his first bout against Belgian Yvon Becaus, the referee had to stop the contest in the second round, fearing a brutal knockout.

His quarter final opponent was Russia's Gennady Shatkov, a man who had won Olympic gold in the middleweight division four years earlier.

Despite his impressive pedigree, he was no match for the American - who swept to a 5-0 triumph on points.

That scoreline was replicated in his next bout against Australia’s star pugilist Tony Madigan. Although Ali had to dig deep at times, he had made it through to the light heavweight Olympic final.

Standing in the opposite corner to Ali in Rome’s Palazzo dello Sport stadium on September 5th 1960 was the imposing frame of Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.

Pietrzykowski was stronger and vastly more experienced than his rival, and Ali initially struggled to adapt to his rival's southpaw style.

The 25-year-old Pole edged the first two rounds, but in the final round Ali came to the fore.

With his superior stamina and quick combinations, the American left his rival in a battered - but still upright - state by the final bell. The judges were unanimous once again. Olympic gold was his.

Aftermath

Ali's joy was unconfined after his triumph, telling reporters about what being an Olympic champion meant:

I didn’t take that medal off for 48 hours. I even wore it to bed. I didn’t sleep too good because I had to sleep on my back so that the medal wouldn’t cut me. But I didn’t care, I was Olympic champion.

Ali's rapid, shuffling style had not always found favour amongst boxing 'purists', but there was now no denying his quality.

Soon after his return to America, Ali he turned professional and made his debut against Tunney Hunsaker on October 29th, 1960.

The journey to becoming 'The Greatest' was well and truly underway.

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