60 Years Ago Today: When Cassius Took Rome (and Olympic Gold)

It was 60 long and full years ago today when a young boxer named Cassius Clay won an Olympic gold medal in Rome. Of course, absolutely nobody could have had any idea how the 18 year old from Louisville would go on to change the whole world, indeed, “shake it up!”

Clay’s journey to the boxing ring began as a result of some still unidentified individuals stealing his new bike. Fans of Ali are of course familiar with the story, of how the 12-year-old Cassius, wanting to “beat up” whoever it was who robbed him, was instructed by cop/boxing coach Joe Martin to first learn how to fight.

And so the greatest heavyweight in boxing history got his start.

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Making incredible progress, Clay, with his swift hands, his sharp reflexes, his quick feet, and his natural ability at attracting attention won numerous amateur titles, plenty of local press, and then, in ’60, a chance to represent his country. But Clay had one big problem: he was terrified of flying. Only the sage Martin (who unearthed the stone Fred Stoner, and later Angelo Dundee would polish into a diamond) was able to convince Cassius to go to Rome to meet his destiny.

Clay smashed it at the Games. Winning his first three bouts with ease – Clay stopping Yvon Becaus of Belgium, decisioning Russia’s Gennady Shatkov, and also outpointing Australia’s Tony Madigan. Cassius then hammered Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to win light-heavyweight gold.

Clay arrived home a hero. For a while.

Soon enough, Clay found out how the shiny gold medal he constantly wore around his neck had zero effect on the racial discrimination problems he and his friends and family faced each day. Years later, the globally celebrated Muhammad Ali regularly had his chat show hosts, along with his audience, in hysterics as he told the story of how he had, with his gold medal hanging proudly for all to see, “gone downtown to eat.”

“Sorry, we don’t serve negroes,” his waiter informed the wide-eyed Clay. “I don’t eat ’em, either! Just give me my burger,” Clay supposedly shot back.

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And then Clay changed the world, boxing and otherwise. After (allegedly) throwing his prized medal into the Ohio River (“Honkies sure bought into that one,” said Ali’s witchdoctor Bundini Brown years later), this naturally gifted fighter signed up with Dundee and, after a couple of tough fights (Doug Jones, Henry Cooper), he shocked the world by beating and beating up, defending heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.

In the space of just three-and-a-half years, Clay had gone from Olympic medal winner to world heavyweight champion. And then the really earth-shattering stuff took place.

But Clay, now Ali, never forgot his roots, his beginnings; the people who gave him his start. After giving the planet a jolt once again in October of 1974, this time by knocking out the fearsome George Foreman to regain the title, Ali took time out during his famous interview with David Frost to give his thanks and his appreciation to Fred Stoner and to Joe Martin.

Clay/Ali – The Greatest – had come full circle.

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