60 long, long years ago today at The Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, an 18 year old Olympic gold medal winner boxed as a professional for the very first time. What would come over the next 21 years absolutely nobody could ever have come close to predicting. Cassius Clay met experienced pro and part-time cop Tunney Hunsaker over a scheduled six rounds.
Clay won via wide decision, and he was on his way – to “shocking the world,” many times, to becoming Muhammad Ali. To becoming THE greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport of boxing. “Gaseous Cassius,” AKA “The Louisville Lip,” had won gold as a light-heavyweight in Rome but his body had not yet developed sufficiently for fans/experts/historians to come close to believing Clay when he stated with uncommon certainty that he would become heavyweight champion of the world.
The Hunsaker fight, Clay’s one and only pro bout without the fine Angelo Dundee looking after him, did little to persuade the cynics. In fact, nothing from Clay’s initial 19 pro fights made these people feel he would capture the heavyweight crown (much less become the most celebrated heavyweight in history, bar none). Struggles with good fighters, Doug Jones (a debated decision win; one that left the fans booing for around 20 minutes afterwards) and Henry Cooper (you know, the heavy knockdown Clay suffered and the “extra time” Dundee bought his man by “tearing the glove” that then had to be replaced, only it wasn’t – Clay going on to halt Cooper on cuts in the fifth) made almost everyone feel strongly that reigning heavyweight king Sonny Liston would make mincemeat out of the talkative upstart.
Instead, as we all know, Clay/Ali waited until the ultimate moment to show his greatness. To this day, plenty of experts think Clay/Ali boxed better than ever in that first stunning upset win over Liston. Clay/Ali really did float across the canvas, he really did hit with blinding speed, he really was almost impossible to hit with a clean shot. Liston was a thoroughly demoralised, confused and chopped up and beaten figure after those six amazing rounds.
Soon after he’d “shocked the world,” Clay did so again, by changing his name to Muhammad Ali and announcing how he had joined The Nation Of Islam. In short, the world of boxing would never, ever be the same again.