Turning Clay Into Gold

Cassius Clay A.K.A. CASSIUS CLAY, Muhammad Ali, 1970

By summer 1960, the 18-year-old Cassius Clay had already taken his amateur career to the limit. Fighting more than 100 bouts and twice nabbing the National Golden Gloves, he had few benchmarks left to pass before entering the professional ranks. And it was still another four years before he could challenge Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.

Olympic gold is the crowning achievement for any amateur, and when he arrived in Rome, the man who would be Muhammad Ali set about to pick up what he felt was already his. By all accounts, Clay was one of the most popular faces around the Olympic Village, learning everyone’s name and displaying an astonishing charisma for someone of his tender years. “The Louisville Lip,” as he was sometimes called, talked his way into the hearts of the many other competitors who’d given their lives to sport. What separated the young boxer from these men and women was his outward display of the bravado they felt but rarely voiced. In this way, Clay was an athlete’s athlete: He cultivated an unshakable self-confidence, and he bought his own hype.

Dont_Give_Up_culturemap_sideThis was also how Clay trained. His irresistible fighting words set an uncommonly high standard for himself. Clay led with his mind and with his mouth, and his body followed. At that time, Clay’s boxing style was virtually unsolvable and his hand speed was otherworldly. He exploited small perforations in his opponents’ defense, and meanwhile focused on making them miss. With complete faith in his training, Clay had designed an exercise in frustration and exhaustion for any would-be challengers.

Grainy video of the highlights of Clay’s 1960 bout with Polish pugilist Zbigniew Pietrzykowski shows considerable contrast in the figures of the two fighters. Though lean and undoubtedly athletic, the teenage Clay was still a bit lanky. Pietrzykowski was 25 years old, a chiseled and experienced fighter with an Olympic Bronze already under his belt. The odds were not necessarily in Clay’s favor. The bout was no picnic either, as every judge gave the first round to Pietrzykowski. But in the second and third rounds, Clay turned the match—forcing the action and visibly stunning Pietrzykowski at least twice to seal it. Clay’s extraordinary combination of hand speed and frustrating defense won the day, and Pietrzykowski completely exhausted himself looking to score.

Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) with other members of the U.S. boxing team with their Gold Medals at the 1960 Olympic Games
Clay and other members of the U.S. boxing team with their gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games

Clay wore his gold medal for days after the victory. He learned to sleep on his back so the medal wouldn’t press into his body. He flashed it everywhere, hoping to be recognized and celebrated for his victory. But Clay’s attachment to the medal faded quickly. To put it mildly, it was a volatile time for American sports, politics and race relations. After a particularly racist incident soured him on his country, Clay alleged that he threw the medal into the Ohio River. Or so goes the story—it was also claimed he simply misplaced it.

As for the original medal, its final resting place is still unknown and an Area 51–type internet mystery has grown around it. Muhammad Ali was awarded a replacement during halftime of the 1996 Olympic USA-Yugoslavia basketball final. The champ lifted the medal to his lips before acknowledging the capacity Georgia Dome crowd. These were the same Games in which Ali shocked the world one last time by defying his Parkinson’s disease to light the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony.

In building the legend of a man whose own words took him beyond his body’s limits, Ali became the greatest sportsman of the 20th century, by the accounting of Sports Illustrated and the BBC, and his approach is the template for the modern fighter in boxing and MMA: If you think you have potential, give voice to it. Lead with your mind and mouth, and the body will follow. Taking that to its natural conclusion, however, requires sacrifice that few are willing to make. Ali made it.

Photos courtesy of Everett