I am The Greatest! (part 1)
If not for his bike that was stolen, a handsome, brash and young Afro-American kid would have not been propelled to greatness and immortality. Directed by people on the street to report his lost bike to Patrolman Joe Martin, he did so only to find out that the policeman was also a boxing instructor and runs a gym for boxers. Inquiring how he can ever join in the training and learn how to box, the kid went home happy and forgot all about his bike. Early the next day, he was already in the gym learning how to hit the speedball, punching bag and don a glove. Soon, he was at the doorsteps knocking at the doors of neighbors in their community confidently telling them, “I’m Cassius Clay! Watch me fight on Saturday night on tv!” It’s all like that every time and what follows is now history.
Born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. is the eldest of two sons of a bible-reading Baptist couple, sign painter Cassius and Odessa Clay, Sr. From his early age, Cassius, Jr. was already very loquacious and gifted with confidence of himself; trademarks that characterized his rise to greatness and fame.
Coming home a hero after winning the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay soon turned professional managed by a group of Louisville millionaires. Before all those, however, Clay had already attracted the news media and the world with his prophetic rhetoric and never ending boasts of confidence. “I’m going to win a gold medal!, I’m going to be the heavyweight champion of the world!, I am the greatest!” he kept bragging. Those were reasons he was soon called “The Louisville Lip”.
Overcoming gigantic odds in challenging world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, Clay stunned the boxing world as he had predicted by humiliating and forcing the champion to quit after the 6th round. “I must be the greatest!” he right away yelled after the fight. But what marked the fight most were the psychological warfare he employed before the fight. Facing the champion as an 8 to 1 underdog, Clay gatecrashes Liston’s training camp taunting and ridiculing him. “He is too ugly to be the world champ! The world champ should be pretty like me!!” he kept yelling. Yet, no matter how Clay tried to boost his stock to reverse the odds in his challenge, the more people did not believe him. What was even more revealing understatements of Clay’s capabilities were the suggestions of a sport writer who said that, “They better clear the route from the venue to the nearest hospital where they will bring Clay after the fight.” However, as it turned out it was Liston who was brought to the hospital instead.
Right after becoming world champion, Clay announced that he had embraced and converted to Islam and is changing his name to Muhammad Ali. He as well said that he has brought along his younger brother Rudolph to his faith and also changes his name to Rahaman Ali. Despite all these, Clay failed to bring along his parents to his newfound religion. And if fans were surprised of his moves, the more they were again when Clay, now known as “Ali”, offered to defend his world title against 3 challengers in one night. Lining up 1956 Melbourne Olympics gold medalist and former world heavyweight champion Floyd Paterson, Ernie Terrell and Canadian “The Great White Hope” George Chuvalo in that order as the challengers, Ali planned of fighting each for 10 rounds with 30 minutes rest in between fights. Whoever beats him, wins his title, Ali stressed. To make it sweeter, Ali promised as well that if ever he losses his title, he will retire for good. However, without any of his named challengers taking interests and promoters to back up, Ali’s planned one-night spectacle faded without taking off the ground. Had the fights took place, many believed, Ali would have come out victorious.
One funny highlights in Ali’s popular and colorful reign as champion was the challenge brought about by Wilt Chamberlain, the towering 7’2” NBA player. Claiming that he once trained as a boxer, Chamberlain showed up to pose in a fighting stance with Ali before photographers and reporters, but when the time came for them to sign the contract, he backed out to the surprise of fans. As Ali waited in the table for Chamberlain to sign, Ali shouted “Timmbbbeeerrrrrrr!!!” that caused Chamberlain to make a U-turn. Whatever Ali meant by his action remains a puzzle up to this day.
Dominating the sport from the time he trained how to box, Ali not only had become a household name but also as a world figure of resistance. Refusing to be drafted into the US military in the mid-60s during the Vietnam War, Ali reasoned out his refusal as due to his religious beliefs of being opposed to the war. It was at this time that he uttered his famous battle cry of “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong!” And it was for this stand against the draft and the Vietnam War that he was convicted of draft evasion only to bail himself out of prison. Thereafter, world boxing bodies WBA and WBC follow suit of stripping Ali of his world title and declared the title vacant. Thus, this started his forced exile from boxing.
(to be continued…)
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