x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, few could float or sting like he did

Best Olympic boxer No 2 Cassius Clay's reputation to talk the talk preceded him, but he was a winner.

Cassius Clay, right, throws a right at Tony Madigan in the light-heavyweight semi-finals during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Cassius Clay, right, throws a right at Tony Madigan in the light-heavyweight semi-finals during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

In 1960, a brash American light-heavyweight with quick hands, a heavy punch and an infectious personality, contrived to wrench much of the attention of the Rome Olympics boxing tournament away from the heavyweight division and on to himself.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr was not just another dour product of a seedy gymnasium. He had star quality, and even at the age of 18 and a whippet-lean 175 pounds (79kg), he stamped himself as a fighter to watch.

Long before he struck a blow in anger at Rome, the media were aware that young Clay was loquacious and flashy, a showman in a world of plodding pugilists.

He blew through the tournament. In the quarter-finals he overwhelmed the 1956 gold medallist, Gennady Shatkov of the Soviet Union, a fight that would have had a significant political undertow, at the height of the Cold War.

In the final, Sports Illustrated wrote: "It took two rounds for Clay to solve the southpaw attack of Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. But in the third he established instant command and toyed with the defenceless Pole. At 18, Clay was the best of [the US] boxers in Rome, but he never caught a really hard punch."

Clay, soon to be become a global figure as Muhammad Ali, already was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Two stories adhere to the gold medal he won.

One holds that he prized it so highly that he did not take it off for two days after it was first placed around his neck.

Another suggests that not long after returning to the US he threw the medal in the Ohio River after encountering racism in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Both stories may be apocryphal but they remain part of the narrative of the world's most famous Olympic boxing champion.

His history with the Olympics was nearly forgotten during his long professional career, when he won the heavyweight championship on three occasions.

But the Olympic family had not forgotten Rome, and it led to one more dramatic appearance.

At the opening ceremonies at Atlanta in 1996, details of which were closely guarded secrets, Ali suddenly appeared high above the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta.

He already was in the grip of Parkinson's disease, and his hands were not as quick nor his stride as assured as they were in 1960.

But with the crowd of 83,000 chanting "Ali! Ali!" he touched flame to cauldron, and the Summer Games began.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae


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