After fighting his way to the top of amateur boxing by winning the 1959 International Golden Gloves heavyweight title, Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, earned a place on the United States 1960 Olympic boxing team. Clay’s powerful jabs and graceful footwork earned him a gold medal, and his entertaining personality established him as a favorite of Olympic fans.
When Cassius Clay stepped into the ring for the final match in the 178 lbs (80.7 kg) class at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, it marked the dawn of a new era.
At 18, Clay was still a relatively unknown young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky. It was 4 years before he would win the heavyweight championship of the world, over Sonny Liston; 6 years before he would convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali; and 11 years before the first of his three epic battles with Joe Frazier. To most Americans, Vietnam was still a remote and unfamiliar country in Southeast Asia. John F. Kennedy had not yet been elected president. The social turmoil of the 1960s, which would catapult Muhammad Ali to fame far greater than that of the boxing ring, had yet to begin.
But the young Clay was already brash and mercurial, a magnetic personality whose boundless energy and ceaseless boasting, along with his mesmerizing skill and speed in the ring, captivated the Olympic crowds.
A natural fighter, Clay was rangy and powerful, with uncanny hand and foot speed for a man 6 ft 3 in. His great natural gifts allowed him to ignore some of boxing’s fundamental rules: He often threw punches while moving backward, and instead of ducking under punches he would lean back, out of range. His long arms and his gliding, dancing style kept him beyond most opponents’ attacks, and he could put together dazzling combinations of punches.
His personality suited his style. Clay was one of the first athletes to see himself as a performer, and he played his part to the hilt. His confidence and verbal ingenuity were evident early on: In 1957 the trainer Angelo Dundee, who would occupy Ali’s corner in many of his greatest bouts, was sitting in a Louisville hotel room with light heavyweight Willie Pastrano when the phone rang. Dundee answered. It was Clay, phoning from the lobby.
“My name’s Cassius Marcellus Clay,” the 15-year-old said. “I’m the Golden Gloves champion of Louisville, Kentucky. I’m gonna win the (national) Golden Gloves, and I’m gonna win the Olympics in 1960, and I want to talk to you.”
Under Dundee, Clay compiled a 100-8 win-lose record, won two consecutive national Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU) championships as a light heavyweight, and captured two straight Golden Gloves titles, as a light heavyweight in 1959 and as a heavyweight in 1960.
In Rome, Clay was the toast of the Olympic Village. A reporter of the time wrote, “If anyone had held an election for mayor of the Olympic Village, Cassius Clay would have been a prime candidate.” He won his first bout, against Yan Becaus of Belgium, in a second-round knockout. In succeeding rounds he won decisions over Gennady Schatkov of the Soviet Union and Tony Madigan of Australia.
In the final, the New York Times reported, “Clay battered the Pole (Polish fighter Zbigniew Pietrzykowski) mercilessly in the last round with a flurry of left and right combinations that had his rival groggy. He opened a cut over the Pole’s left eye and almost finished him.”
The decision was unanimous, 5-0 in favor of Cassius Clay. Clay had danced and taunted his way to victory, showing the world a new kind of fighting and a new kind of fighter: voluble, cocky, and rebellious.
And the brash young fighter who won gold in Rome in 1960 would become one of the most celebrated athletes of the 20th century.