Why don’t you learn something about fighting, before you make any hasty challenges: That was the advice that Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe Martin gave a 12 year-old who reported his bicycle stolen and wanted to ‘whup’ the responsible parties.
That 12-year-old was then known as Cassius Clay and those words launched a career for the man we know as Muhammad Ali.
Martin brought the precocious pre-teen into a gym and taught the lanky middleweight the art of the sweet science. Martin would remain with Ali throughout his six-year amateur career, which saw Ali develop not only a penchant for winning, but also a knack for letting people know about it.
As an amateur Ali earned six Kentucky State Golden Gloves Championships and the National Golden Gloves and AAU Championships in 1959 and 1960, as well as the nickname “the Louisville Lip.”
Yet, despite all his domestic accolades, Ali remained a relative unknown entity in boxing in 1960, and he almost stayed that way.
It’s not that Ali had not flown in an airplane prior to 1960; he was just not particularly fond of it. A rough flight to California for the 1960 Olympic Trials convinced Ali that the only flying he wanted to do from that point forward was around the boxing ring.
A master of hiding fear from his opponents, Ali readily admitted his fear of this opponent and sought all manners of alternative transportation to Rome for the Olympics. With no other options than to board a transatlantic flight, Ali decided to move on, believing he was destined for greatness regardless of whether or not he earned an Olympic medal.
If you want to be heavyweight champion, you have to go to Rome. That was the advice that Joe Miller gave during a lengthily meeting in a Louisville park. Ali was ready to skip the Olympics rather than fly to them, but Martin convinced him to change his mind.
But if Ali was going to take a flight over the Atlantic, he was going to be prepared. Prior to the flight, Ali stopped at an Army surplus store and bought a parachute that he took with him on the plane. How Ali took that flight is a matter of some debate; by some accounts, he spent the entire flight praying with the parachute strapped to his back. According to others, Ali distracted himself by discussing which boxers, including himself, among the U.S. team were going to win gold.
Ali arrived in Rome anointed the best hope for a U.S .Gold Medal in boxing by Sports Illustrated, but few others has the idea that they were in the presence of greatness.
That didn’t matter, because Ali was more than willing to let them know that fact. Ali took to the Olympic Village like a politician running for office; shaking hands, introducing himself, swapping lapel pins, and generally integrating himself into the athlete culture. In the process, he earned another nickname, “the Mayor of the Olympic Village.”
Of course, this trip was about business and in order for it to be a success, Ali had to handle his; He was there to fight and fight he did.
Ali’s style, considered too flashy and unorthodox by many, made him a fan favorite in the Palazzo della Sport. He defeated Belgian Yvon Because by TKO in his opening fight before beating the 1956 middleweight Gold Medalist from Russia, Gennadiy Shatkov, by decision. In the semifinal, Ali defeated Australian Tony Madigan by a unanimous, albeit contentious, decision.
The 1960 gold medal light heavyweight match pitted the young, upstart Ali against the 1956 light-middleweight Bronze Medalist from Poland, Zbigniew “Ziggy” Pietrzykowski.
Pietrzykowski was older, more experienced, and stronger than Ali. But, Ali was Ali and Pietrzykowski was not. Ali initially struggled with the left-handed Pole and looked likely to lose after the first round. The second round started much like the first, but ended with Ali using his superior reach and speed to land a series of punched to his opponents head.
The third and final round was all Ali ad he dominated his rapidly tiring foe, leaving him dazed and erasing all doubt about which was the superior fighter.
Ali returned to the U.S. a conquering hero, readily displaying his well-earned trophy wherever he went. He wore it through New York City, he wore it at the victory parade that greeted him upon his return to Louisville, and he wore it into a local restaurant where, despite the medal, he was refuse service because of the color of his skin.
According to Ali’s 1975 autobiography, that final incident led him to throw his beloved gold medal into the Ohio River because he felt that it didn’t change a thing about him. He has since backed away from that story, claiming instead that he misplace the medal.
Ali was awarded a replacement gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta games where he inspired another great Olympic moment when he helped light the Olympic flame: a fitting tribute to a great Olympic champion that almost never was.
Mike Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.