Cassius Clay was born in 1942, of a poor black Christian family in Louisville, Kentucky. He was an aimless adolescent roaming the streets with friends when he discovered boxing, one of the only sports open to a black athlete in America at that time of strict segregation.
Young Cassius took to boxing and eventually rose to fame. In 1964 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
He tells us here how he got into boxing in the first place.
I was twelve years old, and me and Johnny Willis, my closest buddy, had been out riding around on our bikes, when Johnny suddenly remembered the Louisville Home Show, at the Columbia Gym.
At first I didn't want to go to the Home Show very much, but when we read the leaflet we saw that there would be free popcorn and free candy. Besides, my father had bought me a new bike for Christmas, and I wanted to show it off.
At the show we hung around eating until seven o'clock, when everybody was leaving.
Rain was coming down heavy when we left, so it took a while for us to notice that my bicycle was gone. Angry and frightened of what my father would do, we ran up and down the streets, asking about the bike. Someone-told us to go downstairs to the Columbia Gym. There's a policeman, Joe Martin, down there in the recreation centre. Go and see him.'
I ran downstairs, crying but the sights and sounds and the smell of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike.
There were about ten boxers in the gym, some hitting the speed bag, some in the ring, sparring, some jumping rope. I stood there, smelling
the sweat and rubbing alcohol, and a feeling of awe came over me. One slim boy shadowboxing in the ring was throwing punches almost too fast for my eyes to follow.
'You'll have to give me a report,' Martin said calmly, and wrote down what I told him. Then, as I was about to go, he tapped me on the shoulder. 'By the way, we got boxing every night, Monday through Friday, from six to eight. Here's an application in case you want to join the gym.'
I was about 112 pounds, skinny, and I'd never had on a pair of boxing gloves. I folded up the paper and stuck it in my pocket, thinking it was a poor thing to take home instead of a bike....
Next Saturday I was home looking at a TV show called Tomorrow's Champions, an amateur boxing show, and there was the face of Joe Martin, working in the comer with one of his boys.
I nudged my mother 'That's the man-1 told about the bicycle. He wants me to come and box. Where's that application?'
'You want to be a boxer?' She was serious.
'I want to be a boxer,' I said.
'How you going to get down there?'
'Oh, I'll borrow somebody's bike,' I said. 'And I don't have nothing else to do.'
When I got to the gym, I was so eager I jumped into the ring with some older boxer and began throwing wild punches. In a minute my nose started bleeding. My mouth was hurt. My head was dizzy. Finally someone pulled me out of the ring..
At that moment I was thinking I would be better off in the streets, but a slim welterweight came up and put his arms around my shoulders, saying, 'You'll be all right. Just don't box these older fellows first. Box the fellows who are new like you. Get someone to teach you how to do it.'
But there was hardly anybody to teach me anything. Martin knew a little. He could show me how to place my feet and how to throw a right cross, but he knew very little else. I was fighting like a girl, throwing wild, loopy punches. But something was driving me and I kept fighting and I kept training. And although I still roamed the streets with the gang, I kept coming back to the gym..
'I like what you're doing.' Martin said to me one day. 'I like the way you stick to it. I'm going to put you on television. You'll be on the
next television fight.'
Thrilled at the idea of being seen on TV all over Kentucky, I trained the whole week. They matched me with a white fighter, Ronny O'Keefe, and I won my first fight by a split decision.
All of a sudden I had a new life. Inside the gang, I was getting recognition as a fighter. My father walked up and down Boston Street after my first victory, predicting, 'My son is going to be another Joe Louis. The World Heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay.'
After school I would go to work four hours for the Catholic sisters, then train at Martin's gym from six to eight in the evening. From there I would go to get the real training at Stoner's gym from eight to twelve at night.
The discipline in Fred's gym was tough. Fred was relentless in making me develop certain muscles which he believed were necessary for survival in the ring. He made us shoot left jabs, two hundred straight, sharp left jabs at a time without stopping. If we got tired, he made us start all over and count to a hundred, one, two, three... shooting jabs until we could do the two hundred without feeling it. Then he made us shoot and jab and a right cross. Then come back with a hook, jab, left hook and duck; a jab and back up, a jab and move forward. He taught us to block, to shoot right crosses, and we went over it again and again. We did a hundred push-ups and a hundred knee bends.
I am 14 years old now; one rainy day I am driving my motor scooter, head down, zipping past parked cars until I pass one with its radio up loud and hear a roaring crowd. I put on the brakes, skid around and come back to hear more. A heavyweight boxing match is taking place. The car is too crowded for me to get in, but they let me put my head inside so I can hear. I have gotten there just in time to hear the announcer crying out above the noise, 'And still the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Rocky Marciano!'
A cold chill shoots through my bones. I have never heard anything that affected me like those words: 'Heavyweight Champion of the World.' All the world? And from that day on I want to hear that said about me.
I start dreaming: I can see myself telling my next door neighbour, 'I'm getting ready to fight for the Heavyweight Title of the World!' And coming back the next night to say, 'I'm now the Heavyweight Champion of the World!' The rain is cold and pouring down harder,
Cassius Clay vs. Archie Moore
and I ask myself, 'Can I?' At this time I can't even beat everybody in my own gym. I ask Joe Martin. He shakes his head doubtfully. 'You hardly weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet. You know how big a heavyweight is? Maybe you could be a lightweight.'
But I want 'heavyweight'. Somehow, although no one on either side of my family is that big, I feel I will be. I turn from him, and the next day I start training in earnest.
Soon I develop a built-in radar. I know how far I can go back, when it's time to duck or time to tie my man up. I learn there is a science to making your opponent wear down. I learn to put my head within hitting range, force my opponent to throw blows, then lean back and away, keeping eyes wide open so I can see everything, then side-step, move to the right, or to the left, jab him again, then again, put my head back in hitting range. It takes a lot out of a fighter to throw punches that land in the thin air. When his best combinations hit nothing but space, it saps him.
Throughout my amateur days, old boxers think I'm easy to hit, but I'm not. I concentrate on defense. I concentrate on timing and motions
and pulling back. When I throw a jab, I know my opponent will throw a punch, and I pull back.
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) will go on to capture the "Golden Gloves" championship in 1959, a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics and became in 1964 "Heavyweight Champion of the World". He will retain the title until 1967 when he gets barred from boxing because of his controversial position on the Vietnam war.
He will go back to boxing in 1971 when he suffers his first defeat as a professional at the hand of Joe Frazier. In 1973, in another attempt at world championship, he will lose for the second time in his life to Ken Norton.
In 1974, despite gloomy predictions, he will try again to capture the world title by challenging the then champion George Foreman.
He tells us here of his training in view of this fight.
Now, for this fight, I'm following my old plan of training. I sacrifice for my diet, watch my weight, run till I almost pass out. And then there's the sexual discipline. I've learned if a fighter works three or four weeks, say, without his wife, it's better for him. If a fighter can go six weeks, he'll pass through certain stages of conditioning. For the first week, it's tough. But if he can keep it up, he starts getting stronger and in better shape. His timing, his eyesight, his rhythm, everything starts coming in. He's steady getting strength. He gets three or four winds and he runs longer. I believe the more time he spends without sex and keeps living right and training, the better shape he's in.
How long does it take to prepare? Most Heavyweight Champions in the past have gone into training four to six months before a fight: some have prepared for a year. George started training four months before Zaire, but I'll only need about two months because I stay active, fighting every two or three months. I never really allow myself to get out of shape. Even when I'm at home, if I go to the grocery store or if I have a mile trip I walk it or run it. I eat the right foods. .1 don't drink, I don't smoke. I don't eat greasy foods, and since I'm a Muslim I don't eat pork, ham or bacon. I believe my diet makes me faster — and even my worst critics will admit that I am the fastest heavyweight in the history of boxing.
But I've been off four months since my second fight with Frazier,
and I've picked up a little weight. I've been eating banana pudding and homemade ice cream, constantly nibbling on cookies and cakes, drinking all kinds of soda. Now I have to be extra conscious of my weight. I have to get the sugar out of my blood. All sugar is outlawed. I eat fresh vegetables, good lamb, veal, squab, fish, good kosher chicken, I drink nothing but distilled water and fruit juices. In the morning I have poached eggs, wheat toast and grapefruit or orange juice. I prefer unsweetened grapefruit because it keeps the fat off my stomach. All this makes me feel good mentally. It makes me know I've got the discipline I need. I'm in control of my own diet.
Now, we set up a training camp. But even after we get everybody down to the camp, I'm still not ready to start training, I have to take a week just to get the thought in my mind that a fight's coming up.
(...) I have to think about George. I concentrate on him so much that I can feel his presence around me. I shadowbox with him.
Now, after a week, I get up at five o'clock in the morning and run. For the first three days I run a mile a day to get adjusted to the idea of running, to build up my legs and ankles, to constantly jar my heart into condition. After that I start adding to it, a mile a day.
This is the key for me. My defense depends on my legs. When I've lost, it was because my legs gave out. I couldn't dance, I couldn't jump out of my opponent's range. I got hit. Now I run myself to exhaustion so that if I have to go to the fifteenth round with George I'll be ready. I'll be tired and winded, but I'll be used to working under that tiredness. I push myself on the road so that no matter how hard my fight is, I won't get as tired in the ring as I do out here running.
It takes time to run and build up my legs, build my stamina, eat the right foods, get up and strain myself. If I run only three miles and I'm not tired, then I figure that day didn't do me any good. I've got to add on another mile or two until I make myself tired. When I'm doing my exercises, I don't start counting till I start paining. And the minute I start paining, I keep pushing under that pain.
(...) After running I take a long walk and I think about what I have to do for the day. Training is tough and boresome; sometimes it helps to have something to think about and take my mind off the pain.
When I come back off the road around seven-thirty, I take a rest. Running and jogging stirs me up internally and mentally to the point where I've got to cool off. I'm tired but I'm wide awake. I rest but I
can't sleep; I'm too jittery, too jumpy. I stay in my cabin for a while, watch television, read the papers or look at magazines. I bring my opponent into focus and I plan for the battle.
Around nine o'clock I have breakfast. I don't eat very much because I don't want too much on my stomach before afternoon workout. Afterwards I sleep from about eleven till one-thirty. By two o'clock I'm in the gym.
I train like I fight. Some fighters train in four or five minute rounds, but I break up my workout into three minute rounds just like in a fight. I start with three rounds on the heavy bag, three rounds on the speed bag, three rounds on the jump rope. And between each round I take a one-minute rest because this is the way it's going to be in a fight. No shorter, no longer, exactly a minute. This means a lot when I'm working myself into condition. I can be really tired after the fourth or fifth round, but if I'm in shape all I need is one minute to get my wind back, to sit and breathe in and out as slow and as deep as possible. If I'm not in shape, I could have a five minute rest after the first round and it would mean nothing. My heart, my pulse, my timing, internally, would be off: I'd be sore. But if I'm in shape, one minute will stimulate me and charge me up enough to come out strong and aggressive the last and fifteenth round.
(...) I move to the heavy bag for three rounds. This bag was designed to build up hitting power. I remember what an old trainer told me once. He said, 'Always hit that heavy bag like you're trying to knock a hole right through it.' The heavy bag weighs between a hundred and fifty and two hundred pounds, and it's about five feet tall. This is the most important part of the workout. The minute I hit it, I feel it knocking weight off me. It jars the weight off, tightens my stomach, trims my waistline, tightens up my muscles. It makes my wrists stronger, my fist, my knuckles. I push it out and let it come back and hit me in the stomach to toughen up my shoulders and arms.
The first few days I hit it, the bag feels like sandpaper. The heat and the friction will knock the skin off my knuckles, but I'll keep on hitting it. My knuckles will be tender and soon they'll be covered with dead skin. I'll keep working on the bag until this skin gets white and cracks. Then I'll tear it off and let my hands heal for a week before getting back on it.
(...) After the heavy bag, I go right to the speed bag. This is the
small bag that instantly snaps right back at me. I hit it twice with each hand. Two shots with the left, two shots with the right. As fast as I can, two shots with the left, two shots with the right, again and again. It sharpens up my eyes, watching my hands go back and forth, and it builds up my arms. This is especially important for the Foreman fight. George throws bone-crushing punches, and my arms have got to be strong enough to withstand them. They can't get tired and drop. If they do I'll be in trouble.
Next I take a few rounds jumping rope. This is good for my leg muscles, good for my wrists, constantly flipping that rope. It's good for my timing, and the jumping up and down builds up my heart. I start to get tired but I know I've got to do this so I won't be tired in the fight.
I save my sparring for last, instead of doing it first like most fighters. I want to go in the ring tired. If I went in right away, I'd have all my stamina, my resistance wouldn't be-low and I wouldn't be under any pressure. I want to be ready in case George lasts more than ten rounds. If he does, I may have to beat him on points and I'll need extra stamina to win.
I always make sure that my sparring partners are fresh. I make sure they do nothing but rest up and wait for me. We go at it strong and I'm twice as tired as they are. This forces me to liven up when they put the pressure on. It forces me to get them off of me. It forces me to dance and stay on my toes, to jab and get in, jab to the body and get out, hook to the head, tire them out fast. I'm tired mentally, too. This makes me think and react under pressure. It's equivalent to going into the tenth, eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth round of a fight. This way, when I beat my sparring partner to the punch after he comes in stronger, I have a good feeling because this man is fresh. I know that even after I've done all my other training and I'm tired, I can still go with this man, who is much fresher and has more energy than I have. I can still get to him, I can still take him.
(...) I'm tired and groggy, but I keep driving myself. My arms and legs are sore from working out and absorbing punches, but I know this is crucial. I look at my sparring partner and I see George's face. Now my eyes suddenly seem to clear up. I forget how tired I am. I can see blows coming at me before they even leave my sparring partner's chest. My left and my right are on target. I can hook, uppercut. I can do anything I want to do. My muscles do anything I tell them.
After the workout I take a shower, get a massage and take it easy until around five o'clock, when I have dinner. Then I sit around and talk, or read, or look at a movie until ten or eleven o'clock, when I go to bed..
By the time the fight is ten days away, I'll be through with most of my physical training. Now I concentrate on my mental conditioning. If my body isn't ready by then, it'll be too late. I'll follow my plans up until three days before the fight and then I'll start to loosen up and rest. Then I'll have to save up my energy so I'll be at my strongest when the bell rings. I want my mind and body working together. That's the way a fighter prepares.
On October 30th 1974, Muhammad Ali fights with George Foreman at Kinshasa (Zaire). After seven very gruelling rounds, during the eight round, he sends Foreman to the floor, obtaining his 32nd victory by K.O., regaining the World Heavyweight Title. During his boxing career (from 1960 to 1975), Muhammad Ali fought 51 times and lost only twice.
From Muhammad Ali, The Greatest — My Own Story.
Mayflower Books Ltd, U.K., 1976.
Ancient boxers depicted in an early rock painting (Bhimbetka, India)