We remember Muhammad Ali for his famous bouts, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle, ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ and his various rivalries which elevated the profile of the sport of boxing.
However, his boxing journey began not as a professional, but instead as an 18-year-old who had a fear of flying.
As Olympics.com recounts, for a the 12-year-old Muhammad Ali – who was then known as Cassius Clay – learning boxing was a way to get even with a thief who stole his bicycle.
Cassius Clay went to a fair at the Columbia Gym in his hometown of Louisville back in 1955, his pride and joy - a red and white Schwinn bicycle - went missing.
Having quickly gone from two wheels to no wheels, the boy Ali was incandescent with rage, promising to “whoop” the thief if he ever laid hands on him.
Muhammad Ali’s angry outburst caught the attention of a local police officer, Joe Martin, who invited him to channel his fury by taking boxing classes at his gym.
That chance encounter set Clay on the path to future greatness. Within six months, he had won his first bout and six years later, at the age of 18, he was selected to represent his country in the Light Heavyweight category at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
But in the months leading up to the Games, it appeared Clay might not even make it to Europe. He hated flying and told his longtime trainer that he would rather skip the trip than get on a plane for another long flight.
Eventually, though, Clay was persuaded to fly. First from Louisville to San Francisco.
“You’re going to have to fly, son, if you want to be a fighter, fly to places all over the world,” said his trainer, Dick Sadler, according to Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story. “It’s a strange fear. But to you it’s real. You’ve got to either overcome it or give up boxing.”
The flight to San Francisco experienced some turbulence and that left Ali praying for his life. So before the flight to Rome, he went to an army supply store, bought a parachute and then, actually wore it on the plane.
Once Ali arrived in Rome, he made his presence felt around the Olympic village. He could always talk and that meant he was always the center of attention.
But, as so many discovered over the course of his career, he wasn’t just talking.
In his first bout against Belgian Yvon Becaus, the referee had to stop the contest in the second round, fearing a brutal knockout. He beat Russia’s Gennady Shatkov, a man who had won Olympic gold in the middleweight division four years earlier, in the quarters. In the semi-final, he beat Australia’s star pugilist Tony Madigan 5-0.
That set up the final against 25-year-old Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a Polish hero who had won the bronze in 1956 Olympics and was the reigning European champion. This time, Pietrzykowski wanted to go one better and standing in his way was an 18-year-old American.
Ali initially struggled to adapt to his rival’s southpaw style. The Pole edged the first two rounds, but Clay found his rhythm in the third round and then took the gold.
The gold medal not only set him on the path to becoming a future heavyweight champion of the world but also showcased him as an activist who would always speak his mind and stand for what he thought was right.
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