The future World’s Champion was born at 6:35 PM at Louisville General Hospital on January 17th, 1942 to Cassius and Odessa Clay. His father was a local club singer and sign painter and passed on some his artistic talent to his son the boxer. These talents manifested in the poems written by young Clay, which he often cited before his fights. In the simple verses he predicted the rounds his opponents would fall. His poems rang with deadly accuracy and many of his opponents fell within the predicted round. His artistry could also be seen in the sketches and doodles that accompanied the autographs he signed through out his career. During his final days of high school it has been often reported Clay could be seen drawing on the back of his jacket, “Cassius Clay, Next Champion of the World”. Besides the artistic talents of his father, Clay’s mother’s personality was also a big part of his persona. Both were deemed as loving and caring individuals. Although a gladiator in the ring, Clay was a true, compassionate friend to many. It has been often written that his mother, Odessa Grady Clay was a kind hearted woman that loved her children, church, cooking and baking. Both Clay Jr. and his mother had a fondness for sweets, and that they shared became a problem for Clay later in his career when meeting his fighting weight became more difficult with age. Memorabilia relating to Mrs. Clay can be found in the form of a recently produced postcard, which shows young Clay carrying his mother in the kitchen of their home on Grand Avenue. Also, original snap shots taken by friends and family members exist of Mrs. Odessa Clay.
Christie’s of Los Angeles, on Sunday 19th, October 1997 conducted a catalog and live sale, where they offered the Ronnie Paloger Collection of Muhammad Ali Memorabilia. In order to complete my study of Clay’s early years of 1954-1960, the items offered in this sale will also be inserted into this studies proper historical context. When referencing these catalog offerings, they will be indexed as 1997 Paloger Lot #XX.
The earliest item associated with the life of Cassius Clay was offered Lot #2, described as, “Cassius Clay Baby Picture, A black and white original picture of a four year old Cassius Clay sitting on a bench with his brother Rudy. “ The photo can be found in the Christies Paloger catalog.
Origin of his family name
His name and that of his father originated from the original Cassius Marcellus Clay, a Kentucky plantation owner. Different from contemporary slave owners, Cassius Marcellus Clay was considered opinionated and dogmatic and not very considerate of others that disagreed with his progressive thinking in regards to the Negroes he employed. According to the book, “Black is Best, the Riddle of Cassius Clay,” by Jack Olsen, “Clay was one of the first Kentuckians to free his slaves and adopt a stance against slavery, backing up his position with a cannon which he once fired in his eighty-third year to scare off a posse out to get him.”
Jack Olsen writes in the book that Clay Sr. said, “…the original Cassius Marcellus Clay battled against slavery at all times. We proud of him. My own grandfather was brought up on the old man’s land, but he never a slave. My grandfather was with the old man, but not in a slave capacity, no sir!” Cassius Marcellus Clay took my grandfather with him at all times. And then my daddy was born. He was well off. There weren’t no poor people in those days. I remember!”
Clay Jr. was very aware of the history of the Clay name. He also shared his father’s family pride of his heritage during his amateur boxing days and the first few years of his professional career. This can be seen in the flowing proud signatures signed, “Cassius Marcellus Clay, Next World Champion” or Cassius Marcellus Clay, Heavy Weight Champion of the World”. Both versions of his autograph are quite rare and very prized among collectors.
The boxer’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., was very proud of the Clay name. It also hurt the Sr. Clay deeply when Cassius Jr. denounced the name and became known as Muhammad Ali. It broke a tradition and ignored a source of pride that the Sr. Clay held dear. At first when the young Clay changed his name, it led to bitter arguments and a period of time when the father and son did not speak. Later, Sr. accepted his son’s decision, but never forgave him for the denouncing of the Clay heritage.
With his conversion to Islam, Clay adopted a more traditional name. The changing of the name was thought by some to be a public denouncing of his family name and heritage. It is quite ironic that the traits associated with the original Cassius Marcellus Clay, opinionated, dogmatic, and progressive, are all traits that can be labeled with the very act of Clay changing his name and converting to Islam. With the name change, Clay began his journey of fighting the establishment and adhering to progressive ideals and values he was beginning to experience by his association with the black Muslims. The very act of fighting the establishment, questioning authority, and challenging current social norms, Cassius mirrored the traits of the man that held the Christian name he renounced.
As a historic figure, there are some period items available of the abolitionist. Included are CDV’s, Steele Engravings, and rare tintype photos. His autograph is also in demand and can be found in historic autograph dealer’s inventories.
1954: Birth of a Boxing Champion
The story has been told how during the summer of 1954 while young Cassius Clay was visiting a local trade show he first found his reason for boxing. Riding his new bike to see the show and eat some free hot dogs and soda, he parked the bike in front of the auditorium and began the day’s events. When he returned to his bike, he found it was stolen. The young boy of twelve could be heard saying “Somebody stole my bike, I want it back. If I find the kid who stole my bike, I’ll whup him.” While reporting the theft and searching for payback, he sought the advice of Louisville Policeman Joe Martin who happened to be the cities golden gloves instructor. Although he never found the bike thief, Clay was introduced to boxing.
Joe Martin’s thoughts were chronicled of the young Clay in the book “Man of Destiny by John Cotrell”. Joe Martin, badge 474, a native of Louisville, is a tall bespectacled Bilko bald policeman who coached numerous national AAU and Golden Gloves champions of all ages. When Cassius showed up at the gym for the first time, Martin found him no better and no worse as a novice than the majority of the ten thousand or so boys he had taught in the past twenty years. There is little memorabilia connecting tutor to pupil. One item was produced during the 1960’s, the Louisville Police Department issued a magazine called the Badge where Joe Martin and Cassius Clay periodically appeared on the cover retroactively celebrating the career of Clay. Also, signed amateur boxing Training Certificates signed by Joe Martin surface in the Louisville area. Once Clay became pro he had very little contact with Joe Martin, but Clay did pay for transportation and a ring side ticket to the rematch bout versus Liston in 1965.
Clay began to train in the Columbia Gym, a four story building on Fourth and York streets. Housed in the community center, it had all the amenities popular with youth of the day, bowling allies, table tennis, billiards and snooker. Here Clay was to train and study the arts of boxing almost every day for six years.
With only six weeks of training, Clay fought fellow Louisvillian Ronnie O’Keefe and was award a 2-1 split decision victory. It was the first of 118 amateur fights that would lead to the greatest boxing career ever. It was an omen of good things to come.
With his first fight under his belt, he continued to learn fast. Fascinated by the sport, he spent all his leisure time in the gym, skipping, punching, shadow boxing and sparring. After a year he stood out among all the teenage fighters.
Young Clay developed an unorthodox but effective training regiment on his own. Rock fighting. Schoolyard boys and his brother Rudy would throw rocks at the stationary Clay. By moving his head, shoulders, or shifting his weight, he always ducked the impending objects. This quickness technique, along with countless hours of running, jump roping and self imposed training, contributed to the building blocks of a World’s Heavy Weight Championship career.
A very early boxing item appeared in the Christie’s sale. Equipment was found as 1997 Paloger Lot #3 CASSIUS CLAY AMATEUR TRUNKS AND SHOES. “A pair of black boxing shoes and trunks worn by Cassius Clay during his amateur career in the late 1950s. The black trunks have white trim, a POST-New York label on the front; the shoes include the original laces. These items were originally obtained from Cassius Clay, Sr. by a collector who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, the Clay’s family’s hometown. These are one of two pairs of amateur shoes known and the only pair of amateur trunks.”
The Golden Gloves era 1956-1960
The earliest newspaper account of Cassius Clay during his Golden Gloves career appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal. It stated that during 1956, in reference of the rising career of Louisville resident Cassius Clay that in an undated match, he beat Luther Quisenbury of Indianapolis on WAVE TV. Records show Cassius Clay went onto to become the Louisville area Golden Gloves champ for the 1956 season in his weight class. No additional records of his career 118 fights have been uncovered for the 1956 season.
The first golden gloves programs bearing photos and listings of Cassius Clay begin to appear during 1957. A very rare program from the Columbia Gym lists Clay fighting William F. May at the 156-pound weight class. The bout took place during the listed dates of January 21,23,28, & 29th. The exact date or outcome is not recorded. With success at the local level, Clay began to compete nationally. Now fighting in the light heavy weight division, Clay was favored for a national Golden Gloves title. A heart murmur forced him to take off several months and he experienced a loss to Kent Green on February 26th, 1957 in Chicago during the Golden Gloves quarterfinals. Records show he finished the year with victories against Donnie Hall on October 26th, 1957 on WAVE TV in Louisville and on December 4th, 1957 a win against Joe Harris in Cincinnati, OH. During this time the fights were held at the Louisville Armory or at the Columbia Gym housed in the Service Club. Postcards from both venues can be found on the market.
Chuck Bodak, an amateur boxing official, recalls Cassius Clay in the ring at that time.
Chuck Bodak: “I was on the Golden Gloves coaching staff for the Chicago Tribune, which conducted the National Golden Gloves Tournament in Chicago. When Cassius first came in, he looked like a young colt, very spindly legged and wiry. Framework was just about all he had, but even then there was an aura about him. People would stop and look and not know what they were looking at, but they were looking at him. He lost that first year to a kid named Kent Green, who was an older, seasoned amateur from Chicago. But Cassius had talent; he made an impression. And each year after that, the improvement was obvious. The more he matured, the sharper he got. I mean, you’d have had to be blind not to see how good this kid was. I told his mother once, ‘Cassius must be from outer space, because I’ve never seen anyone like him in my life.'”
Bob Surkein, an Amateur Athletic Union referee and judge, supplements Bodak’s recollections.
Bob Surkein: “I’d been refereeing boxing since 1943, and the first time I stepped in the ring with this kid, I didn’t know who he was. I knew he was a young fighter from Louisville with a white police officer who was handling him. And I saw him with his hands down, standing there, looking like he was going to get bombed out, and all of a sudden realizing that God had given this kid reflexes like no one had ever seen. Because even in the amateurs, he had the same reflexes and skills he had later on. Normally, you saw an amateur fighter jump out of harm’s way. Cassius would stand there, move his head two inches, turn his body another six inches, and just slide over. I said to myself, it can’t be, but after watching him in the ring many times, I knew this kid had it.
1997 Paloger Lot #6 offered CASSIUS CLAY 1957 GOLDEN GLOVES TROPHY. Described as “ a significant 1957 Golden Gloves trophy awarded to Cassius Clay when he was fifteen for being the most aggressive boxer in his division.” Clay’s aggressive ring style was recognized early by the winning of this award, and a prelude to his future successes.
Clay erased any questions concerning his health and captured the 1958 Louisville Golden Gloves tournament. He went onto Chicago for the National Golden Gloves Finals.
During the first round on February 25th he beat Alex Watts and Francis Turley to advance. On the 26th he again gained victory against an opponent whose name has been erased to time. He was beaten in the Finals on March 5th, 1958. Records show he fought three more time in Louisville and beat Charley Baker on 7/5/58, Walter Givens during the Mayors Youth Boxing tournament on 10/7/58, and the final recorded fight against Wilson Taylor on 10/7/58.
During the 1958 tournament in Chicago, Cassius Clay began to appear regularly in boxing tournament programs. Examples of both the Chicago tournament and Finals programs exist.
By 1959, Clay was no secret in the boxing circle. Now topping six feet tall and weighing 170 pounds, he won the national Golden Gloves light heavyweight Championship in Chicago.
The tournament began in Chicago on March 2nd and in the first rounds Clay beat both Willie McMillan and Cliff Murkey. A simple program was issued for the tournament. The cover reads, “Thirty Second Annual Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, sponsored by Chicago Tribune Charities, Inc. @ Chicago Stadium. March 2,3, & 4. Finals March 11.”
Clay won the Tournament of Champions crown by defeating Jeff Davis on March 11th, 1959 at the Chicago fights. In the final tournament of the Golden Glove’s season, Clay went to New York City to fight in the Golden Gloves finals.
During this tournament, his ability foreshadowed the great career, which lay on the horizon. The tournament finals pitted him against 29-year-old British Empire amateur champion Tony Madigan, whom sported a 94-5 record. The bout was no contest and Clay easily won a cleat cut decision. He was the best amateur fighter in the World. Clay had beaten all the top amateur contenders. Original wire photos of this fight can be found in the holdings of advanced collectors. Also, a full color program with an artistic rendering was issued for the intercity bout versus the New York Golden Gloves club. The cover reads, “March 25th, 1959, Golden Gloves Intercity Bouts, New York versus Chicago.”
Clay continued gain titles for his increasingly impressive record. He entered the AAU tournament in Toledo and beat Reginald Brown (of Philadelphia) on 4/2/59. He captured the title on 4/3/59 in a championship fight versus Johnny Powell.
The program for this fight was described in the Christies sale, 1997 Paloger Lot #9. CASSIUS CLAY 1959 A.A.U. BOXING PROGRAM AND PAN AM TRIALS PROGRAM.
Records show he fought Joe Harris on 4/10/59 in Cincinnati Ohio for the Intercity Tournament Championship, another victory on his was to compete in the 1959 Pan-American Games trials, which were held in Madison, WI. Their Cassius Clay earned his first major defeat. This was a defeat that haunted him. It motivated him to train even harder. To pay closer attention to the art. It would be his last defeat until he met Joe Frazier in 1971. Programs from the Field House can be found in advanced Clay collectors. The cover features to unnamed amateur boxers with the heading, “FINALS, University of Wisconsin Field House, Tuesday, April 30, 1959, Madison, WI, 3rd PAN AMERICAN BOXING TRIALS.” The inside of this program shows young Clay with coach Joe Martin.
1959 Pan American Games finals Tournament
Clay entered the tournament on April 28th versus Leroy Bogar. He made quick work of the opponent and then eliminated James Jackson the following day to advance. Records show that in early May, Clay met the man that would become the first blemish on his record.
Amos Johnson, an experienced marine boxer, from California, confused Clay with his southpaw style. The defeat snapped Clays win streak at 36. Clay still went to the Pan American games, which were held in Chicago, IL. He did not compete, but he did accompany the team as an alternate. After the games, he went back to Louisville, the loss burning in his psyche. At home, he trained harder than ever, running with brother Rudy at Chickasaw Park.
Remainder of 1959
Newspaper archives show that while in Louisville, Clay stayed sharp by defeating Chester Winters on 5/23/9 on WAVE TV. While traveling with Martin, Clay defeated Herb Wills on 7/20/59 in Cincinnati, OH. Ten days later Young Cassius showed the world that the defeat by Amos Johnson would remain a fluke and he made light work out of Art Toombs on 7/30/59 in Cleveland, OH.
On 10/25/59, Clay beat Cecil Payne in Louisville, KY at a benefit bout sponsored by Joe Martin for an amateur fighter that became cancer stricken. The bout was held at the Shawnee American Legion Post and raised much needed money for the care of the ill fighter. This was the first of countless exhibition fights that Clay participated in that were registered for the next 30 years. And in all most all cases, Clay donated his entire purse to the sponsored cause.
Clay finished the year with a victory on 11/20/59 against Johnny McGrove at the Shrine Club in Louisville. All of the weekends of Clay and Joe Martin traveling the Midwest fighting in tournaments, keeping sharp, were for preparation for the 1960 Olympics.
1960: Final Golden Gloves Season
Now standing six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds of muscle and speed, Clay prematurely fought in the heavyweight division to avoid a potential confrontation with his younger brother Rudy. With his young and exciting career beginning to build, Clay fought on 1/30/60 at Freedom Hall, Louisville. This venue is significant in the fact that 10 months later, Clay would be fighting his first professional fight in that very ring. Collectors should consider adding Freedom Hall postcards to there collections as they are readily available, inexpensive, and captured a very historic moment in the professional beginnings of Clay’s career. As reigning Golden Gloves lightweight Champion, Clay went to Chicago to defend his title. As in tradition to the year before, the Thirty Third Annual Golden Gloves program was issued. It read, “Thirty Third Annual Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, sponsored by Chicago Tribune Charities, Inc. @ Chicago Stadium. Feb. 29, March 1 and 2. Finals March 9.”
On 3/1/60 Clay defeated John Wilson and Henry Harris. He went onto defeat Bill Nielson then Al Jenkins from Kenosha, WI. On 3/9/60 we defeated Jimmy Jones to win the 1960 lightweight Golden Gloves National Championship. All of the fights in Chicago were held at the old Chicago Stadium.
For winning the tournament, Clay was awarded a championship trophy. It appeared in the Christies sale and was described as Lot 11, CASSIUS CLAY’S 1960 GOLDEN GLOVES TROPHY. “(1997 Paloger) A significant 1960 Golden Gloves trophy awarded to Cassius Clay after he won the National Title in the heavyweight division from Jimmy Jones in Chicago on March 9th, 1960. The prestigious white plastic and brass trophy bears two plaques. The upper plaque states, Chicago Tribune Charities Golden Gloves Tournament 1960 and the lower plaque Joe Louis Sportsmanship Trophy. A boxer in fighting pose is featured at the top of the trophy, with two eagles perched beneath it.” This trophy represented the pinnacle of Clay’s amateur career.
As in the previous season and with a rotating venue, Clay represented Chicago in the 33rd Intercity Golden Gloves tournament and battled the New York Golden Gloves team champ. On 3/21/60 Clay defeated Gary Jawish to cap his victories in Chicago. Photos and video show Clay wearing Wilson “Golden Gloves” brand gloves for his fight versus Jawish.
Clay also entered the AAU Regional Championship that was held in Toledo. In the first round held on 4/7/60 Clay defeated Joe Reynolds. The next day he defeated Ray Whetstone to advance. In the semi finals a victory came over Billy Joiner. Clay won the championship by defeating Jeff Davis in the AAU finals.
His final amateur accomplishment came with his repeating the AAU Golden Glove light heavy weight championship. On 4/15/60, Clay found Roy Ector in the first round. The semi final found the victorious Clay pitted against Fred Walden. To repeat the AAU championship, Clay defeated Charles Hannah in the Finals, which were held in Louisville, KY.
It was relative smooth sailing for Clay on his way to an Olympic gold medal, with the only exception being the flight turbulence encountered over Indiana on the way to San Francisco for the Olympic trials. This bad experience with flying almost stopped Clay from competing in Rome, Italy for the Olympic competition. Only after Joe Martin convinced Clay that each win in Rome would be equal to $20,000 in his pocket did he agree to fly to Italy.
While in San Francisco, the Olympic trials began on 5/18/60. Clay defeated Henry Cooper to advance to the finals. On 5/20/60, the Olympic finals found him fighting Allen Hudson. Early in the fight, Hudson of Long Island, NY, dumped Clay onto the Canvas. With his Olympic hopes in jeopardy, Clay immediately knocked out Hudson to end the fight and insure his future. Just like in future fights versus George Foreman and Joe Frazier, Clay found the inner strength to do what it takes to win the big fight. In my collection I have a general admission full ticket from the Olympic Trials bout. Printed on the ticket is, “Auspices San Francisco Examiner, U.S. Olympic Amateur Boxing Finals, Cow Palace, San Francisco, Gen. Admission, May 18, 1960, $1.25.”
Although still fearful of flying, Clay create a poem to cite over and over to help in on his journey. Also, the words of encouragement from Joe Martin and the thought of $20,000 per fight spurred Cassius Clay on.
With Golden Glove success and the promise of Olympic Gold ahead, young Cassius was beginning to think about his life as a professional boxer. One the most personal and telling items from his amateur career was a letter written to a prospective promoter. The letter was written in June, two months before the Olympics and was offered for sale by Christie’s. 1997 Paloger Lot #17, CASSIUS CLAY LETTER, “A significant two page handwritten letter to a boxing promoter in Ohio, dated June 1960. At the time, the eighteen year old Clay was at the height of is amateur career with winning Golden Glove tournaments and was preparing to represent the United States in the Rome Olympic Games. Clay writes in detail about his expectations from either a promoter or a trainer before turning professional, claiming I must have the best training, and in order to make a great boxer you have to be under the best of care, and as soon as the money offer comes along and the right man, that is when I will turn pro. Although there is a lot about the game I do not know yet, I am the best for my age and weight in the United States. Signed ROME BOUND, Your friend always, Cassius Marcellus Clay.”
The letter is poignant in the fact Clay was both aware of his boxing strengths and his firm knowledge that he had to learn the business side of this future profession. Very rare traits in a young man on the verge of stardom.
The Olympic games began on 8/30/60 in the Eternal City of Rome. Clay overwhelmed the Belgian Yvon Becaus. The next round found Clay sending a boxer listed as Schatkov back home to Russia with two black eyes. Former golden gloves foe Tony Madigan appeared in the semi finals and Clay repeated a victory just as he had done in the Finals in New York.
The finals were held on the evening of Monday, September 5th, 1960. The account of the fight was most accurately told in the book, “Man of Destiny, by John Cotrell.” He wrote, “In the first round of the light heavy weight contest between Cassius Clay and Zbiegniew Pietrzykowski, it appeared Clay may be badly mauled. In the early seconds of the bout, it appeared Clay would be confused against the Polish southpaw, much like he had against the left handed Amos Johnson in the Pan-American Games tournament. Early on, Clay took some heavy punishment and appeared confused. Ringside observers commented that Clay broke a cardinal rule of boxing and closed his eyes during a barrage of blows. The Pole, fighting with plaster over his right eye, sought to lure the young and troubled Clay into indiscretions. Clay managed to keep out of trouble in the second round and in the last minute abandoned his show off style with the fancy footwork and dropped hands, and stood his ground to throw four hard rights to the head.” Even after the change of style, Clay new he was behind on points. “Clay did finish big. In that final round he suddenly found his top form, moving in and out with expert judgement, punching crisply and with perfect timing. This sharper, better co-ordinated Clay stormed back with a torrent of combination punching that left Ziggy dazed. Drawing blood, Clay came preciously close to scoring a knock out. At the final bell, Ziggy was slumped helplessly against the ropes. There was no doubt of the verdict, all judges made Clay the points winner.”
Christies sale, 1997 Paloger Lot #20 lists a very rare poster issued at the parade to honor the returning gold medal winner. CASSIUS CLAY HOMECOMING POSTER, “A September 20, 1960 cardboard poster celebrating Clay’s homecoming in Louisville, Kentucky, after his victory at the Rome Olympics. The advertisement, the earliest known Cassius Clay poster, is an invitation by the Major and the City Council to meet at his alma Mater Central High.” This poster is also significant as it is the last remnant of his amateur career.
With the awarding of his gold medal, the world heard no more of the amateur boxer listed in programs as C.M. Clay. A “Welcome Home” parade was scheduled and a few signs survived from the advertised festivities. With a pro career waiting upon his return home, a showman extraordinaire would emerge as the plane landed at home. From now on, the professional boxing world would have to deal with Cassius Marcellus Clay, Next Heavy Weight Champion of the World.
Author Troy R. Kinunen has been a noted collector of Muhammad Ali memorabilia for 18 years. As a co-lead authenticator for MEARS, he has applied the techniques learned from evaluating game used jerseys and applied it to the authentication of Muhammad Ali memorabilia. Currently Troy has built and maintained a database of 3,683 digital images of the champ, a library of 24 books, and a database of 864 items of memorabilia that has sold in the hobby over the past 15 years.