He called himself “the greatest.”
But, when he got his start, Muhammad Ali wasn’t the greatest. He was a 12-year-old kid who had just gotten his bike stolen. The young boy had ridden his red and white Schwinn bike to the Louisville Home Show for the free popcorn, hot dogs and candy, but after he had eaten his fill, he discovered the theft. A stranger told him to speak to a police officer, Joe Martin, who was at the nearby Columbia gym, and so young Clay did, and it changed his life.
“I ran downstairs crying but the sights and sounds and smell of boxing excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike.”
And just before he left, Martin tapped the young man on the shoulder and casually said, “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.”
But, he wasn’t a natural. As Martin himself put it, the young Cassius Clay “didn’t know a left hook from a kick in the a**,” and the first time he stepped into the ring against an older fighter, Ali “flailed wildly” and had to be pulled out. But just six weeks later, Clay won his first bout against another novice, and his father declared, “My son is going to be another Joe Louis. The World Heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay!”
Clay had just been prophetically hailed as a world champion, and he was on his way to becoming the greatest.
And part of becoming the greatest was that he wasn’t a natural, as his first coach said. But he wanted it, and he went for it — and he got it, including the gold medal at the Olympics.
And, again, the boxer had to overcome something in order to get that gold medal. This time, it was Ali’s fear of flying that nearly prevented him from travelling to the 1960 Olympics. His fear was so acute that Ali actually bought a parachute from an army surplus store and wore it on the plane. But, he fought through that fear, just like he fought through rounds with several other Olympic athletes before he finally defeated southpaw and bronze medalist Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
That hard-won gold medal was worn by Ali for two days straight, but ended up in the Ohio River — thrown there by a young, disillusioned Ali over the dichotomy of being both a gold medalist, a superb athlete, and yet also being seen as a second class citizen in his own country after being denied service in a restaurant. Ali wrote about it in his autobiography.
“A few minutes earlier I had fought a man almost to death because he had wanted to take it from me…now I had thrown it in the river. And I felt no pain and regret. Only relief, and a new strength.”
The gold medal, Ali would later say, couldn’t even get him a burger at a diner.
Ali — still Clay at that time — went professional after the Olympics. And he proved himself to be the greatest by using his newly found money to buy his mother a brand-new pink Cadillac.
And at the young age of 22, Ali “shook up the world” and declared himself “the greatest” after defeating heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
But even getting into the ring with heavyweight champion Liston was an uphill battle that Ali had to fight before he could even have a chance at claiming a victory.
The young Ali followed Liston to Las Vegas and, after Liston lost at a game of craps, shouted, in typical Ali-fashion, “Look at that big ugly bear, he can’t do anything right!” Liston, angry, threw the dice down and walked over to Clay and, after calling him a particularly cutting phrase, told him, “If you don’t get out of here in 10 seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your a**.” Clay walked, but later drove to Liston’s house in Denver to actually yell insults at him from the driveway.
Shortly after that incident, the fight was signed and Ali had his shot at the world title.
Liston was in a class to himself; in 36 fights, he had lost only once. And at the weigh-in before the fight, Ali’s pulse was double his normal rate and so people thought he was scared. But Ali told his doctor he wasn’t scared. No, Ali said, Liston was scared, explaining, “Liston is scared of no man, but he is scared of a nut because he doesn’t know what I am going to do.”
It was before this fight that Ali gave the world perhaps his most memorable quote during a lifetime of memorable quotes.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”
He was prophetic. Clay won. Liston sat on his stool and retired the fight. And Clay — who would soon take the name Muhammad Ali — declared his greatness.
“I am the greatest! I shook up the world, I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
It may have been the first time that Ali publicly declared that he was the greatest, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was,” he once said.
“I am the astronaut of boxing,” he said at another time. “Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots, I’m in a world of my own.”
And when asked about his brashness, Ali simply countered, “it’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
But Ali was the greatest when facing the impossible. The kid who was so mad that his bike got stolen that he declared he would “whup” who ever did it and then went on to become a boxer. The boxer who was so scared of flying that he wore a parachute on his first flight but flew anyhow and became an Olympic gold medalist. The Olympic gold medalist who went professional and relentlessly pursued a fight against the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and got it — and then won.
For Ali, he was the greatest because to him, nothing was impossible.
As the man himself said, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”
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