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Birth of the Greatest
Muhammad Ali may be the most recognized man in the entire world.
From the United States to Africa, Asia, and Europe, boxing champion Muhammad Ali remains the most popular and best-known athlete of the last fifty years. More than twenty years after his last bout, wherever Ali goes fans of all colors, religions, and nationalities mob him. They recognize him simply as the Greatest.
But over the course of his remarkable life, Muhammad Ali has become known for far more than his athletic accomplishments. He is a symbol of personal courage and conviction. Since retiring from boxing, and despite serious illness, the former world champion has preached peace, tolerance, and understanding among the many peoples of the world. "All great men are tested by God," he has said. If that is true, then the life of Muhammad Ali contains lessons for all.
No one could have possibly foreseen that the young Muhammad Ali would become such an important athlete. There was absolutely nothing about his childhood or upbringing that made him stand out. The name Muhammad Ali did not even exist yet. The man who would eventually be known by that name started out with another.
OnJanuary 17, 1942, Odessa Clay gave birth to a boy. His parents named their first son after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay.
Cassius Clay Sr. was a painter in Louisville, Kentucky, a talented and flamboyant man who liked to work hard and have fun. He was able to support his family by painting signs, billboards, and murals in local churches. As far as it can be determined-for family records are incomplete-Cassius senior's ancestors were what were once known as "free coloreds," people of African descent who were not slaves. But it is likely that at some point in the past his ancestors were slaves in the American South. More than a few plantation owners and slaveholders were named Clay, and slaves often took on the last name of their master.
Ali's father, in fact, was named after a white man. In the middle of the nineteenth century, just before the Civil War, a man named Cassius Marcellus Clay was an important politician. Although this Cassius Clay inherited a large plantation and slaves from his father, he did not believe in slavery. He emancipated, or freed, his slaves and began to speak out against slavery. He became known as an abolitionist, a person who campaigned against slavery in the United States.
In the mid-1800s, the entire nation was divided over the issue of slavery. In general, those who lived in the South supported slavery while those who lived in the North were against it. Since the state of Kentucky is a border state, midway between the North and the South, there were many Kentuckians who supported each position. Cassius Marcellus Clay, the politician, was outspoken in his opposition to slavery-so much so that on several occasions slavery supporters tried to kill him. But Clay refused to be intimidated. When the War between the States broke out, Clay supported the Union and President Abraham Lincoln. Later, Lincoln rewarded him by naming him the American ambassador to Russia. To many Kentuckians, particularly African Americans, Clay was a hero. That is why Ali's father was named after the abolitionist.
Odessa Clay was of mixed race. One of her great grandfathers was a white man who had a child with a slave, and one of her grandfathers was a white man who married an African American woman. But in her eyes, and in the eyes of American society, Odessa Clay was simply African American.
Like her husband, Odessa grew up in a segregated society in which African Americans did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as white Americans. It was hard for African Americans to find jobs. Odessa's mother worked as a domestic, taking care of the household chores and the young children of a white family. When Odessa became an adolescent, she dropped out of school and also found work as a domestic. Then, when she was sixteen years old, she met twenty-year-old Cassius, whom everyone referred to as Cash. They soon married and settled into their own house in Louisville.
The Clays weren't wealthy, but because Cassius had little trouble finding work, the family was comfortable, living in a middle-class African American neighborhood in Louisville's West End. From the start both parents doted on their first-born son.
And from the start Cassius junior loved the attention. He was a precocious child who walked and talked at an early age. He never seemed to sit still and had enormous energy, dashing around the house on his tiptoes and talking a mile a minute.
Cassius's upbringing was typical of the times. Odessa was very religious and made sure the family went to church and to Sunday school each week. At the Virginia Street elementary school, Cassius was an average, if somewhat mischievous and talkative, student. Some people believe he may have suffered from dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read. He much preferred art class and working with his hands. He and his younger brother, Rudy, both enjoyed going to work with their father on a painting job. Cash taught them how to mix paint and sometimes allowed his sons to help him lay out and letter the signs.
But apart from the occasional game of touch football, Cassius, like his father, wasn't very interested in sports. It wasn't until he was twelve years old that he was introduced by chance to the sport that would change his life.
Once a year in Louisville, merchants who catered to the community's African American population demonstrated their wares at the Louisville Home Show. The show was held at a local auditorium. To attract crowds the merchants gave children free popcorn and balloons.
Cassius heard about the show and, like any twelve-year-old, decided an afternoon of eating free popcorn and getting balloons would be fun. So he rode his bike to the auditorium, parked outside, and wandered around the show for a few hours with his friends. But when Cassius left the show to go home, his bicycle was gone! It had been stolen.
He broke into tears and stormed back into the auditorium. An adult noticed him crying and asked Cassius what was wrong. He told him that his bike had been stolen and that he wanted to find a policeman. The man knew that a Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, ran a boxing gym in the basement of the auditorium. He told Cassius to go downstairs and report the theft to Martin.
Cassius went down and found Martin. Sniffing and holding back tears, he told Martin that his bike had been stolen and that he wanted to "whup" whomever had taken it.
Martin felt bad. He knew it was very unlikely that the bike would ever be recovered. But he told Cassius, "You better learn how to fight before you start saying you're going to 'whup' someone."
Cassius had never thought about that before, and he looked around the gym. Boys of all sizes and colors were working out, trying to learn how to box. Some were on the floor doing sit-ups and some were skipping rope. Others were standing in front of a mirror, shadowboxing. Another was hitting what is called a speed bag, and another was pounding a large, heavy bag suspended from the ceiling. In the middle of the room was a boxing ring, and two young men wearing protective headgear and gloves were sparring with each other. Martin was moving around the gym, giving all the boys pointers and shouting words of encouragement.
Cassius loved the way the gym looked and felt. He even liked the way it smelled! He had never thought of becoming a boxer before-and despite his threat to "whup" someone, he had never even been in a real fight. He was intrigued by Martin's challenge.
At first glance, the sport of boxing just looks like two people trying to beat each other up. But it is much more than that. Boxing has rules and requires a great deal of skill, discipline, and practice as well as stamina and strategy. Even the toughest street fighter has little chance against a trained boxer.
Boxing is one of the world's oldest sports. For centuries human beings have tried to settle their differences by fighting. But boxing is not a contest motivated by hate; it is one in which the participants test each other's skills. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans competed in a form of boxing, and there are even descriptions of boxing in Homer's epic Greek poem the Iliad. In ancient times, boxing matches lasted until one man was too injured to continue.
The modern sport began in England during the 1700s. A man named James Figg opened a boxing school and taught students to throw different punches and block the blows. His students then competed against one another. Before long, spectators came to watch the competitions.
At first there were few rules to boxing. But over time, for reasons of safety, a set of rules slowly evolved.
In the 1860s an Englishman known as the Marquess of Queensberry developed a set of twelve rules that still serves as the basis of the modern sport. The marquess decided that boxers would wear gloves and fight in rounds that would last for two or three minutes, with one minute of rest in between. A boxer who was knocked down had ten seconds to regain his feet. If he could not do so, he was considered knocked out, and the match ended.
Over the next fifty years the rules continued to evolve. Head butts and punches below the belt or to the back of the head were made illegal. Boxers were matched by weight so each fight would be fair. The weight divisions ranged from junior flyweight, for boxers under 108 pounds, to the heavyweight division, for those who weigh above 195 pounds. The number of rounds a fight lasted was limited to fifteen, and in the event no one was knocked out either the referee or a team of judges scored the fight and determined the winner.
Boxing came to the United States early in the nineteenth century. At first the sport was banned in places because it was considered too violent. But its popularity grew, and soon there were too many boxers, and boxing fans, to stop the sport entirely. By 1920 boxing was a legal sport throughout the United States.
By then, nearly every town and city had one or more gyms where boxing was taught. Boxing matches between professionals sometimes drew thousands of fans. Champions, particularly in the heavyweight division, became rich and famous.
But not everyone who boxed did so for money. Beginning in 1904, boxing became an Olympic sport. Amateur boxers, unlike their professional counterparts, wear protective headgear and larger, padded gloves. In amateur boxing, each match generally lasts only three rounds of two minutes each.
For many years in the United States, African American boxers were not allowed to fight white boxers, and until very recently women were not even allowed to compete in the sport. But in Australia, in 1908, an energetic and powerful African American named Jack Johnson won the world heavyweight title when he defeated white Canadian Tommy Burns. Such fights between African American and white boxers drew enormous crowds. Soon the ban against African American fighters was dropped in the United States.
Twelve-year-old Cassius Clay knew none of boxing's long history the day he went to the basement of the auditorium in Louisville. All he knew was that his bicycle had been stolen. But when he walked into the gym, the course of his life changed forever.
Excerpted from Muhammad Ali by Matt Christopher Copyright ©2005 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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