Muhammad Ali: 'The kid who lost a bike and found a calling'

Muhammad Ali
"Boxing was a discredited, almost discarded sport when Ali intervened."

Hail the criminal who stole a bike outside the Home Exhibition in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1954.

A 12-year-old Cassius Clay was inside with friends, looking for "free candy and popcorn".

When he emerged to find his bike gone, Clay was directed to the basement of the building and the Columbia Training Centre, where police officer Joe Martin was in charge of the boxing programme.

Martin advised Clay he had better hone his punching skills before setting off in pursuit of the thief.

How fate finds a way.

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Fifty years on, I was sent to Louisville to report on the non-title heavyweight contest between Mike Tyson and Britain's Danny Williams. It was staged at the Freedom Hall, where the man who would become Muhammad Ali had made his professional debut in October 1960.

The Greatest, in his own words
"It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."
"I'm the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today."
"If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologise."
"Will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry and is as tall and extra pretty as me?"

Before Tyson-Williams, the chief-support contest featured Ali's daughter Laila. As she sauntered to victory, the capacity crowd chanted "Ali, Ali" and it was easy to close the eyes and wander back in time...

During fight week, Ali's brother Rahman, born Rudolph Clay, accompanied me to the old family home in the west end of the city. As we stood on the concrete pathway leading up to 3302 Grand Avenue, reminiscences flowed as easily as his big brother's combinations.

"We had two bedrooms, Mum and Dad in one, me and Cassius in the other," he said. "And we used to play marbles right here on the path.

"I remember when he came home from the Olympics (after winning light-heavyweight gold in Rome in 1960). Crowds everywhere. Man, it was like Mardi Gras."

We knocked on the door and the young girl who was living there with her family told us how her school friends wanted to do their homework at the house so they could boast about being at Ali's place.

Tyson was beaten by Williams in four rounds in a colossal upset. In betting terms, Williams had been given as much chance as a 22-year-old Clay against Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. After beating Liston, Clay changed his name - and his sport.

His news conferences became almost as eagerly-awaited as his fights. Access to television was increasing around the world and he embraced the medium to maximum effect. Cameras and microphones became his best buddies.

By 1971, when he fought Joe Frazier in the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden in New York, 300 million people felt the need to tune in via closed-circuit screens in theatres, halls and cinemas across the planet.

His philosophy was simple: whether they paid to see him win or to get sparked, his only concern was that their cheques did not bounce.

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Clinton praises Ali courage

Boxing was a discredited, almost discarded sport when Ali intervened.

The early 1960s featured reports from the Kefauver Commission in the United States which detailed the widespread influence of the Mob and the proliferation of fixed fights. The scandals were compounded by two high-profile deaths in world titles fights, involving the Cuban Benny Paret in 1962 and the American Davey Moore a year later.

The Oscar-winning screenplay writer Budd Schulberg was a lifelong boxing nut and felt compelled to pen this lament in January 1964: "Boxing is at the crossroads. Either it lifts itself or is lifted by some standard of conscience and regard for the boys on whom it feeds, or it will be nine, 10 and out, having lost through apathy and inhumanity its right to survive."

A month later, Ali became world heavyweight champion for the first time.

When I interviewed the former US President Bill Clinton for the BBC in 2011, shortly before Ali's 70th birthday, he articulated the significance of the breakthrough: "People had moved away from boxing. It was a huge deal in America in the 1940s and 1950s and then they wrote it off. Then here comes Muhammad Ali, first as Cassius Clay, looking like a ballerina in the boxing ring, reminding people it was a sport.

"He made it exciting and meaningful again. He was entertaining and when he was younger he was always mouthing. He made it part theatre, part dance and all power."

Ali's boxing career
Born in Louisville, Kentucky on 17 January 1942Turned professional later in 1960 and was world heavyweight champion from 1964 to 1967, 1974 to 1978 and 1978 to 1979
Won Olympic light-heavyweight gold in 1960Had 61 professional bouts, winning 56 (37 knockouts, 19 decisions), and losing five (4 decisions, one retirement)

Ali's allegiance to the Nation of Islam, also known then as the Black Muslims, cut him adrift from many erstwhile supporters and there was a celebratory mood when he was stripped of his world title in 1967, having refused to serve with US Armed Forces in the Vietnam War.

"It could have destroyed him but it didn't, because people realised he had been very forthright and he was prepared to pay the price for his convictions," said Clinton. "On balance, he won more admirers than detractors."

Schulberg explained to me some years ago how Ali's stance on Vietnam had been so prescient. In an interview recorded during an Arturo Gatti fight week in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he politely requested we take up residence at a favourite haunt of his, an Irish bar just off the boardwalk.

Reflecting on Ali's exile from the ring, which lasted three and a half years, Schulberg said: "The perception of him changed from a man who reflected the mood of his generation to someone who shaped it."

Another important factor in rebuilding the perception of Ali was his bravery - and later humility - in defeat, when beaten for the first time in his career in the aforementioned showdown with Frazier.

The enforced absence from the ring had had an enervating effect on Ali's movement and speed. Without the dancing feet, he was like the bird without wings. The best heavyweight in history might be the one we never got to see, the Ali of 1967-70.

Even so, his claims to the accolade of The Greatest are unrivalled. No other heavyweight fought and beat opponents of the calibre of Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Ken Norton. And three of them he beat twice.

His performance, less heralded, against Cleveland Williams in Houston in 1966 might just be the best exhibition of heavyweight boxing ever assembled. Three rounds of artistic violence.

And what must also be included in any debate about all-time rankings is the boxer's impact within and beyond his sport. Again, Ali belongs at a table for one.

The Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila and the Fight of the Century were straplines for nights so big they spawned songs, books and documentaries.

"They weren't fights, they were happenings," Ali's great friend Gene Kilroy told me in a BBC documentary in 2002.

Kilroy was luckier than most. He was there.

In recent years, I've been fortunate to sit close by as Usain Bolt and Floyd Mayweather, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis all pulled rabbits from a hat. But those experiences I'd trade in for a night at the fights with the kid who lost a bike and found a calling.