He was a quiet and shy boy from Kentucky, Louisville. Cassius Clay as he was named at birth, never thought he would take up boxing as a sport until one day his bicycle got stolen from a local town fair.
That made young Clay, 12 at that time, very angry and all he wanted to do was to whack the thief had he found him. Clay's outburst did not go in vain though as a local police officer, Joe Martin, invited him to the gym and helped him to channel his anger through boxing.
Thus began the story of probably the most iconic sportsman in history. The young Cassius Clay, who later re-named himself after taking up Islam as Mohammad Ali and would dominate the sport of boxing, started off in that small Louisville gymnasium.
The legend was born in Rome
Within six weeks, of getting himself admitted to the gym, Ali had won his first fight. But his mentor, Morton convinced him that to achieve greatness he needs to win at the Olympics. So, Ali had less than six years to prepare for the big event in Rome 1960.
Ali was ready for the trials of the US national Boxing team for the Olympics; he made the cut. However, a turbulent air journey to the trials in California from Louisville, made Ali hate flying. Again, Morton persuaded him to fly to Rome with the team. But Ali took a parachute with him and the dislike of flights stayed with him through his grown-up years.
As an athlete, Ali became very popular amongst his teammates and earned the nickname "the Louisville lip" from peers. Soon Ali proved that he was not only a big mouth outside the ring but also a dominant one inside it.
He absolutely battered his first bout and quarter-final opponents. He gave his first opponent, Yvon Becaus from Belgium a beating so bad that the referee had to stop the match in the second round. Then Ali swept the Middleweight Olympic champion Gennady Shatkov from Russia, 5-0, on points.
That score was replicated in his semi-final bout against Australia's Tony Madigan. Within six short years of starting to play the sport, Ali had made it through to the light heavyweight Olympic final.
On the final, which took place on September 5th 1960, Ali defeated Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. Pietrzykowski was bigger and more experienced than his callow opponent and dominated the first two rounds.
But with his stamina and quick combinations, Ali fought back in the match. After the final bell, the judges gave their verdict and the 18-year-old man from Louisville was an Olympic gold medallist.
Ali turned professional in the same year and made his debut on October 29th against fellow American Tunney Hunsaker. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Back home things went bitter
After Ali's win in Rome, there was ecstasy back in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky. His father Cassius Marcellus Clay Snr and his mother, Odessa Grady Clay were proud of their little boy, for their son had brought honour to his family, to his people, to his hometown, and to his country. A hometown parade was arranged in his honour, but these soon were overshadowed.
The town of Louisville had its roots deep in segregation and racism. A New York Times report of that time stated that the boxer was publicly referred to as 'the Olympic nigger' in his home town.
One fine day, Ali, still Cassius Clay, went to a restaurant in Louisville for a meal. But as the restaurant was white-owned he was refused service for his colour. Those days "The Jim Crow laws", which enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, were in full effect.
This made Ali mad. He ran to the Second Street Bridge on the Ohio River and flung his Olympic Gold Medal off into the river below.
In his 1975 autobiography titled "The Greatest", Ali wrote,
"I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn't eat. Thought I'd put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, "We don't serve niggers here." I said, "That's okay, I don't eat 'em." But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it."
It was a huge move from the young champion as the medal was his first recognition and was very dear to his heart. Just a few weeks before the incident, Ali had expressed what that medal meant to him,
"I didn't take that medal off for 48 hours. I even wore it to bed. I didn't sleep too good because I had to sleep on my back so that the medal wouldn't cut me. But I didn't care, I was Olympic champion", said Ali after winning the medal in Rome.
But, within a few weeks, Ali had seen both sides of the coin, which later created a huge impact on his understanding of the sport, his community and overall US politics of that time.
Ali got his medal back in 1996
Thirty-six years after that unfortunate incident in Louisville, Muhammad Ali, was awarded a replacement Gold Medal, during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, whose Olympic flame had been lit by Ali himself. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then President of the International Olympic Committee presented Ali, by then retired and suffering from Parkinson's disease, with a Gold Medal, during the intermission of the United States vs. Yugoslavia basketball game.
Ali would return to the Olympics stage once again in London, 2012 when he participated and escorted the Olympic Flag in the opening ceremony of the event. Unfortunately, that would be the last time Ali would appear on the grandest stage of sport. The greatest sportsman of all-time, battered by Parkinson's, would pass away aged 74, on June 3 2016, two days and two months before the 2016 Rio Olympics.