• History

How Muhammad Ali First Got in the Ring

3 minute read

The boxing career of Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, began when he was just a 12-year-old whose bike had been stolen.

Ali—then Cassius Clay—first appeared on the cover of TIME on March 22, 1963. That cover story detailed his rise from kid dreamer to boxing great, a trajectory that arguably began when he became the proud owner of a shiny $60 bicycle and pedaled to a fair at the Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, Ky.

When the show was over, the bike was gone. In tears, Cassius sought out Policeman Joe Martin. “If I find the kid who stole my bike,” he said, “I’ll whup him.” Martin told him that he’d better learn how to box before he went out looking for a fight, and offered to let him join the boxing classes he ran in the gym.

Cassius never did get his bike back. But six weeks later, he got in a ring with another twelve-year-old, a white boy, and beat him. Then he knew everything was going to be all right. The salesmen in the Cadillac showroom downtown got a big laugh at the little Negro, face pressed against the glass, gazing wistfully at the glittering cars inside. “All Cassius talked about was money—turning pro,” says Martin. “At first, I didn’t encourage him. A year later, though, you could see that little smart aleck had a lot of potential.”

Ali soon began more rigorous training, jumping rope for hours to toughen his legs and hitting heavy punching bags to strengthen his swing. He practiced in front of a mirror to improve his reflexes. “On weekends, he wandered about like a nomad, taking on all comers in amateur tournaments all across the U.S.,” TIME wrote.

One day in February 1961—before he was considered serious boxing competition—Ali was in Miami, where Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson was training. Ali asked Johansson, who had won the 1959 heavyweight title, if he could “spar a little” with him, TIME wrote. As Ali began to “dance rings around Johansson,” the boxing champ grew angry. “What does this kid do?” he asked. “Ride a bicycle ten miles a day?”

Read the complete story here: Muhammad Ali: The Dream

For much more on Muhammad Ali, see TIME’s ALI: The Greatest, a 112-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at AMAZON.COM

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com