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Why Did Muhammad Ali Start Boxing?

As we all know, Muhammad Ali was one of the best boxers to ever do it. With his brash and confident demeanor, he demolished opponents inside the ring and is recognized as a boxing legend by all. But if you’re reading this, then you’re probably interested in learning about his beginnings as a boxer.

So in this post, I’m going to address Muhammad Ali’s start to boxing, including his motivations, and people who influenced his decision. So why did Muhammad ALi start boxing?

Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) initially started boxing because someone stole his bike at 12 years old. A boxing trainer named Joe E. Martin ran into the frustrated Ali, who said he wanted to fight the thief. Martin encouraged him to start boxing first, which Ali did, starting his amateur career soon after the event.

Let’s take a closer look at the role Joe Martin played in encouraging Ali to box, as well as the other factors that influenced Ali.

Early Life

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Sometime in October of 1954, Ali and a friend went to the annual convention of the Louisville Service Club. He arrived at the Columbia Auditorium on his prized possession, a new $60, red and white Schwinn bike.

Here's an image of a young Muhammad Ali, who started his boxing career at 12 years old.
Here’s an image of a young Muhammad Ali, who started his boxing career at 12 years old.

The twelve-year-old Ali and his friend enjoyed themselves at the event, before deciding to leave. However, upon exiting the auditorium, they found that their bikes had been stolen. An angry (yet tearful) Ali was told to find a policeman who happened to be there that day. That policeman was Joe E. Martin.

Joe Martin was in the basement of the auditorium, manning the boxing gym during his time off as a policeman. When Ali found Martin, Ali started to talk about what he would do to the culprit if he ever found them, frustrated over losing his precious bike.

After hearing Ali’s threats towards the thief, Martin asked the young Ali if he knew how to fight. To this Ali responded, “No, but I’d fight anyway”. Upon hearing this Martin encouraged Ali to get some training in first, saying, “Why don’t you learn something about fighting, before you go and make any hasty challenges?”

Officer Joe E. Martin, seen here with a young Muhammad Ali.
Officer Joe E. Martin, seen here with a young Muhammad Ali.

Although the young Ali was initially uninterested, he eventually accepted Martin’s offer, making Martin his first trainer. Martin trained Ali and remained with him throughout Ali’s 6-year amateur career, winning his first amateur fight by a split decision the same year.

Remembering those days with Martin and Ali, Martin’s widow Christine noted how involved they were with his amateur career. She stated, “I was about as involved as Joe, except for the actual training. I would drive those boys everywhere, Indianapolis, Chicago, Toledo”.

On Ali she said, “Cassius was a very easy-to-get-along-with fellow. Very easy to handle. Very polite. Whatever you asked him to do, that’s what he’d do. His mother, that’s why. She was a wonderful person.”

Ali’s Amateur Career

Ali had an extensive amateur career, having 108 amateur fights by the time he was 18 years old. He had his first fight against local amateur Ronnie O’Keefe, which he won by split decision over three rounds.

During his young amateur career, he managed to win six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two national Golden Glove titles, and the Amateur Athletic Union title. This was all in lead up to Muhammad Ali’s trip to the 1960 Olympics, in which he aimed to earn gold.

Muhammad Ali at 18, seen here with his American teammates after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics.
Muhammad Ali at 18, seen here with his American teammates after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics.

He had several trainers during his time as an amateur, including Fred Stoner, Chuck Bodak, and Ramon Carr. At the age of 18, he defeated Polish boxer Zbigniew Pietrzykowski at the 1960 Olympics in Rome to win gold.

Upon returning home, he immediately turned professional.

Rising Professional Career

Muhammad Ali was successful as a professional quickly, gaining a record of 19-0 in three years, winning 15 by knockout. Of these 19 fights, Ali’s hardest was most likely his fight against the number three heavyweight in the world, Doug Jones.

The fight was scheduled for March 13, 1963 at Madison Square Garden. The fight was a tough one for Ali, as Doug Jones staggered him early into the fight. A unanimous decision was awarded to Ali, and the fans threw debris into the ring in outrage. This fight was later named “Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine.

Muhammad Ali during his fight with Doug Jones, considered one of the hardest fights in his early career.
Muhammad Ali during his fight with Doug Jones, considered one of the hardest fights in his early career.

Ali’s win over Doug Jones made him the number one contender, setting Ali up for a fight against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

Their fight was to be held on February 25, 1964, in Miami. Ali had difficulty winning his two previous fights. In contrast, Sonny Liston had destroyed former champion Floyd Patterson with back-to-back first round knockouts. Because of their previous fights, Ali was listed as a 7-1 underdog. As usual, Ali taunted his opponent in the lead up to the fight.

Once the fight started, Liston came rushing at Ali angrily. Ali was able to avoid many of Liston’s attacks, while setting up his own jab. In the third round Ali stunned Liston with a combination, opening a cut under his lef eye.

Early in the fight, Ali remained elusive, avoiding manny of Liston's attacks.
Early in the fight, Ali remained elusive, avoiding manny of Liston’s attacks.

However, during round four, Ali began to experience issues with his vision. Upon returning to his corner, he asked for his gloves to be taken off, which was refused by Angelo Dundee, his trainer. Some people think that the ointment used for Liston’s cuts is what blinded Ali, and a couple of Liston’s previous opponents had also complained about eye issues during their fights.

Despite being blinded, Ali was able to survive the fifth round, and started pouring it on in the sixth. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, making Muhammad Ali the new Heavyweight Champion. At the young age of 22, Ali became the youngest boxer to defeat a world champion.

And as you probably know, the rest is history.

I hope you enjoyed this post about Muhammad Ali’s beginnings. If you enjoyed, consider checking out similar posts on the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!