Clay strikes first blow in unparalleled boxing career
These were the Games where one of the all-time sporting greats took his first steps on the international stage. A young boxer called Cassius Clay came to Rome intent on winning a gold medal, and left having taken a huge step towards becoming one of the most iconic figures in the history of sport.
It seems curious to think now, but many people thought he wouldn't have enough to win the light-heavyweight gold. , the Polish fighter Zbigniew Pietrykowski, who had won bronze four years before, was considered one of the main contenders, or as was the Soviet boxer Gennady Shatkov, the middleweight champion from 1956.
However, the American boxing writers who had watched the 18-year-old Clay in action were quietly confident. They had seen his confident emergence in the amateur ranks, and they saw how he took to the Olympic environment, introducing himself to the world's athletes, immune to pressure or fear, and picking off his opponents one at a time.
His first fight pitched him against a little-known Belgian fighter called Yvon Becaus. Clay stopped him in the second round, despite describing his opponent as “the strongest man I've met”. This was some claim – Clay may have been young but he had already fought in more than a hundred bouts, winning around half of them by a knockout.
His next opponent, Shatkov, was much more experienced. The Soviet boxer had fought several hundred bouts, winning most of them. He was one of the most respected boxers in the Soviet team, but he still couldn't find a way to land any decent punches on Clay. The unanimous decision went the American's way and afterwards the gracious Shatkov conceded that “there is no disgrace in losing to a boxer like that”.
The semi-final was tougher still, with the Australian Tony Madigan giving Clay an awkward contest. Again, the bout was decided by a unanimous decision in the American’s favour.
The final pitched Clay against Pietrykowski. The Pole showed his doughty experience over the first two rounds, landing heavy punches and taking a clear lead on points. But Clay had faith in something bigger. Realising he would have to seize the final round to put his name into the Olympic record books, that is exactly what he did. Suddenly, the timing was there – combinations landed perfectly, his movement crisp and his opponent wilting. By the end of the fight, Pietrykowski was slumped against the ropes with Clay sensing he was only seconds away from a knockout. The judges agreed, with all five awarding the victory to the young American. It was the start of perhaps the most iconic career in 20th century sport.