Snapped: the story behind that picture of Cassius Clay at Rome 1960
Some photographs define a generation; others, occasionally, herald a coming shift in an entire social and political, not to mention sporting, landscape. The iconic portrait of Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) standing atop the podium at the Olympic Games Rome 1960 as light heavyweight champion is one such image.
“It reminds me of what a great turning point that was for Cassius Clay and for the sporting world in general,” said Jonathan Eig, author of 2017’s Ali: A Life, the first major biography to document Muhammad Ali’s entire 74 years. “It is a moment when we are poised between the old world of sports and the new world, when black athletes are going to become political figures. This is one of the last moments of naïve, simple victory for Cassius Clay, before he becomes famous and before he begins taking on great controversies."
“Innocence is a good word. It’s a moment when the world first discovers him and from there everything is about to get so much more fun and complicated.”
Clay had just defeated the experienced Zbigniew Pietrzykowski (standing to the right of Clay as you look at the photograph) in a tough final. The 25-year-old Pole, a bronze medallist from the Melbourne 1956 Games and a veteran of 231 amateur fights at the time of the Rome Games, compared with Clay’s 108, was known as a tough, uncompromising fighter. His southpaw style reportedly caused Clay all manner of problems in the opening round but, as Pietrzykowski’s bloodied upper lip and mouth show in this photo, the 18-year-old USA athlete quickly got to grips with it. The judges gave him the gold by a unanimous score of 5-0.
“He was younger than his opponents and less experienced,” Eig said. “What really carried him was his incredible speed and though he didn’t look like he was hitting hard, he was still a big strong kid and his punches were landing with more force than it appeared."
“He was only a light-heavyweight in 1960, but he would soon fill out and become a heavyweight, and nobody had ever seen a heavyweight that fast before. He made a leap that was more than just incremental. He was so much bigger and faster than any heavyweight before him. It was really startling, and you could see some of that in the way he fought in Rome.”
Clay had arrived in Italy as a top amateur boxer. His record stood at a proud 100 wins from his 108 fights. These included successive light-heavyweight National Amateur Athletic Union titles (1959 and 1960) and Golden Gloves titles (in the same years). Yet there was no sense before the Rome 1960 Games that this was a teenager destined to be the greatest boxer the world had ever seen. One person who did believe that was his unarguable destiny was, of course, the man himself. And for Eig, you can see evidence of such belief in the serene smile Clay is wearing in this magical photograph.
“It has something to do with the fact he won, of course,” Eig laughed. “But he was always at ease. He never really seemed to get nervous. He was very comfortable in his own skin, even at that age.”
The Louisville native, who reportedly wore a parachute for the entire duration of the flight to Rome due to his fear of flying, did not waste any time in letting both the public and the other athletes at the Games know just who he was.
“His magnetism was apparent from the moment he arrived in Rome,” Eig said. “Newspaper reporters and even other athletes were saying, ‘This kid is like the mayor of the Olympic Village’. It happened before he had even won a fight.
“His personality was so winning that writers began to hope he would be a great fighter, because he made for such great copy. Reporters were asking him political questions and he was a kid, still in high school, but he could charm people even at that early age.”
The pride in being crowned Olympic champion, so apparent in this photograph, stayed with Ali (Clay changed his name in 1964 shortly after knocking out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world for the first time) throughout his monumental career. According to Eig, he wore his Olympic gold medal “everywhere he went”.
“The Olympics launched him, made him a star, gave him a shot at the heavyweight world title,” Eig said. “And in 1996, when he lit the Olympic cauldron (at the Atlanta Games), that was one of the great highlights of his life, to reflect on that Olympic glory, which had really made him famous.”
“1996 re-launched him. People forget that in the early 1990s Ali was lost,” Eig said. “He was kind of depressed, hidden from the public because of his illness, he didn’t like the way he looked on TV. He lived through some tough times.
“But when he lit that Olympic cauldron, America discovered him again, in a new way. They saw him as human, and frail, and they embraced him in a way they never had before.”