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“The Greatest”, who died two months ago at the age of 74, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, announced himself to the world at Rome 1960, winning Olympic light heavyweight gold as a little-known 18 year old boxer. And though there are no heavyweights in the USA ranks in Rio, its eight fighters – six men and two women – will have the legendary fighter very much in their minds when the Olympic boxing competition begins on 6 August.
“Muhammad Ali paved the way for me and the rest of the team,” said teenage middleweight Charles Conwell. “He coming straight out of high school and into the Olympics, and me doing the same thing. It’s a real big inspiration and motivation for me to go and win a gold medal and fight even harder.”
Reigning middleweight Olympic champion, Claressa Shields, who is tipped to retain her title in Rio, also spoke of the impact Ali had on her, saying: “On the day he died I felt like a huge part of me had left. I remember when I met Muhammad Ali, I felt this sense of pride,” she added. “He was the first African American who stood up and said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty and I can fight’.
“He gave you that belief that you are beautiful and you are pretty. He was one of the most dangerous fighters in the game. I hope I can do justice to him when I speak about him and when I fight. Nobody else will ever be ‘The Greatest’, ever, but I can try and be close.”
Though the US head to Rio as the most successful country in Olympic boxing history, their men have not won gold since Andre Ward took the light heavyweight title at Athens 2004, a record they will be looking to set straight in the coming days.