We Louisvillians spent last week mourning and celebrating the life of our greatest locally born and bred hero, Muhammad Ali. He epitomized courage, dedication to justice, and commitment to humanitarian work. He was so much more than a boxing legend. (And yes, he was pretty.)
We were not alone in bidding farewell to this amazing man. Folks from all over the world descended upon our city and joined us in paying tribute to him.
As I was reading about Ali’s early days, I realized there was another hero in his story. When Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.(his pre-Muslin name) was twelve years old, someone stole his nearly new red-and-white Schwinn bicycle. He ran into Joe Martin, a police officer who trained young boxers at the Columbia Gym. With tears streaming down his face, Cassius told Martin he wanted to find the thief and “whup” him.” Martin suggested he learn to box instead and took him under his wing at the gym. Six years later, it was Martin who convinced Ali to overcome his fear of flying and travel to the 1960 Olympics where he won a gold medal in boxing and became a genuine super-star. He was just eighteen years old.
Perhaps Ali would have achieved greatness without Joe Martin’s encouragement and mentoring. But I can’t help but think that Martin played a strategic role in Ali’s story. What would have happened if he’d told young Cassius to get lost and stop being a cry baby?
We’ll probably never know. What I do know is that anyone who mentors a child and offers support, encouragement, and hope that a better life is possible, ranks as a genuine hero in my book.
Hats off to Joe Martin.