Clay, named after his father and Kentucky abolitionist Cassius M. Clay, was born in Louisville, Kentucky. At age 12, he had his bicycle stolen, and reported the fact to a local policeman (and boxing trainer), Joe Martin. Martin suggested that Clay learn to fight; under his guidance, Clay rapidly advanced through the youth ranks. A low achiever academically, Clay won six Kentucky Gold Gloves while at high school and was allowed to graduate despite his poor grades. Presciently, his principal announced during a staff meeting about the issue that Clay would someday be "this school's claim to fame." Clay later joked about his lackluster academic record saying, "I said I was the Greatest, not the smartest."
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight boxer. He then turned professional under the tutelage of boxing legend Angelo Dundee and quickly became famous for his unorthodox style, his spectacular results, and his tireless self-promotion (the latter inspired in part by professional wrestler Gorgeous George and singer Little Richard). He made a name for himself as the "Louisville Slugger" by composing poems predicting in which round he would knock out his opponent. He boisterously sang his own praises, with sayings like "I am the greatest" and "I'm young, I'm pretty, I'm fast, and no one can beat me."
In Louisville on October 29, 1960 Cassius Clay won his first professional fight. He won a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker, who was the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. From 1960 to 1963, the young fighter amassed a record of 19-0 with 15 knockouts. He defeated such boxers as Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Duke Sabedong, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, and Lamar Clark (who had won his previous 40 bouts by knockout). Among Clay's more impressive victories were against Sonny Banks (who knocked him down earlier in the bout), Alejandro Lavorante, and Archie Moore (a boxing legend who had won over 200 previous fights). Cassius became the number one contender for Sonny Liston's title. Liston was greatly feared, and some have said that he was the Mike Tyson of his era. Almost no one gave the young boxer a chance of beating Liston. The date was fixed for February 25, 1964; during the weigh-in, the boisterous Ali declared that he would "float like a butterly, sting like a bee".  (http://www.jamescampion.com/ncnali.html)
First Title Fight, Clay versus Liston
Clay, however, had a plan. Misreading Clay's exuberance as nervousness, Liston was over-confident and unprepared for any result but a quick stoppage. In the opening rounds, Clay's speed, greater even than his idols, Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore, kept him away from Liston's powerful head and body shots, as he used his height and reach advantage to effectively counterpunch with the jab. As early as the third round, Liston began to visibly...