As a kid in Louisville, the city seemed so big to me. New York seemed so big. Chicago seemed big. And London, England, seemed far away. Africa was far away. I was Cassius Clay then. I was a Negro. I ate pork. I had no confidence. I thought white people were superior. I was a Christian Baptist named Cassius Clay.
—MUHAMMAD ALI, NOV. 22, 1991
Cassius Clay was cruising west on Walnut Street, through the black part of Louisville known as the West End, consorting with the world from behind the wheel of a Cadillac convertible. It was the autumn of 1960. Clay was only 18, a few days away from his first professional fight and just beginning to yank the clapper in the national bell tower, the one he would use forever after to announce his arrival. Almost standing in the car, the youngster yelled over and over, to everyone he passed, "I'm Cassius Clay! I am the greatest!"
The girl sitting next to him, the one sinking shyly in her seat, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible in a pink Cadillac in the middle of black Louisville, was Wilma Rudolph, a 20-year-old college student who was visiting Clay from Tennessee State. They were a matched pair, two links on the fresh cuffs of history, as they drove that October afternoon. Clay was, by consensus, the finest amateur boxer in the world. Only two months before, at the Olympic Games in Rome, the 178-pound youth had won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division by whipping Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a portly coffeehouse keeper from Poland. The white trunks Clay showed off to West End neighbors on his return were stained a candy pink by the Polish fighter's blood. Rudolph was the fastest woman on earth. Her victories in three sprints—the 100 and 200 meters and the 4 x 100-meter relay—had made her the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.
The two athletes had become friends in the days they spent together in Rome. Clay was sweet on Rudolph, but he was too shy to tell her how he felt. His diffidence with girls was painful. He had fainted dead away the first time he kissed one, two years earlier, and it took a cold washcloth to bring him to. So he concealed his shyness in bravura.
"I can still see him strutting around the village with his gold medal on," recalls Rudolph. "He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one else cherished it the way he did. His peers loved him. Everybody wanted to see him. Everybody wanted to be near him. Everybody wanted to talk to him. And he talked all the time. I always hung in the background, not knowing what he was going to say."
His six-year amateur career had taken him to many American cities, from San Francisco to New York, but the journey to Italy had been his first outside his native land, and gold medal and all, it had been a turning experience in his life. Clay's triumphant return to River City, with police sirens leading the 25-car motorcade through the streets, raised a clamor usually reserved in those latitudes for the Kentucky Derby winner. Not since 1905, when cumbersome Marvin Hart whipped Jack Root to win the heavyweight championship of the world, had Louisville produced a fighter of such celebrity.
Now there he was, driving up Walnut Street, waving at the crowds and stopping at an intersection and rising to announce himself. "And this," he yelled, "this is Wilma Rudolph. She is the greatest!"
"Sit down," she said.
"Come on, Wilma. Stand up!"
Crowds were stopping on the street and craning to look inside the car. "No, I can't do that," she said.