How A Bicycle Launched Muhammad Ali's Boxing Career

There's simply no questioning the sheer talent and overwhelming presence of Muhammad Ali. Over the course of his career, he was repeatedly challenged for his title of world heavyweight champion and defended it no less than 19 times (per Britannica). His nickname, "The Greatest," was clearly one to be taken literally.

Of course, boxing fans will know all about Ali's extraordinary achievements. What isn't so well known, however, is the root of his career in the sport. Incredibly, he owes his place in popular culture — and boxing history — to a red and white Schwinn bicycle he owned as a boy. Here's how a serendipitous theft set him on the path to greatness.

According to BBC Sport, the 12-year-old Ali (then Cassius Clay) went to Louisville, Kentucky's Home Exhibition in 1954. He and his friends were only there hoping to claim some free treats, but the young man would get much, much more than he bargained for. While they were there, Ali's Schwinn bicycle was stolen from outside the building. As Günel İlqar (via Medium) reports, this was devastating for him; his family had struggled financially, and when his father succeeded in saving up for the bike, Ali was fearful that it would be stolen. And, so it was.

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Had he been a young man of lesser spirit, the story may have ended there. As History reports, though, he hurried to report the theft, finding himself before police officer Joe Martin. In a remarkable twist of fate, it so happened that Martin trained aspiring young boxers, and immediately saw a spark in Ali, who declared that he would exact vengeance on the thief with his fists. A spark alone isn't enough, though. As reported by The New York Times, the trainer warned his soon-to-be pupil about being too rash, with a wise ”you better learn to fight before you start fightin'.”

Learning to fight Ali certainly did. As the boxing legend later wrote in his autobiography "The Greatest: My Own Story," he was enamored by the sport immediately. "The sights and sounds ... of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike," he recalled (per The New York Times), and quickly proved to be a natural under Martin's tutelage.

Soon after, the trainer arranged a fight for Clay against Ronny O'Keefe, which was featured on Martin's television show "Tomorrow's Champions." How prophetic that title would prove to be, as Clay claimed victory and started his journey to becoming a titan of the sport.