Muhammad Ali was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. This fact will feature in every obituary, both broadcast and printed, between this morning and the great man’s funeral. But a fact that will not be as widely printed or mentioned over the coming weeks is the fact that the persona of ‘The Greatest’ was born in a sweaty radio studio in Las Vegas in June 1961.

Cassius Clay had taken the leap into the professional ranks following his gold-medal success in the Rome Olympics the previous summer. He had gone about his business well, albeit quietly. His first six professional victories, from October 1960 to April 1961 (a fight a month by the way!), came either in his home town or in Miami Beach. There was no doubt that the 19 year old was a great talent, but were he to take the take the step-up into the big leagues he needed to enter the ring in Las Vegas. If he could make an impression there, then he could begin to set his sights upon the World Title scene, dominated at that time by Floyd Patterson.

Clay’s chance would come in the summer of 1961. His manager, Mel Greb, pencilled him in for a bout against Kolo “Duke” Sabedong in the newly opened Convention Centre in Las Vegas. In order to drum up some interest in the bout, Greb organised for Clay to be interviewed on local radio.  Alongside Clay’s bout, Greb would also use the airtime to promote another bout, which hardly needed any promotion.

The day before the Clay-Sabedong fight, there was a professional wrestling event which was being headlined with a WWA Title bout between ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie and the infamous Gorgeous George. George was the first great self-promoter in American sporting history. In the early 1940s George grew his hair out, dyed it platinum blonde, curled it and kept it all in place with large silver hair pins. He strolled to the ring on a red-carpet wearing elaborate velvet robes, pausing to allow his valet spray cologne upon him and spread rose petals before his feet. Most of his matches were shorter than his lengthy entrances. In the simulated world of professional wrestling he cheated at every chance to win every match he was in. The theatrics, the insults, the cheating all infuriated the crowd and his antics played so well upon television that he became one of America’s great post-war cultural icons.

There was a marked difference in the small radio studio in Las Vegas between the quietly confident Clay and the bombastic George in all his regalia. The difference was most marked when the interviewer asked both men how their respective matches would end. Clay replied ‘Somebody’s got to go before the 10th, and you can bet it won’t be me’. George, on the other hand, replied I am the Gorgeous One! Not only am I the best wrestler, the most highly skilled, with the greatest technique, but I’m also the most beautiful wrestler who ever lived! If this bum I’m fighting messes up the pretty waves in my hair, I’ll tear off his arm! And if that uneducated punk somehow manages to beat me, I’ll take the next jet to Russia! But that will never happen, because I am the greatest![1]



[1] Quotes taken from http://www.gorgeousgeorgebook.com/ali.html.

Clay sat back in awe at the caricature of a man that sat before him. Clay, wanting to see more, asked Greb for tickets to George and Blassie’s event. The Convention Centre was packed to the rafters with thousands of fans all waiting for George’s ring entrance. As Clay would say himself in later years ‘the place was jam-packed with people, cars was lined up for miles, they hated Gorgeous George, they wanted him beat, but they paid a hundred dollars for ringside seats. So George walks out with his pretty silver hair and he was walking so proud. People were booing him and throwing pop at him, and he was hollerin’ at the fans “aw, I don’t care about any of you. Look at this beautiful blonde hair, if he messes this up, I’ll kill him!’

After the event Gleb brought Clay backstage. George approached him and said You saw that crowd out there,’’ he says. “Most of ‘em hated me and the rest of ‘em wanted to kiss me. The most important thing is, they all paid their money, and the place was full. You got your good looks, a great body, and a lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your big mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous!’

The next day Clay beat Sabedong in a unanimous decision in a half-empty arena. When reporters asked Clay why he had won he told them that he was the prettiest fighter in the ring. ‘The Greatest’ was born.

So as we remember the great life of Muhammad Ali over the coming weeks spare a thought for Gorgeous George, the greatest influence upon Ali’s persona. Ali was not alone in being influenced by George. James Brown credits his style with watching George growing up. The encouragement that George gave to Bob Dylan early in his career convinced him to continue to pursue music. In 2010 I attended the WWE Hall of Fame Ceremony in Phoenix to hear George’s wife, Betty, then 97 years of age, acknowledge her late husband’s honour. Even among his peers and successors, I got the impression that the huge influence that he had over a generation of Americans was never truly appreciated. Perhaps when Ali’s life is being discussed over the next few weeks George shall be remembered too.