Sports Story

How a Sports Organizer Shaped the Greatest of All Time

By Melissa Wickes
November 9, 2021
3 min

In 1954, Joe Elsby Martin, a Louisville, Ky., policeman who ran a local recreation center called the Columbia Gym, was at the gym when a skinny 12-year-old boy came into the gym, visibly upset. His new red and white Schwinn bicycle, a gift from his father, had been stolen. He had been told that if he went into the gym and asked for Martin, he would fill out the police report for him.

When Martin asked his name for the report, the boy responded, ”Cassius Clay.” He added angrily that he would whip the thief if he could find him.

Because of the work Martin did with young athletes in the gym, he asked Clay if he could fight. When the boy shook his head no, Martin is said to have said,  ”’You better learn to fight before you start fightin’.”

This is how Martin, who died at the age of 80 in 1996, launched the boxing career of one Muhammed Ali, an Olympic gold medal champion and a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion.

Muhammed Ali’s Introduction to Boxing

In his autobiography ”The Greatest: My Own Story,” written with Richard Durham, Ali recalled his meeting with Martin and introduction to boxing.

”I ran downstairs, crying, but the sights and sounds and the smell of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike,” Ali wrote. ”There were about 10 boxers in the gym, some hitting the speed bag, some in the ring, sparring, some jumping rope. I stood there, smelling the sweat and rubbing alcohol, and a feeling of awe came over me. One slim boy shadowboxing in the ring was throwing punches almost too fast for my eyes to follow.”

After the young Clay had finished the police report, Martin tapped him on the shoulder. ”By the way,” he said, ”we got boxing every night, Monday through Friday, from 6 to 8. Here’s an application in case you want to join the gym.”

He had never worn a pair of boxing gloves but was excited about trying the sport.

”When I got to the gym,” Ali wrote, ”I was so eager, I jumped into the ring with some older boxer and began throwing wild punches. In a minute my nose started bleeding. My mouth was hurt. My head was dizzy. Finally, someone pulled me out of the ring.”

”Get someone to teach you,” a slim welterweight told the young Clay.

One of the Shaping Figures of Modern History

That someone was Martin. He had worked for years with amateurs and had been instrumental in integrating Louisville’s amateur boxing, combining separate gyms for black and white fighters. While Martin was not a professional boxing trainer, he knew enough of the rudiments of the sport to get the young Clay started.

”He could show me how to place my feet and how to throw a right cross,” the fighter wrote. ”I kept coming back to the gym.”

Martin told him, ”I like what you’re doing. I like the way you stick to it. I’m going to put you on television. You’ll be on the next television fight.” At that time, Louisville amateur fighters, some from Martin’s gym, appeared on a weekly televised boxing card called ”Tomorrow’s Champions.”

”Thrilled at the idea of being seen on TV all over Kentucky, I trained the whole week,” Ali said. ”They matched me with a white fighter, Ronny O’Keefe, and I won my first fight by a split decision. All of a sudden I had a new life.”

While Ali pundits are quick to name drop Angelo Dundee, it was his longtime trainer, Joe Martin, who helped him win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and two national Amateur Athletic Union titles leading up to the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

After Ali turned pro, Martin continued to remain active with the Golden Gloves and continued to train amateur boxers—one of the first youth sports organizers of our time.

The end result was, of course, one of the shaping figures of modern history.

Sports Organizers: The Unsung Heroes

Like the sports organizer of today, Martin had a full-time job as a police officer and spent his free time organizing and developing youth sports in his community.

And, like the sports organizer of today, Martin was an unsung hero in his community.

Every day, LeagueApps strives to make the life of the unsung hero simpler and easier. Whether it be boxing or any sport, the next great one is being developed by the unsung hero right now. We provide the technology and professional development you need to run, grow, and win—so you can focus on what’s important, the kids.