Obituary:Joe Martin

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Joe Martin's role in sporting history can be crystallised by the moment he calmed an angry, weeping 12-year-old named Cassius Marcellus Clay in a basement boxing gym in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1954.

Clay had sheltered from the rain with his friend Johnny Willis at an annual bazaar run by and for the black community called the "Louisville Home Show" at the Colombia Auditorium. When he came out several hours later, with his belly full of free popcorn and hot dogs, he found his brand new red and white bike had been stolen. When somebody told him the nearest policeman was in the basement he raced down to register the crime.

In his mid-1970s autobiography The Greatest, Muhammad Ali - as Clay had then become - remembered: "The sights and the sounds and the smell of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike. There were about ten boxers, some hitting the speed bag, some in the ring sparring, some jumping rope. I stood there, smelling the sweat and the rubbing alcohol, and a feeling of awe came over me."

He left with an application form to join the boxing club, but the dressing- down he received from his father over the lost bike made him want to forget about the whole day. Only when he watched television the following weekend and saw Martin again, working the corner of his amateurs on a show called Tomorrow's Champions did he decide that boxing would be his sport.

To Martin, who had run his gym since 1938, he was just another kid off the street who needed to learn the basic moves. Martin was more social worker than boxing technician. He loved taking kids, black and white, off the streets and giving them a purpose to each day. But his ability as a coach was limited.

"Martin knew a little," said Ali, "He could show me how to place my feet and how to throw a right cross. But he knew very little else." The teenager stayed with Martin because appearances on Tomorrow's Champions paid $4 a fight - what price the amateur code! Nevertheless, he knew he needed more than the well-meaning policeman could give him.

Against strict instructions, he also worked at a gym run in the poor east end of Louisville by an old black trainer named Fred Stoner. And it was Stoner who taught him the techniques he needed to learn to look after himself. After spending two hours at Martin's club he would walk over to join Stoner, whose gym was open every night from eight until midnight.

Martin remained an influential and genuinely caring figure. When the boy's fear of flying made him want to withdraw from the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, where he went on to win the light-heavyweight gold medal, it was Martin who spent more than two hours in Louisville's Central Park persuading him to conquer the doubts and catch the plane.

It was as Clay neared his inevitable switch to the professional ranks that the relationship disintegrated. Martin once knocked on the door of the family home with a managerial contract. But Clay's father, Cassius Snr, angrily turned him away when he read that the deal would pay only $75 a week for 10 years. Allegedly, he shouted at Martin: "The slave trade is over!"

Then Martin attempted to help a local millionaire, William Reynolds, sign him. This time Clay Snr was in favour, simply because it was the best offer on the table.

When the new gold medallist returned to the United States, Martin met him at New York airport with a Reynolds employee, who settled them in the business tycoon's permanent suite in the Waldorf-Astoria. Clay was shown around New York, taken shopping and fed as much as he could eat. He had already been working as a member of Reynolds' household staff, and yet when it came to signing on the dotted line the 18-year-old followed his gut reaction and refused.

Instead he signed - for slightly less money - with a group of 11 white Louisville millionaires. Then he took on the services of a Miami trainer, Angelo Dundee, and Joe Martin was out of the picture for ever. Nevertheless, his place in the story of one of the greatest athletes in sporting history was secure. In 1977, Martin, a police officer for 34 years, was inducted into the Amateur Boxing Hall of Fame.

Bob Mee

Joe Elsby Martin, police officer and amateur boxing coach: born 1916; married (one son); died Louisville, Kentucky 18 September 1996.