Two Centre alumni sponsored Muhammad Ali early in his career
The nation is mourning the recent loss of “The Greatest”—Muhammad Ali, born in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Ali certainly was the greatest, winning 56 of the 61 matches he fought in over the course of his 21-year career and maintaining heavyweight champion titles for over 16 years.
But when the boxing legend was making a name for himself, he was supported by a group of investors that included two alumni of “Centre College, that storied little school in Danville, Ky.,” as a reporter wrote in a 1963 Sports Illustrated profile of Ali.
Those two alumni—Gordon Byron Davidson ’49 and Elbert Gary Sutcliffe, Class of 1917—had strong and meaningful connections to Centre.
Davidson was a prominent Louisville attorney with the law firm Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs. He was an emeritus trustee at Centre and played a role in leading every major fundraising effort in Centre’s recent history.
Davidson drew up the sponsoring group’s original contract with Ali, which gave the boxer a $10,000 bonus and a guaranteed minimum annual salary of $4,000 for two years (over $32,000 in today’s money). Everything Ali earned was split 50-50 with the group. Some of Ali’s earnings also went into a trust fund, and the investors paid for all of Ali’s expenses while he was in training.
“The effect is to make his high-earning years pump up the low-earning years and to keep him out of the upper tax brackets,” Davidson explained to Sports Illustrated regarding the contract.
Davidson was descended from poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. He passed away in 2015.
Sutcliffe’s name is no doubt familiar to the Centre community.
While Sutcliffe humbly introduced himself in Sports Illustrated as a “retired farmer,” his resume proved far more illustrious. He was a director of First National Bank in Louisville and served on the board of Norton Children’s Hospital.
Sutcliffe joined Centre’s board of trustees in 1935 and was named board chair in 1960. He was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Centre upon his retirement as board chair in 1968. Four years later, he was elected Centre’s first life trustee.
Sutcliffe Hall, which opened in 1961, was named for Sutcliffe and his wife, Edith McClure Sutcliffe, Centre Class of 1912. The Sutcliffes made a $100,000 gift—nearly $800,000 in today’s money—toward the construction of the athletics facility and student center. The donation was given anonymously and was, at the time, the largest individual gift from a living donor in Centre College history.
Sutcliffe was the grandson of Judge Elbert Gary, a founder of U.S. Steel, for whom the town of Gary, Ind., is named. Sutcliffe passed away in 1979.
When Davidson and Sutcliffe, along with nine other Louisville businessmen, came together to sponsor Ali, the sport of boxing was mired in scandal and monetary fraud. Many boxers who won fights with large purses never saw much of the money they earned, which instead lined the pockets of their managers. Thus, after the 18-year-old Ali—then still going by Cassius Clay—won the gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the 1960 Olympics (pictured above), a group of eleven prominent Louisvillians came together to sponsor Ali and watch out for his financial well-being.
Dubbed The Louisville Sponsoring Group, the eleven men cumulatively invested $28,000 in Ali, and their management of his finances quickly became a bright spot in boxing.
“In a time when prizefighting is […] beclouded by underworld shenanigans, misappropriated funds, government investigation and a generally sorrowful malaise, Cassius Clay and his backers are a unique and uplifting sight,” read the Sports Illustrated profile.
While the sponsors certainly had financial designs, they also genuinely intended to make a positive change in the world of boxing.
“Our motive […] is to do something for boxing at a time the sport needs help,” one of the sponsors told Sports Illustrated. “And I think, in our own little way, we’ve done just that. We’ve shown it is not a sport that must be controlled by the underworld.”
When the Sports Illustrated article was published in 1963, Ali still had many of his most legendary fights and moments ahead of him. He had yet to prove to the world that he was, indeed, the greatest. But the investors, including Davidson and Sutcliffe, weren’t as concerned with titles such as that.
“Even if we lost every cent [of our investment],” one of them told Sports Illustrated, “I’d say we’ve already had $2,800 [each] worth of fun.”
Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, at age 74.
by Elizabeth Trollinger
June 6, 2016