Contributed photo In this photo taken on July 18, 1960, the 1960 U.S. Olympic Boxing team poses as Fort Dix, New Jersey, the headquarters for the team. Robstown native Humberto "Lefty" Barrera is second from the left, and Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, is the second to the right of the sign. Photo by Pvt. Anthony Morrie
Before “Muhammad Ali” became the most recognizable name in sports, 18-year-old Cassius Clay was a fighting phenom training for his upcoming Gold Medal performance in the 1960 Rome Olympics. During a time of reflection, Clay penned this handwritten letter to his friend Melvin D. Harrison, who trained for the Olympic Trials with him. The personal letter reads, "Hello Mel, I hope this letter finds you and your family well, I am here at Fort Dix getting ready for Rome, I am in the best of shape, I hope to soon be home with the world Championship soon, I am still hitting hard, Say look at here, We leave here on the 14 of august, so try to write me before then and send me Connie address will you, and try to get a picture of here, I stil dig her, so find here and let here know that I am still talking about here, get that picture man, 'please' I will send her and you a card from Rome Itly, Stay in training and you can't miss, tell all of the boys that I said hello, don't let me down about Connie, Your Fighting Friend, Cassius Clay, U.S. Champ." Included with the letter is the original mailing envelope, featuring the return address "Cassius M. Clay, c/o Special Service, U.S. Olympic Boxing team, Building 5434 Fort Dix, N.J." If you didn’t guess it already, Clay won Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics and opened the door for him to become the greatest fighter that ever lived. In our opinion, the two autographs (letter & envelope) rate a 9 overall. Accompanied by a full JSA LOA, a full PSA/DNA LOA and an LOA from the recipient of the letter.
By George Vondracek of the Caller-Times
ROBSTOWN — Like most Americans, Humberto "Lefty" Barrera learned of the death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali from news reports beginning late last Friday and continuing into this week.
Unlike most Americans, however, Barrera had a front-row seat on the stage that sent Ali — then Cassius Clay — into acclaim as one of, if not the, greatest boxers of all time.
A lifelong Robstown resident, Barrera and Ali were members of the Olympic boxing team that represented the United States at the 1960 Rome Games. Ali, who died last Friday at 74 following a decades long battle with Parkinson's disease, won the light heavyweight championship. Barrera, from multiple news reports at the time, was victimized by shoddy judging in Rome and lost in the flyweight quarterfinals.
Barrera's first impression upon meeting the then-18-year-old Clay was a precursor to what the world would experience as the self-proclaimed "The Greatest" thrice won the world heavyweight championship.
"He's crazy," Barrera said, laughing. "You've got to be crazy to be talking like that all the time and never stopping. It gets old. I mean, if you listen to him once a day or twice a day, it's fine. But if you listen to him all day ..."
Barrera, 74, got an early peek at Ali's brash, garrulous and loquacious style, first at the National Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in March 1960. The two were together again throughout the year at Olympic tournaments in Ali's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and San Francisco before the final rounds of qualifying in Fort Dix, New Jersey, then an Army training base.
Behind all of Ali's rhetoric, however, was just a fun-loving guy who happened to be a gifted boxer, Barrera said.
"He was a good person. Obviously, he was a friendly person, and he was a happy person," said Barrera, who retired three years ago after a career as a civil structural designer. "He was very friendly. He liked to joke a lot and have a good time. His idea was to have a good time. I was concentrating trying to make the team, and he was having a good time like it was nothing."
The two, as well as the rest of the U.S. team, spent a lot of time together, especially when the training shifted to Fort Dix. As with most military installations, civilians don't have much access, and the boxers were bound together and friendships grew.
"I would say we were thrown into the situation. The thing of it is, when you're on a base with Army soldiers, I couldn't socialize with the soldiers, I had to socialize with the people around me," Barrera said. "He was around me. We were in the same group, and we socialized together. We saw a lot of movies together, played a lot of pool."
Barrera remembers being the better billiards player although Ali did beat him on occasion.
"I was not that good, but he was lucky when he beat me, though," Barrera said, laughing. "He would brag about it, of course."
In Rome, the boxers mingled with fellow Olympians. All the while, Barrera said Ali was telling anyone and everyone who would listen that he would win the gold medal. After doing so, the verbiage that followed was vintage Ali.
"He was like, 'I told you so, I told you so.' One of the first things he said was, 'I'm going to win the championship of the world. I'm going to beat Floyd Patterson,' who was the champion at the time," Barrera said.
"Incidentally, Floyd Patterson came to the Olympic Village when we were there. He followed Floyd Patterson and he said, 'I'm going to fight you, and I'm going to beat you.' He was letting the world know who he was. You'd get old listening to all that stuff. You tried to let it all go by."
After the Olympics, the two went their separate ways. Ali's career and life have been well-documented. In addition to his championing civil rights, controversial opposition to the Vietnam War and conversion to the Nation of Islam, there were the three world heavyweight belts and 56-5 record — three of the losses came in the twilight of his career — as well as legendary bouts with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Barrera, who was nicknamed "Little One" by Ali because Ali had difficulty pronouncing Humberto, fought professionally for nearly four years. Before retiring from the ring, Barrera compiled a 19-3 record and won the USA Texas featherweight title in 1964.
Barrera saw Ali only once since the Rome Games. He traveled to Houston in 1967 before Ali's bout with Ernie Terrell. It would be Ali's penultimate fight before a three-year-plus ban from boxing for refusing to be drafted and fight in the Vietnam War because of religious reasons.
"I went to visit him at the hotel. I went to his room," Barrera said. "I called and told him who I was. He said, 'Yeah, Little One, come on over.' He said, 'You better win a world title pretty soon because I'm going to beat you to it.' I said, 'Well, fine.'"
Ali did just that, scoring a 15-round unanimous decision over Terrell to win the WBA heavyweight title.
Ironically, Barrera didn't think Ali had the potential to be a world champion, at least not what he saw during their Olympic days.
"The way he would duck punches, he would duck them like this," Barrera said, quickly rocking backward. "I said, 'Eventually they're going to get him.' When you duck a punch like this, you've got to come back forward, right? Somebody smart enough is going to fake you and wait for you to come back and he's going to get you.
"I was taught to go this way," Barrera said, weaving left and right as if dodging punches. "You're balanced and prepared, in a good balanced position. (His) was not a good, balanced position. So my style and his style were entirely different. I never thought he would make it that way. But evidently he was fast enough, and he had a long reach that helped him. So he proved me wrong."
After his retirement, Barrera said he wanted to try and visit Ali in Arizona but couldn't locate an address or a contact. While saddened at Ali's death, he said his lasting image of the fighter will be positive.
"Well, it was the way he lived his life and being happy all the time," Barrera said. "He was a very happy individual in spite of the fact they wouldn't allow him to eat in a restaurant in Louisville. In spite of all that, he did not have a lot of negative attitudes about the United States."