Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston 1st – Shocking the world
Sonny Liston was the world heavyweight champion, having beaten Floyd Patterson by a first round knockout in September 1962. With an impressive knockout record to that point, Liston was a fighter many other heavyweights were reluctant to meet in the ring. Henry Cooper said that if Cassius Clay won, he was interested in a title fight, but if Liston won, he was not going to get in the ring with him. Cooper’s manager Jim Wicks said, “We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.” Liston was an ex-con with ties to organized crime whose ominous, glowering demeanor was so central to his image that Esquire Magazine caused a controversy by posing him in a Santa Claus hat for its December 1963 cover.
Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was a glib, fast-talking 22-year-old boxing challenger who enjoyed the spotlight. Known as “The Louisville Lip“, he had won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He had great hand and foot speed and lightning fast reflexes, not to mention a limitless supply of braggadocio and confidence. Nevertheless, Clay had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career and, more seriously, was sensationally knocked down and almost out by a fast left hook from the cut-prone converted southpaw Henry Cooper. Although Clay rallied to win, it seemed to show he would be vulnerable to Liston’s formidable left hook.
The brash Clay was not liked by most reporters, and his chances were widely dismissed. One journalist wrote, “It will last almost the entire first round.” Another boxing scribe wrote “The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary,” adding that the faceoff between the two unlikeable athletes would be “the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin – 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.” By fight time, Clay was a seven to one betting underdog. Of the 46 sportswriters at ringside, 43 had picked Sonny Liston to win by knockout.
Baiting the Bear
During training, Clay took to driving his entourage in a bus over to the site in Surfside, Florida where Liston (nicknamed the ‘Big Bear’) was training, and repeatedly called Liston the “big, ugly bear“. Liston grew increasingly irritated as the motor-mouthed Clay continued hurling insults (“After the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna’ give him to the local zoo after I whup him… if Sonny Liston whups me, I’ll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he’s the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country.”) Clay insisted to a skeptical press that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds.
Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres, in his 1971 biography, “Ali Sting Like a Bee,” said that as of 1963, Ali’s prophetic poems had correctly predicted the exact round he would stop an opponent 12 times.
Clay’s brashness did not endear him to White America, and in fact, made Liston a more sympathetic character.), one newsman wrote, “Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.” There were rumors that Clay even left the country the day of the fight, fleeing to Mexico, but they proved untrue.
Clay’s outbursts continued at the pre-fight physical the day before the event. Clay worked himself into such a frenzy that his heart rate registered a surprising 120 beats per minute. He was fined $2500 by the Miami Boxing Commission for his behavior. Many observers took this to mean that Clay was either terrified or not in proper shape. However, Clay’s heart rate was back to normal by the official weigh-in.
The 32 year old Liston defended his title against the 22 year old Clay on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay weighed in at 206 while Liston was 218. Many of those watching were surprised during the referee’s instructions to see that Clay was considerably taller than Liston, the so called ‘Big Bear’.
When the fight began it became apparent that Liston was out of condition. Right from the first round, Clay’s superior speed was evident, as he slipped most of Liston’s punches with seeming ease. Clay was constantly moving, and his superb reflexes and fast, effective jab made it difficult for Liston to score with his slower arm-speed and heavy punches. Toward the end of the round, Clay hit Liston with a combination that electrified the crowd.
In the third round, Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston with several combinations, causing a bruise under Liston’s right eye and a cut under his left. At one point in the round, Liston’s knees buckled under Clay’s attack and he almost went down. During the fourth round, Clay coasted, keeping his distance. However, when he returned to his corner Clay started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. Clay shouted: “cut off my gloves,” but trainer Angelo Dundee responded, “this is the big one, daddy…we’re not quitting now!” He rinsed Clay’s eyes with a sponge and pushed him off his stool to begin the fifth round, telling him to “get out there and run.” Clay managed to survive the round.
It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston’s cuts from bleeding (possibly Monsel’s solution) may have caused the irritation, either through accidental contact with Clay or by being purposely applied to Liston’s gloves by his corner, possibly at Liston’s request. Neither explanation has ever been proven.
By the sixth Clay’s sight had cleared, and he resumed control of the fight, landing combinations of punches seemingly at will. “I got back to my stool at the end of the sixth round, and under me I could hear the press like they had gone wild,” Clay later said. “I twisted round and hollered down at the reporters, ‘I’m gonna upset the world.” In Liston’s corner, he told his corner-men that he couldn’t continue, complaining of a shoulder injury. Clay was the first to notice Liston spit out his mouth guard; he moved to the middle of the ring with his arms raised, dancing the jig that would become known as the “Ali Shuffle.” Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout.
Sensing that he had made history, Clay quickly ran to the ropes to remind sportswriters that he had told them so all along, shouting “eat your words!” In a scene that has been rebroadcast countless times over the ensuing decades, Clay repeatedly yelled ” I am the greatest!” and “I shook up the world!” The day after the fight, Clay announced that he was changing his name to Cassius X, but then he adopted the name Muhammad Ali the following week.
There is a mystery still about whether Liston’s shoulder injury was severe enough to actually prevent him from continuing to fight. Liston was diagnosed with a torn tendon in his left shoulder. The rumors of a return bout clause in the contract with Clay were rampant. But, for the return bout to be made, Liston would not be a viable opponent if simply quit on the stool. Did Liston’s corner make the shoulder excuse on the spot to keep their fighter from quitting?
Whether it was a real shoulder injury or a just a brilliant decision by Liston’s corner the rematch was made.
Author Steven Lott