“I was a senior in high school. I remember thinking Sonny Liston was the meanest, baddest man on the planet. He was an ex-con, controlled by the mob, and one look at him could shrink a man into a boy. Clay was the glib, smack-talking pretty boy. Most fans predicted his early demise. The fight was talked about for weeks after it was over. I was hooked. Boxing became my favorite sport.” –Jackie Kallen, fight manager
It was an epic, wierd-ass time for this country. It just was. February, 1964 and just a few months earlier America had seen it’s golden boy, President Kennedy the King of Camelot, shot down in the street like a dog, in broad daylight, in Dallas Goddamn Texas. The state would feel the impact for decades, as the entire country just could not forgive Texas for letting this happen to the President on their watch. America still had a collective black eye from the tragic loss and desperately needed something to rally around. And boy did we get it– the fight that would change boxing forever. The invincible, stoic champ, Sonny Liston vs. the young, brash showman (AKA the Louisville Lip) Cassius Clay. To add to the pandemonium, The Beatles had landed on our shore at JFK February 7th for their historic, record-breaking performances that would change music forever. I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to be alive during such an epic time in history.
“The Beatles were royally pissed. They were brought to the beach first for a photo op with the champ. Liston took one look and said, ‘I won’t pose with those sissies.’ So they’re brought to meet Clay instead. I’m at the gym. Clay’s late. The Beatles are cursing. He finally shows up and says, ‘Come on Beatles. Let’s go make some money.’ They strike a pose in the ring where he taps George and the rest go down like dominoes. Clay says, ‘You boys aren’t as stupid as you look.’ John Lennon says, ‘No, but you are.’ Then they go off to their destiny and Ali goes off to his.” –Robert Lipsyte, who covered the fight for the New York Times
“So I’m about 10 years old when, suddenly, these two gigantic events converge on my town. The Beatles arrive to do The Ed Sullivan Show live from the Deauville Hotel, five blocks from my house. And then this giant prizefight eight or nine days later. I’d see Ali run by on the beach, his sparring partner Jimmy Ellis by his side. I’ve got my friend Johnny Pollak telling me I can’t come over because his family’s got guests. I ask who. He says, ‘I’m not allowed to say.’ It turns out the Beatles are at his house, swimming in their pool. They posed for some famous pictures there. And then the publicist Harold Conrad realized he’s got this double phenomenon in his lap, so he takes the Beatles to meet Clay. But they wanted no part of Clay. They thought he was a clown.” –Roy Firestone
“Joe Louis and Marciano both were there. So was the great middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, who helped Clay train. So was the popular pop singer Sam Cooke and the less popular, far more provocative activist Malcolm X. Cooke and Malcolm X both were shot to death within the next 12 months.” –Mike Downey
“I have never seen an athlete in a greater state of hysteria than Cassius Clay when he arrived for the weigh-in before the first Liston bout. His head was bobbing almost uncontrollably. His eyeballs were rolling. He was frothing at the mouth. He kept lunging toward Liston and had to be restrained by Angelo Dundee and other handlers. I was standing next to Frank Gifford, who was evolving as a TV sportscaster even though he still had a year to play with the New York Giants. ‘That kid’s scared to death,’ Gifford whispered to me. I thought so too.” –Murray Olderman, journalist
“I have never been as certain about the outcome of a fight in my life. I knew it was a complete mismatch. I knew Liston very well by then. He seemed invincible. Shows you how much I know. Ali — I never knew anybody like him before or since. I came to consider him one of the five closest friends I have in the world. I think after the fight I wrote a line something like: ‘This is the night the cow cut up the butcher.’ ” –Jerry Izenberg, writer
“Like everybody else at ringside, I was stunned when Liston sat on his corner stool and didn’t come out for the seventh round, making Clay the new champion. Jimmy Breslin, who was making his mark as a New York columnist, came over to compare our scoring for the fight. ‘I got Liston ahead,’ he said, shaking his head.” –Murray Olderman
“I remember being shocked when Liston quit. Was the fight fixed? Did Liston really tear a muscle in his arm? Or was he simply outboxed and outsmarted?” –Jackie Kallen, fight manager
Clay-Liston: The Fight That Made Muhammad Ali
A Half Century Ago, a Brash Youngster Named Cassius Clay Beat Sonny Liston and Started His Legend
Fifty years ago, Cassius Clay shocked Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title.
In the decades afterward, the man later known as Muhammad Ali would politicize sports and transform the art of boxing into theater. He also would beat Liston again in a famously short meeting a year later. But this first fight, the one in Miami Beach, was the one that made it all possible.
Going into his first title bout, the brash 22-year-old was widely regarded as a sports sideshow. Taking his cue from the wrestler Gorgeous George, Clay was already telling everyone that he was the best and the prettiest. With some precision, he was predicting the rounds of his opponents’ demise.
In 1962, for instance, he fought Archie Moore. “Archie Moore…must fall in four,” Clay predicted, and that is precisely how long the Old Mongoose lasted.
Still, most fans and scribes surmised that this jabbering Adonis would be pummeled off the screen of boxing history the first time he faced a heavyweight with grit and might.
In March 1963, Clay won a lackluster nod over Doug Jones. Three months later, he was nearly knocked cold by Henry Cooper but survived to TKO the Brit in the fifth. These performances were hardly evidence that the 19-0 former Olympian was poised to beat the Bear.
In 1962, Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in one round to win the heavyweight crown. A year later, he again put Patterson to bed in under three minutes. Like the early Mike Tyson, fans would go to Liston fights just to see how long they would last. Between 1961 to 1964, Liston had only logged six rounds of boxing. No one could endure his heavy weaponry.
Liston’s jab, the late Ali trainer Angelo Dundee once said, “was like getting hit with a telephone pole.” The journalist A.J. Liebling described Liston’s go-to punch as “a long left that resembled a thick-bodied snake with a darting head.”
The former robbery convict also wielded a battle ax of a left hook, a punch to which Ali would always be vulnerable. But Liston had another arrow in his quiver: a baleful stare which, combined with his punching prowess, impossibly thick muscles and murderous temperament, was enough to make elite fighters shiver in their boxing boots.
In the months leading up to the fight, Clay played the kind of mind games that would become the Ali trademark and, in the end, bring professional boxing a little closer to professional wrestling. Baiting the Bear, he drove a bus to Liston’s home in Denver, harassed him with phone calls and barraged him with threats and insults at his training camp in Miami Beach.
“Ali believed that the only thing that would shake up Sonny would be if he thought Ali was crazy,” said Ferdie Pacheco, the sole survivor of Clay’s boxing team. “And that is exactly how Ali acted with him—crazy.”
Liston was a 7-1 favorite. About 90% of the press picked Clay to be picking himself off the canvas at night’s end.
At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, Clay went off like a verbal Roman candle. Eyes bulging, he charged at Liston, howling, “I can beat you anytime, you chump…I am the greatest. I am king…I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Recalling the night of the fight, Dundee said: “I told my kid that when they went to shake hands he should bounce on his toes, let Sonny see just how big he was. Muhammad was a big guy—6-3 and broad. Sonny, who was only around 6 feet, was surprised to be looking up at him and at how big my kid was.”
But nothing could have deconstructed the Liston fighting machine more than the dervish-like movement and speed of his opponent. From the first bell, Clay danced constantly, circling left and right. As though on tracks, Liston came straight ahead, landing some jabs but unable to cut off the ring. When Liston did close the gap, Clay would grab him, hold and then spin out.
As Dundee had predicted, Liston was easy to hit. Clay tattooed him in the third round, opening up a gash under Liston’s left eye. Clay took a sabbatical in the fourth, but at the end of the round he trudged back to the corner complaining that he couldn’t see.
Some say Liston’s gloves were juiced, others that the coagulant used on Liston’s cut was the culprit. But Pacheco believes otherwise. “When they were in close, Ali put his head on Liston,” he said. “Liston had a sore shoulder and his corner had put some strong liniment on it to increase the circulation. One drop of that stuff is enough to make you go momentarily blind.”
“Angelo Dundee won that fight,” the fight doctor added, “because when Ali came back to the corner and couldn’t see, he was screaming, ‘Cut off the gloves! Cut off the gloves!’ But Angelo wouldn’t hear anything about quitting. So there was this little guy, Angelo, yelling at this big heavyweight. It was a sight to see. Ang pushed him out for the next round hollering, ‘Stay away from him. Stay away.’ “
When Clay’s eyes cleared, he attacked with fury, lancing Liston with his jab, his rapier right and his matchless left uppercut. Liston couldn’t get out of the way. He had never seen anything like it and didn’t know how to respond. So, in the moments before the seventh round, he quit, complaining of a shoulder injury.
Ecstatic, the new heavyweight champion bounded around the ring bellowing, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world!” For once, the master of hyperbole wasn’t exaggerating.