On the anniversary of his first world title win, it is only appropriate to pay tribute to the cultural icon that was Muhammad Ali. Ali transcended boxing, he transcended sport. Muhammad Ali belonged to the world. His showmanship in the ring, and his bravery outside of it, put him on a global pedestal. But this was not always the way. Before the ubiquitous and legendary figure of Ali, there was Cassius Clay. A young, brash, motor-mouthed heavyweight contender with a 19-0 record. And on a fateful February night in Miami Beach in 1964, the other corner housed the fearsome heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston.
While he already called himself ‘The Greatest’, the young man born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky was still a pup by boxing standards. Just 22 years old when the Liston fight took place, Clay had impressed and infuriated boxing scribes in equal measure. His perceived arrogance in picking the round in which he would defeat fighters had come back to bite him when tough contender Doug Jones took him the distance in a bruising encounter. Their ten-round battle would win The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year award, and a critical public argued the close bout underscored Clay’s flaws.
The smug poking at the future Ali’s abilities was not quietened by his next bout, when Britain’s Henry Cooper had him on the verge of being stopped in a famous Wembley Stadium battle. The self-professed ‘Greatest’ was seen as having reached his ceiling, having been roughed-up in back-to-back fights. Little did the world of boxing know this outspoken kid from the Bluegrass state was only just getting started.
A man who was already well into his journey was Sonny Liston. The heavyweight king had toiled for years to get his shot at the belt, wiping out a who’s who of the division’s contenders along the way. Great names like Cleveland Williams, Eddie Machen, Zora Folley and Roy Harris were broken and beaten as Liston stalked the champion, Floyd Patterson.
It had been a lengthy wait for Liston, as Patterson had refused to fight him in 1960 due to Liston’s alleged links with organised crime. Many high-profile figures had weighed in, with president John F. Kennedy and former champion Jack Dempsey speaking out against Liston being given the shot he had earned in the ring. For two years the war raged, Liston circling and awaiting what he knew was his. After delays, presidential intervention, and arrests that led to a suspension, Sonny would get his shot in 1962. As if fighting with all this pent-up anger and injustice coursing through his veins, ‘The Big Bear’ knocked out Patterson in a single round. The following year he repeated the feat in a rematch. Sonny Liston was here, and it was thought nobody could stop him.
The press feared Liston as champion would be bad for the sport. Putting aside his unseemly criminal links, it was thought his dominance would prove too great, that the heavyweight division would crack under the weight of his iron fist. This was reflected in a pre-fight poll of sports writers before Liston's defence against Clay. Of the 46 scribes asked, 43 of them backed Liston to retain his championship for the second time. Such a tide against a Clay win is unthinkable in a modern context, but the 22 year old version who had so laboured with Jones and Cooper was a vast underdog. You could find odds as long as 7-1 for a Clay victory. After watching Patterson expertly massacred on two occasions, it seemed like the whole world was expecting more of the same.
The fight build-up was fraught and eventful. Against a backdrop of talk about Cassius Clay joining the Nation of Islam, the religious-political group that would later give him the name Muhammad Ali, there were several flashpoints that stoked drama and ill-feeling. Clay rode to Liston’s home in a campaign bus emblazoned with ‘Liston Must Go In Eight” and awoke the champion at 3am. The idea of the fight being over by the eighth round was a constant theme, as was Clay’s taunts of “big, ugly bear” and the assertion he would kiss the champion’s feet if he lost.
Matters came to a head during a clash at a casino. Liston was playing craps, and apparently he was losing badly. It was at this inopportune moment that Clay chose to direct insults at the heavyweight champion. Reports differ from this point, but Liston either drew a gun, shaped to punch Clay or simply chased him from the casino. Wherever the truth lies, everyone can agree on the fact Clay was genuinely terrified following the encounter.
It must have been sweet relief for those staging the fight to finally get the pair in the ring on 25th February 1964. Liston came roaring out of the traps, looking to rack up a fourth consecutive first-round knockout. Clay’s defensive abilities came to the fore here, as his unconventional movement for a heavyweight appeared to throw Liston. The crowd, initially anti-Clay, erupted when the challenger landed a lightning-fast combination towards the end of the round. Already, Clay looked like one problem Liston could not solve with blunt force.
A hard left hook in the second round reminded Clay he was in a fight, but the champion could not sustain the pressure. ‘The Greatest’ began to rattle off combinations, emptying the manual of every punch in the sport to try and stop Liston’s march forward. Then Clay did something no one thought possible, he made Sonny Liston bleed.
The champion was cut under both eyes from the sharp fists of his precocious challenger, the first time he had ever been lacerated in the ring. The Arkansas slugger rallied, thudding powerful shots into Clay’s body. When the third round was complete, Clay shouted over to Liston, “I got you now!”.
Clay appeared to ease off in the fourth, handing the initiative to Liston. Between rounds, the challenger complained he could not see. Angelo Dundee deduced there was a substance in his charge’s eyes that had blinded him to Liston’s flurries. Clay demanded his gloves be cut off, feeling he could not continue and was best served highlighting the injustice. His wise trainer knew better, and washed Clay’s face before sending him back out with one simple order to follow: “Run!”.
Clay danced a dance that would become a familiar sight in the years that followed, evading the champion with his superior speed and movement. Crucially, he survived the round. By the sixth stanza, Clay’s sight had been restored. He went back to the playbook, landing every combination known to man on his opponent. It was enough. When he returned to his stool, Cassius Clay found out Liston had quit. The champion so feared it was thought he’d never lose, had lost. Cassius Clay was the new heavyweight champion in the world.
“I shook up the world!”. These were the immortal words of the new king, the underdog who became a champion. Little did the crowd or the red-faced press men who had backed against the youngster know just how true those words would ring. Liston had pulled out due to an injured shoulder, but this did nothing to taint the moment. Heavyweight history was made in that ring, and the man we came to know as Muhammad Ali was truly born.
By the time of their rematch, Clay had become Ali. The return bout would prove to be controversial, with the champion scoring a first-round knockout win that is debated to this day. Liston fought on until 1970, losing just once more but never again troubling the heavyweight championship. Muhammad Ali’s story is well-documented, and you will read dozens of iterations of it. But after hearing about a young Cassius Clay capturing his first heavyweight championship at the age of 22, you now know where that majestic tale truly began.