February 25 1964, Miami Beach, Florida
EVERY now and again, a world heavyweight champion comes along who scares the bejesus out of everyone. Not just opponents, but the world at large. Charles “Sonny” Liston – like George Foreman and Mike Tyson after him – was one such giant. Built like he’d been cut from concrete, Liston rarely smiled. Instead, the former Missouri State Prison inmate growled. And his coronation, though overdue, was as emphatic as any in boxing history. Floyd Patterson was a gifted and popular king but he was knocked out in a round by Liston. They had a rematch and the result was – give or take six seconds – exactly the same. Many experts believed that the new champion was unbeatable, even if you were to put him in a time machine and match him against the best of any era. It wasn’t just his power, it was his style. He was more than just a slugger. Liston stalked his prey intelligently, cutting off the ring and setting traps. When the fight with Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then known, was made, hardly a soul gave the young man a chance. After all, he had barely survived against the comparatively limited Henry Cooper. Clay was installed as a 7-1 underdog – long odds in a two-horse race.
Clay was an intelligent man. He knew that Liston had all the physical advantages and would, ordinarily, come into a bout with a 19-fight novice extremely confident. It was the challenger’s job to remove some of that belief before a punch had even been thrown. Clay turned up at Liston’s house in the middle of the night, and spewed abuse into a loudspeaker. Liston was understandably incensed.
Ali later remembered: “Liston stuck his head out of the window, cursing, saw us and growled so deep it sounded like a lion’s roar: ‘Hey! Get out of my yard you black bastard!'”
Initially Sonny wanted to rip Clay’s head off. But slowly that anger clouded the “Big Ugly Bear’s” mind.
At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, hosted by the Convention Center in Miami Beach, Clay ramped up the insanity. As Liston plonked his herculean frame onto the scales, the challenger hysterically screamed at him. Even those that the abuse was not for aimed found the tactics infuriating. Clay spread his lips wide, stretching his mouth to maximum capacity, while holding up eight fingers to indicate how many rounds the champion would last. Liston, never previously one to make predictions, declared his intention to win in two.
The Kentuckian was so maniacal in his approach, officials briefly considered calling the fight off. The doctor, Alexander Robbins, took Clay’s pulse and discovered his heart was beating at over 120 a minute.
“It was though he was scared to death,” Robbins reported.
Go greased lightning
When battle commenced, in front of a disappointing crowd of 8,000, Clay was a revelation. Liston lumbered forward, chucking his muscled arms at the challenger. But Clay grooved around the ring, bouncing away from any danger with ease, before clouting Liston with snappy combinations. The predatory champion was used to cornering the hunted, and punishing them into submission, but it was quickly clear that this rival was different. Without question, after three enticing minutes, Clay had taken the fight to the monster and won the opening session.
“The first round was exactly as I planned it,” Clay later reflected. “I could see my strategy paying off. Liston’s coming at me like a bull, throwing wild punches… When that round ended, I knew I had him.”
But Liston would improve over the next two stanzas. He had some success logging Clay to the body, and switching upstairs. But everyone in attendance sensed the upset was on. The champion, previously an impregnable beast, was bleeding from the nose and near the left eye – grisly souvenirs from the underdog’s slashing weaponry.
Late in the fourth, however, Clay’s fortunes dipped. His majestic dance became clumsy. His eyes, once glistening with focus, blinked chaotically. He could not see and as the round ended he begged his coach Angelo Dundee to remove his gloves so he could prove “there was wrongdoing going on.” There were suggestions that ointment used to soothe Liston’s aching shoulder was on his gloves, and had found its way into the 22-year-old’s eye.
Dundee screamed at his charge to fight, scooping him off the stool and throwing him back into combat as the fifth began. The referee Barney Felix, who had checked Sonny’s gloves but found nothing, considered stopping the fight such was Clay’s confusion.
‘I shook up the world’
Cassius survived the crisis, his eyes cleared, and he closed the next round in the ascendancy. Young Clay had regained his role as teacher, showing the more experienced Liston how fighting should be done. The champion sensed his title was slipping away as the skin around his eyes bubbled with pain. He was now the desperate man. And as he sat on his stool before the seventh, his corner stopped the fight. Liston’s left arm was numb.
“I was the one who made the decision,” said Liston’s manager Jack Nilson. “Sonny wasn’t tired, believe me. He simply lost all feeling in his left hand after being hit in the left shoulder at the tail-end of the first round.”
Upon hearing he had won, Clay lost control. He raced to the ropes, gestured to ringsiders, and screamed about his greatness. The euphoria did not fade quickly.
RATING MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST PERFORMANCES
Back in his dressing room, the new king addressed reporters, singling out those – the vast majority – who had predicted Liston would win easily.
“I’m the greatest, I shook up the world. I told you I would do it. What are you gonna say now? He’s gonna go in one? He’s gonna go in two? Well, I whipped him so bad I put him in the hospital and look at Cassius – I’m still pretty.
“I burned up more energy making it interesting at the weigh-in this morning than I used in beating that big, ugly, bear.
“Oh I’m so great,” he continued, looking at the ceiling. “And don’t,” he frowned, “call this is a fix. If he wants a rematch he can have it.”
The tale of Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, and the phantom punch