Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

7. Cassius Clay KO 7 Sonny Liston I: Feb. 25, 1964, Convention Center, Miami Beach, Florida

When it was announced that Clay was the next partner on the heavyweight champion’s dance card, the skepticism surrounding the 22-year-old’s chances was close to universal. All the experts believed that the “Louisville Lip” would be buttoned shut, that the belching from “Gaseous Cassius” would soon cease and that the man who called himself “The Greatest” would become a mere footnote in the current champion’s inevitable march toward immortality.

That current champion was Charles “Sonny” Liston, a heavily muscled ex-con with a mean streak that stretched miles. Though he stood barely over six feet tall, his reach was an immense 84 inches and his 15-inch fist remains among the largest hitting surfaces on record. His jabs struck with bone-rattling force while his hooks, crosses and uppercuts produced frightful results, even by boxing standards. He was considered to be the world’s best big man several years before his official coronation took place on September 25, 1962. On that day Liston destroyed Floyd Patterson in a mere 125 seconds and the rematch 10 months later in Las Vegas took four seconds longer only because of the time the referee needed to count the three knockdowns.

The only loss on Liston’s 35-1 (25) record was an eight-round split decision to the light-hitting Marty Marshall in September 1954 and that was only because Liston had fought half the fight with a broken jaw, an injury that occurred when Marshall hit him while Liston was laughing at one of his antics. His withering stare was a weapon in and of itself as more than one otherwise hardened man had melted under its glare. “Menacing,” “ominous” and “baleful” were only a few of the adjectives used to describe his glowering eyes, the aura he projected and the man most people perceived him to be.

Coming into the match with Clay, Liston had won his last 28 fights with 23 – including 13 of his last 14 – ending in knockouts. Worse yet for the challenger, Liston’s best weapon was his left hook, the same punch that floored Clay in an early bout against another Sonny – Sonny Banks – as well as Henry Cooper. The 8-to-1 odds favoring Liston seemed overly generous to Clay and of 46 sportswriters stationed at ringside, 43 picked Liston to win.

To combat his private trepidation, Clay engaged in a lengthy and sophisticated psychological war with the man he called “The Big Ugly Bear.” He hounded him in workouts, spouted countless poems promising Liston’s destruction and even drove a bus to the champion’s home in Denver in the middle of the night and shouted barbs through a megaphone. Every day brought a new outrage from Liston’s standpoint and Clay loved every moment. That’s because he knew that the madder Liston became, the smaller the champ’s perceived advantages would become.

The culmination of Clay’s campaign came at the weigh-in that was staged the morning of the fight. His frenzied behavior elevated his heart rate to 120 beats per minute and many in the room thought Clay was acting out of extreme fear for his own well-being. His actions drew a $2,500 fine from the Miami Boxing Commission but the final result was more than worth it: Liston thought Clay was crazy.

But here was the rub: Clay’s outbursts were all an act. A few minutes after leaving the weigh-in a second check of his heart rate revealed an athletic 54 beats-per-minute and his blood pressure had returned to normal. The fight was on.

During the final instructions the 6-3 Clay stood tall and stared down at Liston to make sure the champion knew he was fighting a bigger man. Once the bell sounded the bigger man proved he also was, by far, the faster man. He easily slipped Liston’s lunging punches and his retorts were delivered with laser-like speed. A stiletto-sharp right opened a cut under Liston’s eye in round three and by the end of that session the out-of-shape Liston had trouble catching his breath.

As unexpected as Clay’s strong early showing was, another bizarre plot twist was about to occur. Between rounds four and five Clay complained of something burning in his eyes and implored trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off the gloves. Dundee refused, shoved Clay to ring center and told him to “run!” A suddenly rejuvenated Liston tore after the retreating Clay throughout the fifth but near the tail end of the stanza the challenger’s eyes began to clear.

The sixth was all Clay as he pounded Liston with crisp combinations and between rounds Liston told his corner that he was resigning. It was the first time a heavyweight champion had surrendered the title on the stool since 1919, when a battered and broken Jess Willard reluctantly ceded to Jack Dempsey.

“I shook up the world!” Clay shouted repeatedly to interviewer Steve Ellis. And 10 years later – as Muhammad Ali – he would do it again. 

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