Lee Groves

Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston I: 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today the butterfly sprouted its wings and the bee pulled off its first big sting.

When Cassius Marcellus Clay arrived at Miami Beach's Convention Center the night of Feb. 25, 1964 he intended to shake up the world not once, but twice. He ended up achieving both, and more. The first earthquake was the 7-to-1 underdog's stunning victory over Charles "Sonny "Liston to win the heavyweight championship of the world. The aftershock came the next morning when he confirmed reports that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that he no longer would answer to his birth name. Eight days later on a radio show emanating from Chicago, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad gave the new champion his new name – Muhammad Ali.

Up until then Ali had been an amusing character best known for his over-the-top boasting, predictive poetry and in-ring showmanship, assets exceeded only by his immense physical gifts. But by aligning himself with the Black Muslims, Ali created an enduring third shock wave that rippled far beyond the athletic arena. He instantly became one of America's most polarizing figures and in subsequent years he paid a steep price for his political and religious convictions: A three-and-a-half year exile that took away the zenith of his prime years.

The hard feelings would change, however. His unwavering anti-war stance despite the punishment he faced combined with a massive shift in public opinion concerning America's military involvement in Vietnam persuaded many to change their minds about him. Additionally, his in-ring exploits once he returned from exile helped to reshape Ali into the revered figure most see him as today.

Every legend has a starting point, and for Ali it occurred during his final fight as Cassius Clay.

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When Clay turned pro 53 days after winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, he already had his sights set on two lofty goals. First, win the heavyweight championship of the world, and second, become the youngest man ever to do so. At the time, that meant beating the man who currently held the mark in Floyd Patterson, who, at 21 years 336 days, stopped Archie Moore to win Rocky Marciano's vacated crown. According to Thomas Hauser's definitive biography "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," Clay met sportswriter Dick Schaap shortly after returning from Rome and during the visit Clay had a fake newspaper made up bearing the headline "Clay Signs to Fight Patterson." To make his two-pronged dream come true, Clay had to do it by Nov. 13, 1963.

But on Sept. 25, 1962, Clay was forced to change his target. On that night, Liston fulfilled the 5-to-1 odds in his favor by destroying Patterson in just 126 seconds.

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If there were any doubts concerning Liston's superiority, they were extinguished in the rematch 10 months later when he took just four seconds longer to retain the title. Perhaps one could blame the time needed to count each of the three knockdowns Liston scored.

The twin demolitions of Patterson led many to declare Liston an unbeatable superman. To some, he was the next link in the chain that included Sullivan, Dempsey and Louis. He certainly looked the part.

Although Liston stood a shade over six feet tall, he owned an 84-inch reach that was second only to Primo Carnera's 85½ among heavyweight champions to date. His upper body was also that of a much larger man: A 46½-inch expanded chest, thickly muscled shoulders, steely abdominals shaped by extensive medicine ball sessions and a shock-absorbing 17½-inch neck. His tree-trunk thighs provided a sturdy foundation and his chin absorbed a punch better than most. His waist, however, was just 33 inches around.

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Liston's offensive weaponry was even more formidable than his physique. His pulverizing left jab knocked out countless sparring partners, his lethal left hook caused sand-filled heavy bags to fly off their supports, his potent right cross shattered bones and his body attack caved in ribs. He also had an inhumanly high tolerance for pain. Liston's only defeat in 36 fights to date came nearly nine-and-a-half years earlier in his eighth pro fight against Marty Marshall. Despite suffering a broken jaw midway through the fight, Liston not only finished the eight rounder but he also performed strongly enough to win on one of the scorecards.

"When I broke his jaw, he didn't even blink," Marshall said in Paul Gallender's book on the Ali-Liston fights. "You hit him with your Sunday punch but he don't grunt, groan, flinch or blink. He don't do nothin'. He just keeps coming on." Liston avenged the defeat twice over as he stopped Marshall in six rounds two fights later and out-pointed him over 10 rounds 11 months after that.

His intimidating public persona completed a most menacing picture. His ex-con past heighted the fear factor caused by his icy stare and he was known to stuff towels underneath his white terrycloth robe to make his shoulders appear even more imposing. He also preferred to work short shifts; of his 25 knockouts, 15 occurred in the first three rounds. If Clay were to achieve his goals, this was the man he had to conquer.

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In order to build momentum toward a potential fight with Liston, Clay embarked on an ambitious and prolonged public relations campaign. He invaded Liston's workouts and hurled every insult he could conjure. On a whim Clay and his cohorts drove a bus from Chicago to Denver, called several newspapers and radio stations and made sure they were present when he unleashed his 2:00 a.m. taunts in front of Liston's house. The invasion got the intended response from its victim. Clay turned the screw further by happily filling columnists' notepads with imaginative barbs every chance he got. His favorite nickname for Liston was "The Big Ugly Bear," and he uttered it so often that it became a permanent part of Liston's identity.

Every article and interview served to plant this seed in the public consciousness: If Liston is a real champion, the only person he should fight next is Cassius Clay.

On November 5, 1963, Clay's efforts achieved their main objective. Liston affixed his signature to a contract mandating a heavyweight title defense against Clay. Clay wasn't going to beat Patterson's record, but he had earned the chance to make his biggest dream come true.

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With his date with destiny finally secured, Clay refused to rest on his rhetorical laurels. Instead, he upped the ante:

* "I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat."

* "You're 40 years old, if a day, and you don't belong in the ring with Cassius Clay."

* "He's too ugly to be the world champ. The world's champ should be pretty like me. If you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny."

* "I predict that he will go in eight to prove that I'm great. If he wants to go to heaven, I'll get him in seven. He'll be in a worser fix if I cut it to six. If he keeps talking jive, he'll go in five. If he makes me sore, he'll go like (Archie) Moore. If he keeps talkin' about me, I'll get him in three. If that don't do, he'll fall in two. And if he run, he'll go in one. And if he don't want to fight, he should keep himself home that night."

* "You tell this to your camera, your newspaper, your TV man, your radio man, you tell this to the world: 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. I am the greatest!"

The stoic, minimalist Liston was no match for Clay verbally and he knew it. He might have been worried if he had signed to engage Clay in a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debate but since he was to meet Clay inside a boxing ring, he had every reason to believe that he would remain champion when all was said and done.

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Of 58 sportswriters polled before the fight, 55 picked Liston to win and the vast majority thought he'd end matters quickly. In retrospect it's difficult to believe Clay was such a profound underdog but at the time several compelling reasons fueled their opinions.

First, Liston was a textbook fighter with a complete arsenal of deadly punches while Clay broke every imaginable rule of boxing fundamentals. He kept his hands too low. He leaned away from punches instead of slipping them. He never punched to the body. He knew nothing about fighting in the trenches. His hook and uppercut – which he used rarely – were average at best.

Second, Clay had a questionable chin. He suffered a flash knockdown against Sonny Banks and was nearly knocked senseless by Henry Cooper in his most recent fight eight months earlier. The punch that floored Clay both times: The left hook. And what was Liston's best punch? The left hook.

Third, despite the 14 knockouts in his 19-0 record and the fact that he had stopped 10 of his last 11 opponents, Clay didn't appear to have the one-punch power to earn Liston's respect.

Finally, the experts thought the 22-year-old Clay was mentally unstable and lacked the maturity to be world heavyweight champion. Those criticisms seemingly were confirmed the morning of the fight when Clay instigated the most chaotic weigh-in ceremony the boxing world had ever seen.

Wearing a denim jacket with the words "Bear Huntin'" stitched on the back, Clay barged into the room accompanied by chief second Angelo Dundee, court jester Drew "Bundini" Brown and five-time middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He and Brown shouted at the top of their lungs "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, aaaaahhhhh, rumble, young man, rumble, aaaaahhhhh!" Clay banged his walking stick on the floor and screamed at Liston like a madman.

"You tell Joe Louis and Sonny Liston that I'm here with Sugar Ray!" Clay declared. "Joe Louis was flat-footed and Sonny Liston is flat-footed! Sugar Ray and I are two pretty dancers; we can't be beat! I'm ready to rumble!" He lunged at Liston while his entourage held him back and he kept talking and gesturing even as the doctor checked his pulse and blood pressure.

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What the doctor saw was astonishing. Clay's blood pressure soared to 200-over-100 and his heart rate was a frazzled 120 beats per minute, more than twice his usual 54. That Liston weighed 218 and Clay 210½ was overshadowed by the pandemonium.

Chairman Morris Klein announced that Clay had been fined $2,500 for his behavior, which prompted sportswriters to speculate that Clay had lost his mind or was so frightened that he wouldn't show up. Even Liston was convinced Clay had a screw loose, for he was quoted as having whispered to Clay "don't let everyone know what a fool you are."

But it was all an act – a perfectly conceived and beautifully executed act. A second examination conducted not long after revealed Clay's blood pressure and pulse had returned to normal and with that any thoughts of canceling the fight were put to rest.

Clay knew that a hardened ex-con like Liston could be rattled by only one thing — a crazy man. And Liston's whispered comment had to have been music to Clay's ears, for that told him that he had mentally snared the Big Ugly Bear.

"(Sonny) had a violent side to him that everybody knew about," Liston second Milt Bailey said during a NBC special commemorating the fight's 25th anniversary. "But Cassius was smart and he was clever. He could get under Liston's skin more so than anybody ever knew."

"Liston didn't know what to expect," Dundee said on the same special. "What came into play there is that tough guys are afraid of guys that are a little goofy, guys that fly over the cuckoo's nest, those kind of guys. Tough guys don't know where to go with that, and he was a tough guy, Liston was. So Liston's kinda of looking at him like this while he's screaming and hollering. The doctor's taking his blood pressure and he's saying 'your guy's scared to death, I ain't letting the fight go on.' I'm listening to the (doctor) and I say, 'it's only playing. He's only playing. We're having a little fun here.'"

Clay's weigh-in ploy was a stroke of genius. By seizing the psychological initiative Clay rendered himself immune to Liston's scare tactics. He took the fight to the bully and in the end he made him blink.

Clay's hype didn't result in spinning turnstiles as only 8,297 paid to watch the fight. One potential reason: Just a few days before the match, reports of Clay's association with the Black Muslims began circulating in the newspapers, which transformed a "good versus evil" fight into an "evil versus evil" match in many minds. Another: In spite of Clay's proclamations to the contrary, many people thought the fight was still going to be a massive mismatch that was unworthy of the high ticket prices. A third: Perhaps Miami's warm February weather offered enough justification to skip the event.

Those who had tickets but chose to stay home would live to regret their decision.

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Clay was all business once he stepped inside the ring. As the ring dignitaries were introduced (Luis Rodriguez, Willie Pastrano, Eddie Machen, Sugar Ray Robinson and ringside commentators Joe Louis on television and Rocky Marciano on radio), the focused challenger either rested his elbows on the top rope or bounced lightly on his toes. Wisely, Clay was saving all his energy for the battle ahead. As for Liston, he was his stoic, menacing self. Obeying Dundee's advice, Clay drew himself up to his full 6-foot-3 and stared down at the champion during the final instructions.

At the bell, Liston came straight at Clay and fired a left jab that the challenger easily avoided by gliding to his left. Clay looked balletic as his carved clockwise circles around the champion and weaved his upper body side-to-side and up-and-down. As always, the hands dangled at his sides but his lightning-quick reflexes enabled him to snap his head away from virtually all of Liston's incoming missiles. Liston looked markedly slower as he lunged in with punches that missed badly and got caught by Clay's swifter but lighter blows.

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Liston's first notable punch, a long right to the body, prompted Clay to clamp on the fight's first clinch. After breaking loose, Clay nipped away from Liston's home run hook and deftly used his elbow to block a right to the ribs. Clay's snappy jabs kept Liston at arm's length and his slippery upper body movement appeared to mystify the 33-year-old champion. Liston needed to plant his feet to invest maximum power on his punches but Clay's incredible foot speed delivered him out of range long before that power posed a threat. It was ring generalship at its finest and as a result Liston was always a half-step behind. It quickly became clear that Clay vs. Liston, at least in terms of hand and foot speed, resembled a Ferrari versus a Sherman tank.

With approximately 45 seconds remaining in a tension-filled first, Clay lashed out with a lead right/left hook combination that drove Liston backward and brought cheers from the surprised crowd. Another right to the temple got through, as did a pair of hooks. Clay continued to spear Liston's face with long punches while the champ's ponderous blows disturbed only air. This certainly wasn't the fight most had envisioned, and the thrill of witnessing an unexpectedly competitive contest began to grip the assembled audience.

The crowd's roar drowned out the bell and thus the round went eight seconds longer than the regulation three minutes. But what a round it had been for Clay. He not only hung with Liston, he showed he had the power to at least stun the champion and that he had the smarts and talent to thoroughly flummox him.

That said, anyone can steal a round or two. The true test for Clay was whether he could maintain the momentum.

Round two looked much like round one as Clay circled and jabbed while Liston lunged in with hooks that glanced off the chin and long rights to the body that Clay either swayed away from or blocked with his arms. Liston did better with his jab as he popped Clay's head back from time to time but his follow-up rights and hooks still whooshed past the target. When Liston briefly trapped Clay against the ropes his clubbing blows to the ribs lacked their usual heft. It was obvious by now that the early knockout predicted by many experts wasn't going to happen. In fact, Clay won the first two rounds with ease.

Clay began the third by planting a searing jab to Liston's face and moments later he fired a double jab/right cross/left uppercut combination. A few seconds later, the inconceivable happened.

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Clay's double jab set up a right to the ear that wobbled Liston and he shook him even more with a hook to the face. Back at ring center, Clay landed a flush one-two that opened a cut under Liston's left eye. The wounded champion desperately chased after Clay behind winging punches that had "decapitation" written all over them but the young water bug dipped, ducked and dodged every one of them with captivating dexterity. After riding out Liston's storm Clay responded with a fusillade of blows that struck Liston from multiple angles.

With a minute remaining Liston launched another wave of power shots, and this time some of them got through. Clay groped for Liston's shoulders but the champion slipped under and landed a good right uppercut to the jaw.

"Hold the phone," Theater Network Television blow-by-blow man Steve Ellis declared. "Cassius is a bit hurt." It was, by far, Liston's most effective attack of the fight but it eventually fizzled out in the waning seconds, by which time Clay had re-established his darting jab.

Clay continued his effective hit-and-run tactics in the fourth and his pecking jabs widened the cut under Liston's eye. A jolting lead right/left jab drove Clay backward but otherwise it was yet another round for the challenger.

But as soon as Clay sat down on the stool, he began blinking his eyes wildly. He yelled for Dundee to "stop it!" as in stop the fight. A lesser chief second might have folded under the pressure but Dundee's quick thinking saved the fight, and, in many ways, saved the legacy that would spring from it.

"I didn't know what the heck was going on," Dundee recalled on the NBC special. "He said, 'cut the gloves off. I want to prove to the world there's dirty work afoot.' And I said, 'whoa, whoa, back up baby. C'mon now, this is for the title, this is the big apple. What are you doing? Sit down!' So I get him down, I get the sponge and I pour the water into his eyes trying to cleanse whatever's there, but before I did that I put my pinkie in his eye and I put it into my eye. It burned like hell. There was something caustic in both eyes.

"Joe Pollino (one of Liston's trainers) had used Monsels Solution on that cut," Dundee continued. "Now what had happened was that probably (Clay) put his forehead leaning in on the guy – because Liston was starting to wear in with those body shots – and my kid, sweating profusely, it went into both eyes. Let's face it, biggest fight of his life and he's blind. He can't see and he's hitting the panic button."

The commotion wasn't lost on referee Barney Felix, who was walking toward Clay's corner. The challenger, his arms held high in surrender, was demanding that the fight be stopped and Dundee, fearing the fight might indeed be halted, gave his charge a one-word order: "Run!"

In Hauser's book, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, who was working Ali's corner for the first time, perfectly illustrated the impact of Dundee's actions.

"What he did between rounds was the best example I can give you of a corner man seizing a situation and making it right," he said. "Now, he had a willing subject, because as the world later learned, Muhammad Ali was as courageous as any man who ever put on a pair of boxing gloves. But that moment belonged to Angelo. If Cassius had been with a corner of amateurs, there never would have been any Muhammad Ali. The fight would have been over. Liston would never have fought him again. And as a member of the Muslims, who were about as popular then as the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), Cassius would have sunk from view."

Fighting Liston with two healthy eyes required uncommon courage but to do so while blinded and in severe pain demanded an even higher level of fortitude. The champion was well aware of Clay's predicament and for the first time since the opening bell he had reason to think victory was within his grasp.

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A pair of Liston jabs forced Clay to wince dramatically and seek out a clinch. In that clinch Liston whipped in 16 unanswered blows to the body before Clay finally broke free and skittered away. Clay somehow blocked Liston's hook and avoided a right to the chin before clamping down again. For the next minute Clay used every survival tactic at his disposal; he stayed on the move, he poked out his left arm to keep track of Liston's whereabouts and he managed to roll away from most of the punches he saw coming.

Incredibly, the damage was minimal. As the round wore on Clay's eyes started to clear and Liston had begun to tire. The pace slowed to a crawl in the round's final 30 seconds and when the bell sounded, Liston's last best chance at victory vanished.

His vision now restored, Clay began the sixth by nailing Liston with a flush right to the jaw. As Ellis declared Liston an "easy target," Clay tenderized the champion with whipping jabs that set up beautifully delivered combinations while Liston dutifully tossed out half-speed jabs but tried little else. Clay had regained his earlier form and this time his dominance appeared unstoppable.

The final half of the sixth featured the slowest action yet and it looked as if Clay was on his way to a lopsided points win. But the furious activity in Liston's corner suggested something else was afoot.

One second rubbed Liston's left shoulder while another held a small icepack on the back of the fighter's neck. Still another, Pollino, administered to the cut under Liston's left eye while an bigger icepack was placed on the mouse under the right eye. But for all the work devoted to Liston's body, the real action was taking place inside the champion's mind. The man who had been beaten with night sticks outside the ring and absorbed the blows of the era's hardest-hitting heavyweights inside it had finally reached his breaking point.

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Liston told his corner he couldn't lift his left arm anymore, the arm he used almost exclusively during the sixth round. As the 10-second whistle cut through the air Clay rose from his stool and peered across the ring. An instant before the seventh round bell sounded, Clay lifted his arms and broke into a celebratory shuffle. He knew before just about anyone else what had just happened: Sonny Liston, the supposedly indestructible killing machine, became the first heavyweight champion to surrender his title on the stool since a battered and broken Jess Willard did so against Jack Dempsey 45 years earlier.

What Clay had just achieved was mind-blowing: Not only did he beat the Big Ugly Bear – he made him quit.

With Bundini Brown's arms still wrapped around his waist, Clay galloped toward the ropes and began a wild celebration. He ran toward his own corner and began calling out every reporter who had predicted his doom.

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"He was wrong!" he said to one. "And you were wrong!" he told another. He then climbed on the ropes and swept his left arm from right to left and declared "this row….and this row (was wrong)."  In his ultimate moment of triumph, Clay made sure to remind the doubters that they had erred badly. He also told them to never, ever, make that mistake in the future.

"What are you gonna say now, huh?" Clay asked during the post-fight press conference. "'He can't go one round. He might go two. He holds his head back. He holds his hands too low.' Well, I'm still pretty. All you reporters made it hard on Liston. Never write about me like that. Never make me six to one; it just makes me angry. Never make me no underdog, and never talk about who's gonna stop me. Ain't nobody gonna stop me. Not a heavyweight in the world fast enough to stop me. Liston's one of the most powerfulest in the world, and he looked like a baby. I held my hands down. I just played with him. I shook all of you up."

When he asked the reporters who the greatest was, no one said a word.

"No justice," he said. "I don't get no justice. No one's gonna give me justice. I'll give you one more chance. Who's the greatest?"

After a moment of hesitation, a few in the group dully answered "you are."

In the years that followed, the man who would become Muhammad Ali in a few days' time would prove himself time and again. He didn't always win – Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick would go on to beat him – but win or lose Ali showed himself to be a true champion inside the ropes and a tireless crusader outside them.

Long before Ali hung up his gloves for good in December 1981, those who were lucky enough to watch him, journalist and layman alike, came around to his line of thinking. They didn't have to be asked anymore who the greatest was; they said it on their own and they did it with enthusiasm in their voices and conviction in their hearts.

And the series of events that led to all that began a half-century ago today.

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Photos / THE RING

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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