Gilbert Rogin
Thursday September 24th, 2015

This story originally appeared in the November 16, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

This is a joke making the rounds: "Don't invite Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston to the same party—it seems last time they almost had a fight." Which is better humor than history. Whatever happens next week in the Boston Garden, the fact is that last February in Miami, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title in what was conspicuously a fight (see cover) and, moreover, one that was eventful, exciting, probable, and as dismaying to most of the nation's sportswriters as it was to Liston, who still peevishly insists that Clay is only a "fair" fighter, and not as "brave" as Patterson. Liston not only failed to win, as both he and the daily press had foreordained, but the fight ended with him sitting ambiguously on his stool, his face swollen and altered as much by intimations of mortality as by Clay's lists; and this, this almost tragic expression of hurt and irremediable loss, remains. "You can see it in his eyes," says one of Liston's sparring partners. "They don't look so scary any more. They look sad and confused." "Liston is burnt out," says Cassius Clay.

Although life, unlike fiction, cannot demand a logical or rational ending, the sportswriters felt they had been took. Consequently, they reported it was a lousy fight, a fix, and what is called a Setback To Boxing. Evidently it was these things because Liston, who was the nearest piece of talent to Godzilla, failed to knock out Clay, whose only known asset was his mouth. The merits of the fight may well be a matter of de gustibus, but there has been no evidence of a fix. Furthermore, it had been written that if any commission had the gall (read greed) to sanction the rematch, no one would pay money to see it. Last week Harold Conrad who, as the fight's publicist, is trying to convince Liston to leave his brain to Harvard, announced that a record gross of $4.7 million is anticipated, a figure that includes 600,000 theater TV seats at an average of $6 a chair and a live gate of $450,000 and change. But such are the effects of journalistic vanity that Liston is a 9-to-5 favorite in Las Vegas; it is almost as though, by some supreme effort of the will, the last fight can be scrubbed from history.

But it happened, and one day last month in the living room of his rented house at 4610 NW 15th Court in Miami, Clay, who now signs in as Muhammad Ali, asked his chauffeur to turn off a taped broadcast by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslim sect to which Clay belongs, and to turn on the movie of the fight. There, on the wall below a handmade sign which reads "Allah Is The Greatest," it inevitably unfolded. Clay watched the film every afternoon before he went to the gym, and he has it with him at the Sherry Biltmore in Boston. "It keeps me in shape," he says. Once more, in the first round, he was fleeing the obsessed, despairing Liston. Luis Serria, a Cuban who gravely leads Clay in calisthenics and rubs him down, says that Clay was "distraught with fear" in those early moments. Clay admits he was "a little nervous. In Miami I was Columbus," he adds. "I was traveling into the unknown. I had to be cautious because I didn't know what to expect. Now I know."

What Clay discovered first of all, and what was, in effect, the point upon which the fight turned, was that he could duck Liston's vaunted jab. "Man can't lead with a hook, get me," Clay said,-watching Liston pursuing him across the plaster with great, futile hooks. (Alas, the sound track did not pick up the anguished and unheeded cries of Willie Reddish, Liston's trainer: "Cut down on your punches! Shorten your stance!") Clay found, too, that on the infrequent occasions that Liston was able to hit him, he could take the punch. But not only was Clay evading the majority of Liston's ill-considered blows, he was hitting Sonny as freely as he wished, and forcefully. Indeed, there was Liston, a shadow on the wall—bleeding, tired, suddenly aged, an impostor. "He's backing up now," Clay said. "He's never backed up." "Cook on him," Clay's brother shouted from across the room. "Cook on him, Brother Muhammad."

"One day you are the champ and your friends say, 'Yes, champ, no one in the world can beat you, champ.' Then you are no longer the champ and you are all alone." This is Liston. He was walking one evening last week with his wife, Geraldine, carrying a bag of groceries, returning to the White Cliffs hotel, his training camp at Plymouth, Mass. He went on. "After that, your friends and the people who have been making a big payday off of you aren't talking to you but about you, and what they say isn't what they said the day before. Look at there," he said, pointing to the horizon, where the setting sun colored Cape Cod Bay. "Isn't that the most beautifulest sight you've ever seen? When I first came here the moon was full and all the men kept going outside to see the moon on the water."

Liston is trying to return to the hard, narrow way that led him to the championship, even attempting to duplicate, in his anguish, the things he did two years ago, such as balancing himself on high fences. While Clay's retinue now includes an assistant to the assistant trainer, three Muslim cooks and Stepin Fetchit, who tells the audience at Clay's workouts, "Please don't smoke or spit on the carpet," the troupe that stayed up late with Liston in Miami while he played tonk and ate potato chips is gone—like his title, his arrogance, his intimidating majesty. Liston has also divested his body of so much weight (last weekend he was 208, compared to 218 for the Miami fight) that he no longer resembles himself. It is chiefly missing from his hips and buttocks, so that he looks strangely deformed, his head huge and unsettling, like some monstrous, morose dwarf. "I'll be able to bend easier," he explains.

Until recently, these deprivations had not enhanced Liston's boxing. In Denver he had not been able to put any of his sparring partners down. He had beaten some up, hurt them, but not overpowered them. Not until October 26 was Liston's confidence, to any measure, restored. That day he hit a sparring partner named Lee Williams between the eyes and busted him open. Afterward, all Liston could talk about was the blood and the eight stitches it took to sew Williams up. "Blood is like champagne to a fighter," says Al Lacey, an oldtime trainer. "It gives his ego bubbly sensations. It helps the fighter's inner man; he begins to believe in himself. They used to feed Dempsey old has-beens in the last days of his training just so he could knock them down, and it never failed to pick up his spirit."

But it still appears that Liston has done little to correct the inadequacies Clay exploited in Miami. When Liston brings his jab back, his fist hangs by his waist. In the interval it takes him to cock it, Clay will be able to hit him on the head two, three times. When Liston remembers to bob and weave, it is in a simple, predictable pattern, like a pendulum, and Clay will have no trouble timing and penetrating this defense. It is evident that Liston is practicing restraint—"biding my time," he says—holding fire until he is decidedly within range. But any unexpected move breaks his muscular tension and disconcerts him and, as Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, says, "My guy is no conformist."

Only rarely does Liston punch in combinations, and he never throws a straight right hand to the body. When Clay leans back to evade Liston's jab, his jaw is beyond reach, but not his midsection. If, after the jab, Liston follows with a right to the body, he might well slow Clay down enough to beat on his head and, by his own admission, Clay was hurt by right hands to the body in the second and fifth rounds. "Liston should be working on a straight right to the body," says one of his sparring partners, "but he don't seem able to throw the punch that way. He's working on another round punch, and Clay can twist away from that. If you watch Liston closely you can avoid getting hurt. He's slow and plants himself before he punches. Any sudden movement, a shoulder feint or head fake, and his concentration is broken."

"Liston buys everything," Dundee says. "He's a one-way fighter. He can't lick a two-way, let alone a four-way fighter, a guy that can go forward and back, side to side. A fellow that can go side to side can beat him! I first got enthused about Clay's chances when I saw what Machen did to Liston. He can only go one way—forward. He's big, ponderous, and every one of his movements is predictable. Liston can't lick Clay. He can't lick that format. He can't lick a tall guy. Liston punching down is powerful. Banging down on you he can hurt, but banging up.... It's like hitting a nail with a hammer. It you hit down, you have power, but when you hit up.... And Liston can't change nothing. Liston is Liston."

"I feel every man is two men," says Drew (Bundini) Brown, Clay's assistant trainer. "This is particularly true of the champ. He talks to himself and he listens. The champ is a free man. He is one of a kind. He is hand-carved. He is a poor man's dream. He is the baddest man on earth—earth, baddest man, that's better. He won't take orders, but if you say something that makes sense then he will hear it and play it back to himself. That is why me and Angelo never give him a command, but we use psychology. We come up with expressions. A Guy Gets Hit Don't Look Good. Slide And Glide, Take A Ride. Hit And Don't Be Hit. Your Left Hand Is Your Best Friend. The Ropes Are Your Enemy, So Stay Away From Them. The champ remembers these lines, and he uses them himself and he does these things. He is doing new things, marvelous things, all the time."

Clay is also a new man. While Liston seems to have become almost wizened, Clay has grown half an inch since February—he now stands 6 feet 3—and has put on six pounds. He weighed 216½ a week before the fight. More significantly, Clay's biceps measure 17 inches, his thighs 27 inches, a two-inch increment in both places, and, at 13½ inches, his forearm is an inch bigger than it was prior to the Miami fight. His waist remains the same, however—34 inches. When Clay returned from his African pilgrimage last June, he was 240 but, as he said the other day after trying on a sweater in a shop on Boston's Massachusetts Avenue, "Jackie Gleason is gone. I have lost my big stomach. I never drink or smoke, so none of that was bad flesh. It was health fat, that's what it was, health fat. I'm so beautiful I should be chiseled in gold. Look at that build. It's pretty. I mean, it's ready to dance. Right now!"

Clay truly is in marvelous shape. "I had to get unfit before I learned to stay in condition," he says ruefully. In July, when he was still keeping company with Gleason, Chip Johnson, a sparring partner, put him down with a short right hand. "I froze on the spot," Johnson recalls. " 'Chip Johnson,' I said to myself, 'you know you just dropped the champ. Get up, get up,' I cried. 'Stop jiving.' He said to me, 'Chip Johnson, you hit me with the true thing.' Liston better not knock him down. I don't want to lose my prestige with the champ."

"He wants to work," Dundee says. "That's his biggest asset—he wants to train. No one has to push him. This is everything he wants." "I'm filling up his tank," says Bundini. "I got him running with a pound-and-a-half weight in each hand. I got him running with heavy boots on. [Clay says the boots weigh five pounds apiece, whereas the ones he wore before the first fight only weighed half that much, and that they are 13½, although he wears a size 12 shoe.] Makes his ankles feel like he had two pair of wings on. If you clip his wings, he be dead, he be dead."

For one reason or another, Clay's genius as a fighter has never been fully appreciated. Perhaps it is on account of his often abrasive personality, or that he is, essentially, a romantic figure in an unromantic age, or perhaps because so few can grasp the extraordinary, advanced way he fights. As a person, Clay has become more subdued and mannerly. "The champion has to have dignity," he explains. "That's why I ain't going to pull any more stunts on Liston or run around shouting all those crazy things." Nevertheless, Liston is the sentimental as well as the betting choice—a result, doubtless, of the echoes of Clay's tedious braying and his espousal of the Muslim cause. In the past. Clay frequently has been indolent, even insolent, in the ring, and there are those who know in their hearts that Billy Daniels was giving him a real good whipping before the ref stopped it, and that Doug Jones actually beat him. In truth, Clay was well ahead of Daniels, and though he took Jones too lightly he win it big and gave Jones such a licking in the final rounds he hasn't been the same fighter since.

So who kids whom how many times? Clay is undefeated. As well as can be reckoned, he has called the round 11 times and made it stand up nine, which is on the order of climbing Mount Everest on roller skates. This time he contends Liston will fall in nine. "I give him three more rounds for being in better shape," says Clay. (In fact, Liston may well have been overtrained in Miami—reaching his peak so early he had to be laid off—particularly for a man of his apparent age, which has to be closer to 40 than the official 30.) Someone asked Clay how many seconds will have elapsed in the ninth before Liston falls. "Seconds are gimmick talk," said Clay, hotly. "There's nothing spooky or ghosty about calling the round—it's all science. I go into conference with myself and then I prophesy. You start with the thought and then you turn it into reality, like the scientist figured out how to make the jet before he built it."

Bundini recalls: "When I first met the champ, I told him he was a phony, doing all that predicting. He said to me, "Every time I call it, I'm scared to death." There were tears in both of our eyes. The champ does not agree with everything I do, but he loves me."

"Clay does more things by accident than most big men do on purpose," says Dundee, intending it as a compliment. "In Miami you only seen one quarter of the things this kid can do," says Bundini. For example, Clay is working on a sequence that goes pop-pop-pop (that is the sound of the jab), step back, step in, right cross. Or he will go pop-pop-po...instead, he stops the jab halfway and turns it over into a hook. "He throws right uppercuts," says Dundee, full of wonder.

"Liston's going to try to grab my jab," says Clay, "pull me to him with his left, and chop me in close with his right. My strategy is to dance, stick and move. In the clinch, spin, grab and hold. I'll be hitting harder. I'll be more confident and determined."

"You can never become great unless you take chances," says Bundini. "How can you take a pot unless you make a bet? The scared man do not push his chips in. Once the champ was like a kid holding four aces—he talked too much. Now he knows that when he is holding four aces all he has to do is spread them out and take the pot. A cucumber is a cucumber until it has been in vinegar. Then it is a pickle. The champ is seasoned now, but experience is dangerous."

Indeed, this leads to one of the major imponderables of this fight. In Miami a degree of fear moved Clay, kept him out of harm's way until Liston had worn himself out. How will Clay react without as much help from his adrenal glands? For him the difference between victory and defeat may be measured in fractions of inches—the breadth of air he can keep in front of his chin. In Miami, Liston forced Clay into corners, but was not able to violate his air space. The corners are still where Liston is looking to put him, for in the corners Clay cannot go back. If Clay can stay off the ropes, the fight is most likely his; when he is on the ropes his mobility is restricted, and Liston's relative immobility does not count so much against him.

In several of his training sessions last week Clay looked bad because, as he explained, he was allowing himself to be worked against the ropes. "I must be prepared in case the Big Bear gets tough," he said. He then went into an elaborate metaphor—the Clay camp is very poetic—about how an airplane pilot undergoes simulated emergencies in his training so he will learn how to react to them if they occur in actuality. "I face reality," Clay said. "I may not sound human, but behind closed doors I worry and pray."

Another imponderable is how Liston will fight now that he is driven by desperation. Is he, in fact, a bully who cannot perform well unless he believes he is assured of winning? To defeat Clay, Liston must stalk him, not chase him. He must cut the ring in half, which he learned to do for the first Patterson fight. He must throw his right hand—in which he has so little faith, although it demonstrably set Patterson up for some of those terrible knockdowns. He must remember to keep his left up, to throw combinations, to feint and to beat on Clay in the clinches. He must husband his big punches until he is relatively certain they will be on the mark, and not punch himself out because, if he is to win, it will only be by a knockout.

"I guess I just stopped thinking," Liston says about his discreditable performance in Miami. Will Liston's corner be able to bring him back to reality this time? Clay has the edge in seconds not because Reddish necessarily knows less about boxing than Dundee but because Dundee can handle Clay, while Liston seems to tune Reddish out. In the fifth round in Miami, when Clay's eyes were smarting and he wanted to quit, Dundee got him off the stool. "We got up too early too often to quit," Bundini says he told Clay at the time, but it was Angelo's hand that pushed the man out there.

But, having pondered the imponderables, one can only conclude that Liston will not win, because whatever he does, or does not do, he can never match Clay's brilliant speed of hand, foot and mind—his instinct and his application. Until the Miami fight, Liston was regarded as a superior defensive fighter, yet against Clay's bewildering and various volleys he was helpless. This is because Liston can only defend against one punch at a time, which he does very well. Liston has always had trouble with clever, unorthodox fighters—a Marty Marshall, a Machen—and Clay is sui generis if nothing else. Although he does not hit as hard as Liston, Clay's blows have impact and they cut. And Clay can take a punch, which confounded and demoralized Liston in their first meeting.

On form, Clay should be a heavy favorite to win by a decision. He is a good bet to knock Liston out from the seventh through the 14th rounds. Liston, if he wins, is more likely to do so in the first few rounds. His chances lessen as the fight progresses, since he should grow weaker from the attrition of Clay's multiple blows and the energy he will have expended in missing. If the fight lasts 14 rounds, however, Liston's hope of a knockout should be greater than at any time since the fifth. Clay will have slowed up and Liston can gamble on one mighty, concluding punch.

But, by and large, wild strokes of fortune do not notably account for man's achievements; they are brought about, rather, by the orderly application of superior resources—whether they are deductions or punches in the mouth. The choice is inescapably Clay—by a knockout. Rounds are gimmick talk.

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