Heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston, winner of 35 of his 36 professional bouts and one of the most intimidating athletes in any sport, was facing a lightly regarded 22-year-old from Louisville whose professional accomplishments were as thin as his vocabulary was wide.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, the undefeated challenger, delighted in predicting the round his opponents would fall with a mix of braggadocio, bad poetry and humor that was highly unorthodox in the early 1960s. Liston's two previous fights had been devastating first-round knockouts of former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson. Clay's most recent two bouts were a disputed 10-round decision over Doug Jones and a fifth-round TKO of Britain's Henry Cooper, who had floored Clay in the fourth round with a left hook.
If a bloke like Cooper could hurt Clay, what would a destroyer like Liston do to the fighter known as the Louisville Lip? Liston was an 1-8 favorite for the Feb. 25, 1964, title match at Miami Beach's Convention Hall, and most boxing observers thought Clay would do well to last a round or two more than Patterson. But in a bout former heavyweight champ Joe Louis called "the biggest upset in the history of boxing," the fighter who would soon change his name "shook up the world" with an exquisite demonstration of punching skill that left a wounded Liston unable to answer the bell for the seventh round.
The fight ignited the career of one of sports' most charismatic and controversial figures, whose bouts often became social and political events rather than simply sports contests. At the peak of his fame, Muhammad Ali was the best known athlete in the world.
A half-century ago, boxing commanded a far more prominent position on the sporting stage than it does today. It was featured more frequently on national television and received more coverage in most newspapers than pro or college basketball. The day after Ali's big victory, my junior high class couldn't stop talking about the fight that most of us had heard on radio. One wonders how often a bout involving Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao or Vitali Klitschko has carried conversation of sports fans young and old.
In 1964, only 25 schools participated in the NCAA basketball tournament, and the nine-team NBA finished its playoffs by late April. Postseason baseball was confined to the World Series, with all its games played during the day. In the pre-Super Bowl era, the National Football League ended play in late December, usually with only one postseason game. There were no TV doubleheaders and very few night games. College football's major polls completed voting before the bowls, making the New Year's Day games extravagant exhibitions. Alabama, led by Joe Namath, won the 1964 national championship despite losing the Orange Bowl to Texas. The major tennis tournaments and the Olympics were limited to amateurs.
In February 1964 the only personalities who attracted more attention than Clay and Liston were the Beatles, who were making their U.S. debut with performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a series of sold-out concerts before thousands of fans. The Beatles and Clay briefly shared the stage during the boxer's Feb. 18 workout at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. "Hello there, Beatles," Clay greeted the foursome who would become fellow icons of the '60s. "We should do some roadshows together. We'll get rich." Clay carried drummer Ringo Starr across the ring and then pretended to knock out the four Liverpudlians.
Clay, wasn't quite sure what to make of the Fab Four, asking New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, "Who were those little sissies?" The Beatles, meanwhile, all suspected Liston would clobber "that little wanker." Three years later, the group used a glowering wax figure of Liston as one of more than 50 celebrities highlighting the cover of their seminal album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Who wouldn't pick Liston? Not only was his record imposing but he also exuded menace well beyond his powerful 6-foot-1, 218-pound frame. Liston had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery. He was linked to one-time mob hit man Frankie Carbo, one of the top lieutenants for the Lucchese crime family.
Sullen Sonny Liston was one bad dude. Yet there were flaws in Liston's armor. His previous three fights had been first-round knockouts, meaning he had fought less than nine minutes in 35 months. He was ill equipped for a long bout. Clay and trainer Angelo Dundee carefully studied films of Liston's fights, searching for signs of telegraphed punches. There were also reports of Liston's having missed training sessions due to an unspecified injury. Many suspected his official age of 31 might be a few years short.
And Clay was fully armed for all-out psychological warfare. He traveled to Liston's home in Denver and to his training camp in Florida, insulting the champion as "the big ugly bear." Clay suggested Liston would look good as a bearskin rug in new house.
Clay enjoyed reciting a poem where one of his punches launched Liston into space:
"Who on Earth thought when they came to the fight
That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.
Hence the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money,
That soon they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."
It was all good fun, but many older boxing writers disliked Clay's jabbering and his constant mantra to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Younger reporters, such as the 26-year-old Lipsyte, sensed a degree of charm in the loquacious challenger. Years later Lipsyte recalled his thoughts before the fight: "I began to wish this kid wasn't going to get his head knocked off, that somehow he would beat Liston and become champion or at least survive and keep boxing. He would have been such a joy to cover. Too bad he's got no chance."
In a pre-fight poll of 46 writers and columnists, three picked Clay to win. Only 8,297 fans, slightly more than half the capacity of Convention Hall, showed up for what would become one of boxing's landmark nights. Boxing royalty was on hand, including Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, light-heavyweight champ Willie Pastrano and the great Joe Louis, who was serving as commentator for the closed-circuit telecast on the first TNT -- Theater Network Television.
But most Americans would follow the fight on ABC Radio with Les Keiter calling the action and Howard Cosell, not yet a national name, providing commentary. Keiter covered a variety of sports in New York and Philadelphia before finishing his career in Hawaii. Announcing boxing on the radio is a lost art today, but Keiter's call of the fight was as on target as Ali's punches.
As the fighters met at the center of the ring, the 6-3 Clay peered down at the 6-1 Liston. The champion's stare, which had unnerved many a fighter, had no effect on Clay.
At the bell Clay circled to his left, landing jabs and hitting combinations while Liston lunged and swung wildly.
Keiter: "Liston has another kind of [fighter] in there tonight instead of Patterson. ... Clay with a left and a right. It was Cassius Clay with a half-dozen assorted blows."
On the TV side, announcer Steve Ellis noted, "Clay has not seemed awed up to this point ... The long left is making a difference for Mr. Clay."
At the end of the round an impressed Louis said, "That's one of the greatest rounds I've ever seen. Clay completely outboxed Liston."
The challenger had lasted longer than many critics predicted and produced a prolonged yawn between rounds. The real fireworks came in Round 3. Keiter's excited call described a scene very few expected to hear as Clay pounded the supposedly indestructible champion: "Clay hurts Liston. Liston hobbles. He has Liston's eye cut open. This could be the upset of the century. His left eye is badly cut."
On the TV side, Ellis said Liston was "getting hit with all the punches in the book."
Liston rallied but Clay finished strong. "He's making Liston look very awkward," Keiter said. "Liston's eyes look like he's been through a meat grinder."
Momentum changed in Round 4. Liston landed perhaps his best punch and Clay began blinking wildly. Between Rounds 4 and 5 the TV showed Clay's frantic corner. "He's arguing with his trainers," Louis said. "Angelo [Dundee] is telling him off. Clay is surprising the whole world but something is wrong."
What was wrong was the liniment on Liston's gloves, perhaps put there purposely by his corner, had gone into Clay eyes and was stinging him badly.
"Cut the gloves off," Clay told Dundee. The trainer feverishly applied a sponge to his fighter's eyes and told him to "just stay away from Liston."
Liston won Round 5 but Clay's eyes were clearing.
As Round 6 began, Keiter said the challenger eyes "are as wide as saucers." Clay regained control of the fight. Moving less frequently, he stood in front of Liston and continued to land punches to the champion's puffy face.
"Sonny is beginning to worry," Louis said. "His corner knows Clay has all the confidence to beat him."
Cosell was preparing to pass the microphone to Keiter for Round 7 when history intervened.
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Cosell shouted. "Sonny Liston's not coming out. He's out!"
Liston stayed on his stool. Stunningly, the fight was over and the new champion began bounding around the ring, yelling at boxing writers "eat your words." Cosell dashed into the ring, grabbing hold of Clay.
Three times Clay shouted, "I am the greatest" and added "I am king of the world."
Cosell asked how he did it.
"Because I'm too fast and he was slow," answered Clay, who had just become the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
Moments later Liston told Cosell, "My [left] shoulder feels like it's broke. I don't know what happened to it."
Cosell: "Sonny, did he ever hurt you?"
Liston: "No, he never did."
Of course, Liston's face was puffed up as if he had been stung by colony of wasps -- or, perhaps, a fighter who really could sting like a bee. Fans booed as Liston departed the ring, and Cosell summed up the moment by saying, "This is without question, and there is no need to pour it on, one of the most astonishing upsets in the chronicles of boxing."
In The New York Times, Lipsyte wrote: "Incredibly, the loud-mouthed bragging, insulting youngster has been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight title when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round. ... From the beginning, it was hard to believe."
Different explanations were given for Liston's shoulder injury: He was hurt throwing wild punches in the first round; he was injured during training. Many said he simply quit because the kid was embarrassing him. When Clay knocked out Liston in one round in 1965, a new force in boxing had eclipsed Sonny.
Liston's story came to a sudden end when his wife found him dead in their Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971. Police ruled the death a heroin overdose even though Liston was not known as a substance abuser. Many of Liston's associates said he was the victim of a mob hit.
Even in death, Liston remained a symbol of a shadowy, more menacing side of the American experience. During a 1976 U.S. Bicentennial panel discussion, writer Jimmy Breslin said what really frightened many Americans were not energy shortages or inflation but "[someone like] Sonny Liston sitting in the classroom next to their daughter."
Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali became, in Cosell's words, "a towering figure in international sport."
He converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name and successfully defended his title nine times, sometimes with cruelty, as when he taunted the battered remains of Patterson and Ernie Terrell. In 1967 he was stripped of his crown for refusing induction into the U.S. Army on grounds of being a conscientious objector. For more than 3½ years Ali could not fight. Considering that most athletes reach their peak in their mid to late 20s, it can be argued that, perhaps, the public never saw Ali at his best.
Ali returned to boxing in October 1970, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of his appeal in 1971. He finally regained his heavyweight crown with a stunning eighth-round knockout of George Foreman in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974, with a brilliant display of tactics and imagination.
Ali, however, was never the same fighter after his enforced break. He returned heavier and stronger but his quickness and incredible reflexes began to slow. He proved he could take a punch, particularly in three epic battles vs. Joe Frazier, but the volume of punishment exacted a toll. He finally stopped fighting in 1981, years after he should have exited the ring.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome in 1984 and the ailment gradually limited his mobility and robbed his gift of gab.
Muhammad Ali was more than championship boxer. He was a symbol of black aspirations and independence, a man of conviction who proved athletes could discuss subjects outside the arena.
On the 50th anniversary of the first Clay-Liston fight it's worthwhile to remember not the shrunken man of 72 but the boxer at 22, a handsome, powerful, fleet fighter who really did shake up the world.