This story originally appeared in the March 9, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It was, no matter what you have read or heard, an enormously exciting fight. It matched the classic contenders for a heavyweight championship of the world—a beautiful, controlled boxer against a man who could hit with deadly power. The fight—Clay against Liston—restored balance and intelligence to the concept of boxing. The boxer, using his skills with aplomb and courage and forethought, confounded and defeated the slugger.
Cassius Clay, who for weeks had cried, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," floated and stung—and he whipped Sonny Liston as thoroughly as a man can be whipped. It was a satisfying lesson to watch and it was an entirely honest fight, fought to the limit by both men.
When the bell rang for the first round, the spectators sat in tense expectation. For weeks, comment on the outcome of the fight had centered on the number of minutes Clay could avoid Liston's fearsome left hand. For the whole first round, those watching—in theaters and at ringside—were on the edges of their seats, expecting at any moment that Clay, a feather-footed, fluidly graceful man dancing around the perimeter of disaster, would slip or falter and that one of the vicious, brutal punches that Liston launched in an endless series would catch him.
As the round neared its end, the big question was answered. Liston could be lived with. Clay, the braggart who had goaded the champion into coming out for the first round in a mist of destructive rage, could smother and slip and slide away from that rage. Liston was no superman, as many had begun to believe. He might be a deadly puncher, but Clay—a remarkably calm and composed Clay when he came into the ring—was prepared for him, and he was certain that he was not going to be destroyed in the flash of a left hook.
The realization of this seemed to come as a vast surprise to the spectators. It should not have. Clay, in the ring under the pressure of a championship fight, was doing what he had carefully rehearsed and meticulously perfected for weeks in the grimy confines of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach (SI, Feb. 17). No move he made in the ring was a casual one; each move was made with a purpose, and the purpose had been developed and the move perfected long before.
Even Liston's rage, which took from him most of his boxing ability, had been a part of Clay's strategy. The boasting and calculated gibes with which Clay had irritated Liston during the weeks before the fight had seemed the overweening confidence of a child. Clay had hoodwinked sportswriters, fans, even members of the combine which owns him. At the weigh-in, he had put on a long, hysterical show, also designed to upset Liston.
Before the fight, Liston had seemed imperturbable. But in the first round, all the smoldering resentment came out in a rush. Bulling from his corner, Liston forgot the instructions of Willie Reddish, his trainer, and he forgot most of what he had learned about boxing. Proud, especially vain of his body and his reputation as a puncher, Liston was a man with but one thought, and it was a dangerously emotional one. He wanted to murder his tormentor, in one minute if possible, more quickly than he had knocked out Floyd Patterson.
Clay danced and moved and watched curiously and did what he had prepared to do in the Fifth Street Gym. In the long, hot early afternoons there, against two reasonable facsimiles of Liston, he had practiced moving quickly to his left, slipping left hooks by leaning and moving his head, avoiding damage on the ropes by ducking down and away and sliding out of trouble. All these things he did now.
As the round grew old and Liston's heavy rushes produced no tangible result, Clay, assured now that his tactical plan was a sound one, tested it a little more. He moved to the attack, as he had in his sparring sessions, stinging Liston with a sharp left hand, crossing the right over against the side of Liston's head. That worked, too. Although it would not be apparent for another round, Clay was in command. And by the middle of the third round another fact began to come clear: Sonny Liston was no longer the heavyweight champion of the world.
He was leaning heavily against the ropes, peering between raised gloves at Cassius Clay. His face had begun to swell from a cleanly delivered, drum-fast combination of blows that had driven him cowering across the ring. His expression was puzzled and shocked and almost frightened. The arrogant self-confidence that, in previous fights, had allowed him to dominate his opponents, was gone.
Six feet away, Clay was yelling at him.
"Come on," he shouted. "Come on, you bum!"
Liston came off the ropes in an awkward shuffle, pawing with his left hand, and Clay leaned in with the artful precision of a bullfighter placing banderillas. He stabbed the swollen face with a sharp left jab, and Liston bent into the oddly hopeless crouch in which he had accepted the fusillade that had sent him to the ropes. As he crouched, Clay crossed a sharp right, catching the champion on the left cheekbone and splitting his face from dark to red as cleanly as a sharp knife cutting through the rind of a watermelon.
Because Liston is a savage and instinctive fighter, he shook his head quickly and came on and fought well, if not brilliantly, for the rest of the round. He shoved Clay into the ropes and slammed at him doggedly with hooks to the belly, but he no longer owned the ring and he no longer—if he ever had—impressed Cassius. Clay took the two-handed attack on his belly calmly enough, catching most of the blows with his elbows. Then, almost petulantly, he placed his hands on Liston's shoulders and pushed him away.
The end came three rounds later. It might have occurred sooner except that Clay fought the fifth round virtually blind, saving himself only through his marvelous ability to move on his feet and with his upper body. In the fourth round, jabbing at Liston with his snake's tongue left hand, he had coated his glove with the caustic that had been applied to Liston's cut. When Clay brushed perspiration from his forehead midway in the round, he left a thin skin of the caustic on his forehead. It washed down into his eyes between rounds when his trainer, Angelo Dundee, swabbed him with a wet sponge. "I can't see, I can't see," he cried out, blinking his eyes and ducking away from the mouthpiece as the bell rang for the fifth. Clay wanted only time to clear his sight, not to quit, as was reported widely later. But Dundee, fearful that the bout might be stopped, put the mouthpiece in place and thrust Clay into the ring.
Peering through tear-fogged eyes, Clay survived, depending primarily on his wonderful speed afoot. "He can't move back as fast as I can move forward," Liston had said during his workouts, but he found, to his dismay, that Clay could, indeed, run faster backward than Liston could go forward. He ran for almost a whole round, brushing angrily at his eyes, and Liston, leaping after him occasionally in moves reminiscent of Floyd Patterson, never could reach him effectively.
"Get the towel," Clay said when he got back, almost unscathed, to his corner, and Dundee swabbed his eyes clear. For five rounds, Liston had been pursuing and swinging wildly and missing. In the sixth, the whole tenor of the fight changed and Liston, the invincible, became human and less than a champion. He had lost not only his arrogance and his strength; he had lost, clearly and unquestionably, his ability to be an aggressor. Where for five rounds he had shuffled forward, firing stubbornly, he now no longer advanced; his curious skipping shuffle took him back and away from Clay, who followed him intently. Clay still was studious, but he was no longer trying to avoid Liston. Instead, he seemed determined to humiliate him. Clay was off his toes now. He fought flat-footed, and the left jab that had brushed Liston's face tentatively in earlier rounds suddenly snapped his head back each time it landed in this round. (One felt that Clay could take Liston out almost whenever he wanted to.) Between the fifth and sixth rounds, when it became clear that Liston was incapable of knocking out even a blinded Clay, Dundee told his fighter to go for the knockout.
"No," Clay said. "I ain't in a hurry. Maybe I'll carry him for the 15."
Earlier in the fight, Reddish had yelled at Liston constantly. "Shorten your stance," he called through cupped hands as Liston, legs spread wide, punched off-balance. "Cut down your punches," he yelled as Liston, whose left hook is most lethal in a tight, controlled arc, straightened his left arm and looped his hooks. It may have been one of these wide left hooks, caught on Clay's glove in the first round, that tore loose a tendon at the head of Liston's left biceps, where it joins the shoulder, and led to the eventual end of the fight.
There is no doubt that Liston's arm was damaged. In the sixth round, he carried it at belt level so that it was of no help in warding off the right crosses with which Clay probed at the cut under his left eye. Still, one expected Liston to come out for the seventh, and for the fight to end with a bang, not a whimper. Whether the left arm was damaged enough for a champion to accept defeat sitting in his corner instead of fighting with one arm until he was knocked out will be a subject of debate among boxing followers for a long time.
It is, however, a pointless argument; in the first round, fresh and angry and heedless as a fighting bull, Liston was uninjured and unimpressive. Clay handled him. He could have handled him, as he said, for 15 rounds, if necessary. Angelo Dundee, before the fight, had predicted that Clay, with the accumulated weight of a rain of punches, would knock Liston out in the 11th or 12th round. He, among all the predictors who were so far wrong, was almost exactly right.
The fight ended when Willie Reddish turned to the referee and made a washing gesture with his hands, which Dundee saw from Clay's corner. Waiting for the bell, Cassius had stood up and started his shadow-boxing routine, an exaggerated, disdainful jig he often lapses into when he knows he is ahead. When Dundee told him it was over, he danced into the middle of the ring with his hands high, yelling.
Liston sat limp and slumped down, tears trickling over his battered cheeks. It seemed incredible, looking at him, that this was the same frightening specter who had entered the ring 20 minutes earlier. It seemed wrong, somehow, to feel sorry for Sonny Liston.
In the wake of the fight came a spate of curiously defensive comment from the writers who had been so mistaken about the ability of Clay and the invincibility of Liston. As could be expected, there were cries of "Fix!" although it would be medically impossible to fix a fight by tearing a muscle in a fighter's arm. A team of eight doctors inspected Liston's arm at St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach and agreed that it was too badly damaged for Liston to continue fighting. The torn tendon had bled down into the mass of the biceps, swelling and numbing the arm. From a tear like this, the blood seeps slowly through the tissues; thus Liston could fight awhile before the arm went dead. But his most effective weapon had been spiked, and although he wanted to fight on and, perhaps, could have, his manager, Jack Nilon, stopped the whole business fast. "I made the decision," he said later. "Before Sonny could protest, Willie and I stepped in front of him and waved the referee off. Sonny spit out his mouthpiece and cursed me and cursed Clay. 'I can beat that bastard one-handed," he said.
Nilon's argument for stopping the fight would appear to be stronger than Liston's for continuing.
"It's like you were a jockey on a fine horse," he explained, "the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. As the horse gets to the halfway pole, it begins to favor its left front leg. The horse is good and it's willing, and if you go to the whip it'll come on. But perhaps it will be permanently injured. There is still the Preakness and the Belmont, so you pull the horse up to race another day. That's what I did with Sonny. He couldn't feel his fingertips. He couldn't hold the arm up to defend himself, and he was slapping, not punching. One doctor thinks his arm is hurt worse than we imagine. It could require surgery. I'll know more about it after I take Liston to Philly in a few days to see an orthopedic specialist, the best in the country. This guy wrote a book on the subject.
"We'll win it back—I know it. This guy has pride—you can't imagine such pride. This thing is killing him. For the next one, I'll take him up to the woods, and when he comes down he'll be hungry, just like the Liston who beat Patterson in Chicago. You'll see."
But it seems likely that Nilon is wrong. If Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay fight again—as they surely will—Clay probably will win again. Liston is not a man who can easily alter the style of his attack. Age weighed on him in the last round of this fight; it will weigh even more heavily in the next.
More to the point, the Clay-Dundee battle strategy was perfect, and it had been tested against sparring partners who were superior to those employed by Liston. Harvey Cody Jones, in fact, has a left hook that is quicker than Sonny's, but not as devastating.
"I ain't surprised," said Jones, after the fight. "I hit the hell out of Cassius sparring because I am a quicker hitter than Sonny. But I knew Cassius wasn't trying to hit me much—that makes a difference when you're chasing a man—and Cassius can hit hard when he wants to."
Almost no one has conceded, so far, that Clay is truly a better fighter than Sonny Liston. Aside from the expectable accusations of a fix, the excuses for Liston have been that he was overtrained and heavy-armed, or that he was undertrained, expecting to win in only a couple of rounds and exhausted when the fight went beyond that. There was even one rumor that Liston had suffered a heart attack in the ring.
None of these things are true. Liston was trained fine, but not necessarily too fine. His heart was normal. There was no fix. He fought and lost to a quicker, younger and—finally—a much smarter boxer.
Here again is a factor almost universally overlooked before the fight and completely ignored since. Clay displayed the completeness of his ring wisdom most clearly in his worst round—the fifth, when he fought blind. Few would have believed, before the fight, that Clay, or anyone else with impaired eyesight, could last three minutes in a ring with Liston. Clay did, and easily. At one point, he used one of the oldest and most effective of all the tricks a boxer employs against a puncher to break his concentration and coordination. He reached out a long left hand and held it on Sonny's head. Liston, tired and dispirited after having chased the nimble Clay fruitlessly for almost three minutes, stood transfixed, as a bull is mesmerized after a matador has controlled him with a series of passes. Finally it was Clay who broke the weird tableau. He took his hand away and slapped Liston five or six times on the forehead like a man knocking on a door, before he danced away.
Clay's victory, of course, was the best of all possible solutions to the ills that beset the world of boxing. Had Liston won this fight, there would have been no natural opponent for him. He has fought and destroyed most of the ranking heavyweights in the world. Clay has yet to fight Ingemar Johansson, Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Eddie Machen or, say, Cleveland Williams, although he has defeated Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, ranked second and ninth among heavyweights. His fights with all of them (the Jones bout was heavily disputed, and Cooper knocked Clay down before losing in the fifth) will be interesting. Many experts remain unconvinced of his ability, and he will be in the strange position of having to prove himself after defeating a man acclaimed by some as the best heavyweight since Joe Louis—or even since Jack Dempsey.
First on the agenda, though, will be a rematch with Liston, whenever Liston heals enough to prepare for it and as soon as Clay's draft status is settled. The champion can be inducted into service by mid-March, but there is no certainty that he will pass the physical and psychological examinations. Instead of submitting to the two-year term, he may opt to serve for six months, and then nights and in summer months. The fact that he is a declared Muslim will have no effect on his status.
Fortunately for Liston, Intercontinental Promotions, Liston's promoting corporation, some four months ago bought the rights to promote Clay's first championship fight, in case he should defeat Liston. This is a complicated deal, the full details of which have yet to come to light, but it is by no means the sinister plot to control the heavyweight title that many have made of it. The purpose is simple: to skirt a World Boxing Association rule barring return-bout clauses in championship fights. As one man in Clay's syndicate said last week, "Forget the rules. You don't get championship fights without a return-bout guarantee." In any case, after the fight had gone five rounds a rematch was inevitable and would be profitable. No money was to be gained by fixing a Liston loss.
There is some question about the legality of the rematch maneuver, since it puts Liston in the position of both promoting his own fight and owning a piece of the fighter he meets. The contract may be voided, but another bout is still the most obvious way for both Liston and Clay to capitalize on the enormous interest generated by last week's fight.
When they do meet, Nilon will certainly not allow Liston to prepare in the air-conditioned luxury of the Surfside Community Center. He will bring a lean and mean Liston into the ring, one who listens to him. Defeat had one good effect on Sonny. It made him a much more tractable man, amenable to suggestion.
And victory quieted the calculating Cassius. In the days after the fight, he scarcely needed to proclaim, "I am the greatest!" He had proved that. If he keeps his wits about him, he will prove it again when he next meets Liston.
SI's 100 Greatest Photos of Muhammad Ali
In one of the most iconic and controversial moments of his career, Ali stands over Sonny Liston and yells at him after knocking the former champ down in the first round of their 1965 rematch. Skeptics dubbed it "the Phantom Punch," but films show Ali's flashing right caught Liston flush, knocking him to the canvas. Refusing to go to a neutral corner, Ali stood over Liston and told him to "get up and fight, sucker."
At 22-years-old, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) battered the heavily favored Sonny Liston in a bout that shook the boxing world. 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. Liston, one of the most feared heavyweight champions in history, was a 1-8 favorite over the young challenger known as the Louisville Lip. But Clay, here stinging the champ with a right, used his dazzling speed and constant movement to dominate the action and pile up points.
Cassius Clay punches Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland during their gold medal bout at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Clay defeated Pietrzykowski 5-0 for the light heavyweight gold medal.
For the 18-year-old from Louisville, here atop the medal stand after his Olympic victory, all roads led from Rome. Clay finished his amateur career with a record of 100-5 and made his professional debut two months after the Games.
Undefeated in his first 17 pro fights, Clay mugged for the camera before the start of his 1963 bout against Doug Jones in Madison Square Garden.
Trainer Angelo Dundee urged his young charge to get serious before the opening bell against Jones. Clay followed instructions and emerged from a tough fight with a unanimous decision victory. Three months later he would stop Henry Cooper and close out 1963 at 19-0.
A seemingly hysterical Clay taunted Sonny Liston during the pre-fight physical for their 1964 bout. He had consistently baited the Big Bear during the lead-up to the fight, saying he was going to "use him as a bearskin rug ... after I whup him." The Miami Boxing Commission would fine Clay $2,500 for his outburst at the physical.
"I shook up the world!" an emotional Clay hollered to ringside reporters after his shocking defeat of Liston. And he did just that, claiming the heavyweight title at age 21 after a clearly beaten Liston, complaining of a shoulder injury, failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.
Draped in shadow, the young king — now known as Muhammad Ali — stared down the camera during a photo shoot in April 1965, one month before his rematch against Sonny Liston.
As Liston lingered on the canvas and the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, tried to control Ali, the 2,434 spectators on hand in the Lewiston, Me., hockey arena — a record low for a heavyweight championship fight — tried to make sense of what all that had happened in less than two minutes after the opening bell.
The celebration over Liston continued. In a chaotic ending, Ali was awarded a knockout when Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, informed referee Jersey Joe Walcott from ringside that Liston had been on the canvas for longer than 10 seconds after Ali knocked him down. The bout remains one of the most controversial in boxing history, with many observers insisting that Liston took a dive.
Ali's second title defense came in November 1965, against former two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. During the build-up to the bout, the normally soft-spoken Patterson earned the new champ's wrath by refusing to call Ali by his Muslim name. At the weigh-in, Ali's glare made it clear that he intended Patterson to pay for the disrespect.
In cruelly efficient performance, Ali punished Patterson — who was hobbled by a painful back injury — seemingly toying with the former champ throughout the bout, hitting him at will and calling, "What's my name?" before finally winning on a 12th-round TKO.
Capping off a five-fight campaign in 1966, Ali faced Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome on Nov. 14. Known as the Big Cat, the heavily-muscled Williams was a power puncher who had racked up 51 knockouts in 71 fights. But he was also 33, barely recovered from a gunshot wound sustained the year before, and up against a young champion very much in his prime. Ali wasted little time in unleashing a withering attack.
Float and sting: In a display of speed and combination punching unmatched in heavyweight history, Ali overwhelmed Williams from the start. The challenger, here down for the third time in round 2, would be saved by the bell before referee Harry Kessler could count him out, but it would only postpone the inevitable.
Ali dropped Williams again early in the third round, and Kessler waved the mismatch over at 1:08 of the third.
In a multiple-exposure portrait, Ali demonstrates his signature double-clutch shuffle during a photo shoot in December 1966.
Ali sits in the locker room before his February 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell. Like Patterson before him, Terrell refused to call the champion by his Muslim name. Also like Patterson, he paid a stiff price, as Ali punished Terrell for 15 ugly rounds before winning by unanimous decision.
Outside the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston in April 1967, Ali spoke to the press about his refusal to be inducted into military service. Among those on hand was ABC's Howard Cosell, who would be a staunch supporter of the fighter's stance. The decision cost Ali his boxing license and his heavyweight title, and he was sentenced to five years in prison but remained free pending an appeal.
In professional exile for three and a half years because of his draft case, Ali sought to return to boxing in 1970. He began with a night of exhibition bouts at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where before going into the ring, he shared a locker room laugh with actor and comedian Lincoln Perry (right), better known by his stage name of Stepin Fetchit. The friendship between the two black icons would later be examined in an acclaimed play by Will Power, Fetch Clay, Make Man.
After the Atlanta Athletic Commission at last granted Ali a license, the deposed champion went back into serious training. He was, as ever, in the capable hands of trainer Angelo Dundee, here wrapping boxing's most famous fists at the 5th Street Gym in Miami in October 1970.
With his return to the ring scheduled for Oct. 26, 1970 in Atlanta, against dangerous contender Jerry Quarry, Ali made it clear to all who would listen that he was on a mission to reclaim the title that had been stripped of him.
Reel to spiel: For the ever-loquacious Ali, even a rare moment of down time — like this afternoon in 1970 in a Miami hotel room — was a chance to do some talking.
Despite Ali's long layoff, his comeback campaign would include no easy tune-up bouts. He stopped Quarry in three rounds on Oct. 26, 1970, then, just six weeks later — an unthinkably short interlude by today's standards — took on Argentine contender Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden. Here, Ali fires a right at the rugged and awkward Bonavena, who took the fight to the former champion all night.
After a long, often sloppy bout, Ali — here being held back by referee Mark Conn — produced one of the most dramatic finishes of his career, dropping Bonavena three times in the 15th and final round to automatically end the fight. The win cleared the way for a showdown with Joe Frazier, the man who had taken the heavyweight title in Ali's absence.
On the night of March 8, 1971, the eyes of the world were on a square patch of white canvas in the center of Madison Square Garden. There, Ali and Joe Frazier met in what was billed at the time simply as The Fight, but has come to be known, justifiably, as the Fight of the Century. For 15 rounds the two undefeated heavyweights battled at a furious pace, with each man sustaining tremendous punishment. In the end Frazier prevailed, dropping Ali in the final round with a tremendous left hook to seal a unanimous decision and hand The Greatest his first loss in 32 professional fights.
Ali poses with the fight poster for his upcoming fight against Jimmy Ellis during a photo shoot in July 1971. Ellis was an old friend of Ali's — both were trained by Angelo Dundee — and knew his fighting style well from many rounds of sparring.
For those sportswriters lucky enough to cover Ali on a regular basis, each day brought surprises and, more often than not, plenty of laughs. of Trainer Drew Bundini Brown helps Ali train for his fight against Ellis. Ali won the bout by technical knockout in the 12th round to claim the vacant NABF heavyweight title.
The man in the mirror stares back as Ali examines himself while training for a fight in 1972. He won all six of his fights that year.
The Louisville Lip stands next to George Foreman before Ali's fight versus Jerry Quarry in June 1972. Ali won by technical knockout in the seventh round. Foreman at the time was 36-0. Ali would not get his shot against Foreman for more than two years.
Ali throws a left hook at Bob Foster in their 1972 fight at Stateline, Nev. Although Ali knocked Foster out, Foster did leave his mark: a cut above Ali's left eye, his first as a professional.
Foster lies on the canvas after getting knocked down by Ali. Ali knocked Foster down four times in the fifth round and twice more in the seventh round before he was finally counted out after Ali knocked him down again in the eighth round.
Ali sits with sportscaster Howard Cosell before his fight with Joe Bugner in February 1973. Although unable to knock Bugner out, Ali won comfortably by unanimous decision.
Ali hits a speed bag while warming up for his bout with Bugner in Las Vegas. Ali prepared ferociously for the fight, training 67 rounds the week leading up to the fight, including six rounds the day before the fight.
In a lighter pre-fight moment, Ali poses for a portrait wearing a hat in his dressing room before the match with Bugner.
Ali plays with Sugar Ray Robinson's hair in the locker room before his bout with Bugner. The former welterweight and middleweight champion was Ali's childhood idol.
Before the fight with Bugner, Muhammad Ali enjoys a relaxed moment with a poodle at Caesars Palace Hotel. He won the fight with Bugner by unanimous decision.
Howard Cosell interviews Ali, with entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in the middle, after his victory over Joe Bugner by unanimous decision in. Although the fight was never in jeopardy of getting away from him, Ali praised Bugner's legs and said he could be a champion in a few years.
Ali changes the diaper of his son in his bedroom during a photo shoot at the family's home in April 1973. Ali had suffered a broken jaw less than a month earlier in his fight against Ken Norton.
In the wake of his split decision loss to Norton, Ali plays with his son in his bedroom at home in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Ali kisses his daughter Jamillah outside of their home following the loss to Norton, just the second defeat of his career.
The Ali family standing outside their New Jersey home. To the right of Muhammad Ali are his twin daughters, Jamilllah and Rasheda, daughter Maryum and his wife, Khalilah, holding their son Ibn Muhammad Ali Jr.
At his training camp cabin, Ali pushes a boulder during a photo shoot in Deer Lake, Penn., in August 1973. Ali was training for his rematch against Ken Norton, who broke his jaw five months earlier.
Ali chops wood at his cabin in Deer Lake. He referred to the training camp as "fighter's heaven" and used it to prepare for fights away from the spotlight.
The fighters weigh in on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ahead of Ali and Ken Norton's September 1973 fight.
Johnny Carson listens to Ali on the Tonight Show three days before his rematch with Norton. Ali would avenge his earlier loss to Norton, winning a narrow split decision.
Ali poses in front of posters and magazine covers from throughout his career at his training camp cabin in Deer Lake in 1974.
Ali poses with members of his family in front of a poster from his first fight with Joe Frazier. Ali's brother, Rahman Ali; mother, Odessa Clay; and father, Cassius Clay Sr. stand behind the boxer.
Less than three weeks before his rematch with Joe Frazier on Jan. 28, 1974, Ali wraps his hands while wearing a sauna suit at his training camp cabin.
Ali holds a newspaper at his cabin in January 1974. He is pointing to a headline that reads, "Frazier On Ali, I Think He's Crazy." Ali and Frazier fought for the second time later that month with Ali winning by a unanimous decision.
Ali lies on his bed at his cabin during the January 1974 photo shoot.
His smaller incarnation stares straight back as Ali plays with a doll of himself during the same 1974 shoot at his training camp cabin.
Ali and Joe Frazier fight on the set of The Dick Cavett Show while reviewing their 1971 bout in advance of their 1974 rematch. Ali called Frazier ignorant, to which Frazier took exception. As the studio crew tried to calm Frazier down, Ali held Frazier by the neck, forcing him to sit down and sparking a fight. The television set fight amped up anticipation of their January 1974 bout.
Exploring a different side of the sport, Ali broadcasts the fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton in March 1974. Foreman won the fight by technical knockout in the second round, setting up the showdown with Ali in Zaire.
Ali jumps rope at the Salle de Congres in Kinshasa, Zaire, while training for his heavyweight title fight against George Foreman. Both Ali and Foreman spent most of the summer of 1974 training in Zaire to adjust to the climate.
While training before his fight with George Foreman, Ali kisses his mother, Odessa Clay, while his father, Cassius Clay Sr., looks on. Ali's superior strategy and ability to take a punch led him to his upset victory as he absorbed body blows from Foreman before he responded with powerful combinations to Foreman's head.
Four days before the fight, Ali holds the hand of his son Ibn in Zaire. Ali successfully courted the favor of the Zaire crowd, prompting chants of "Ali bomaye!" — translated as "Ali, kill him!"
Ali poses in front of the Le Militant statue at the presidential complex that was the site of Ali's January heavyweight title bout with Foreman. The fight was originally set for a month earlier, but Foreman suffered a cut near his eye during training, forcing a delay.
Ali stands against the railing on the River Zaire watching the sunset four days before the Rumble in the Jungle. The fight was sponsored by Zaire to achieve the $5 million purse promoter Don King had promised both Ali and Foreman.
Before employing his famous rope-a-dope strategy against Foreman, Ali makes a face at the camera. Ali allowed Foreman to throw many punches but only into his arms and body, and when Foreman tired himself out from the mostly ineffective punches, Ali took control of the fight.
Ali points before his bout with Foreman. The victory over his favored opponent made him the heavyweight champion of the world for the first time since he was stripped of his titles in 1967.
Ali stares at George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali earned his shot at the heavyweight title by defeating Joe Frazier in January 1974, avenging a loss three years earlier.
Foreman lies down on the canvas as Ali stands in the background during the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali knocked Foreman down with a five-punch combination in the eighth round, and referee Zack Clayton counted him out.
Big George stares at the ceiling as referee Zack Clayton counts him out in the eighth round. The victory made Ali, once again, the heavyweight champion of the world.
Ali poses for a portrait after being selected as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1974. Ali wore a dashiki, a men's garment widely worn in West Africa. He also brought the walking stick given to him by Zaire's president.
This time Ali wears a tuxedo, but keeps the walking stick, during the November photo shoot for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.
Ali talks with Howard Cosell outside of the United Nations Headquarters for a segment on the Wide World of Sports. Later that day, Ali held a press conference to announce that he would donate part of the proceeds from his fight against Chuck Wepner to help Africans in the Sahel drought.
Ali talks with Reverend Jesse Jackson outside of the United Nations Headquarters before a press conference to announce that he would donate part of the proceeds from his fight against Chuck Wepner to help Africans in the Sahel drought.
Ali stands with trainer Angelo Dundee, assistant trainer Wali Muhammad, physician Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown before his bout with Ron Lyle in May 1975. Ali won the fight by technical knockout in the 11th round.
Along with Don King and Joe Frazier, Ali sat for a portrait leading up to the Thrilla in Manila. Ali verbally abused Frazier during the buildup to the fight, telling the media that "it will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila."
Ali points at the camera with Don King and his training staff behind him before the weigh-in for the Thrilla in Manila in October 1975. Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos offered to sponsor the bout and hold it in Metro Manila to divert attention from the turmoil in the country that had forced the imposition of martial law in 1972.
Wrapping up Joe Frazier proved more difficult than Ali expected, having thought Frazier would represent an easy payday and be unable to live up to his billing. The fight turned out to be a brutal affair.
Frazier faces an Ali right hook in their fight in Quezon City, Philippines. The two fighters traded vicious blows during their 14 rounds. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier said. Ali withstood the blows to win by TKO in the 15th round.
The third fight between Ali and Frazier, Ali won the bruising battle between the two powerful punching heavyweights when Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight before the 15th round.
A back and forth exchange, Ali controlled the early rounds of the Thrilla in Manila before Frazier fought back with powerful hooks. Ali finished strong, regaining momentum in the later rounds.
Ali speaks to the press after winning the Thrilla in Manila bout with Frazier.
Ali holds a drinking concoction given to him by Dick Gregory, an advocate of a raw fruit and vegetable diet, in 1976.
Before his 1976 fight against Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium, Ali watches a fight on television from his hotel room. A police strike at the time of the fight created a dangerous environment outside the stadium that all but eliminated walk-up sales.
Norton takes a right hook during the heavyweight title fight against Ali. The bout, which Ali won by a unanimous, but controversial, decision, was the last boxing match at Yankee Stadium until 2010.
Ali makes a face during his fight with Earnie Shavers in 1977 at Madison Square Garden. Hurt badly by Shavers in the second round, Ali rebounded and outboxed Shavers throughout to build a lead on points before Shavers came on again in the later rounds. Seemingly exhausted going into the 15th and final round, Ali remained victorious by producing a closing flurry that left Shavers wobbling at the bell and the Garden crowd once again in delirium over his Ali magic.
Ali squares off with Leon Spinks at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel in February 1978. Spinks won the fight in a split decision, ending Ali's 3.5-year reign as the heavyweight champion. It was the only time in Ali's career that he lost his championship title in the ring.
Leon Spinks took center stage over Ali at the press conference after their fight. The victorious Spinks and his gap-toothed grin were featured on the Feb. 19, 1978 cover of Sports Illustrated.
Ali lands a straight right hand to the head of Spinks in the rematch of their title bout in 1978. Ali won on a 15 round decision.
Don King pulled the strings again when Ali faced Larry Holmes before their November 1980 fight. King became a key figure in Ali's career, promoting his biggest fights, the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle.
Ali points at Larry Holmes before their bout at Caesars Palace in 1980.
Ali grapples with Holmes during their bout in 1980. Trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the 11th round, marking the fight as Ali's only career loss by knockout.
Drew Bundini Brown leans in to speak to Ali, who returned to fight Holmes after a brief retirement. By this time, Ali had already begun developing a vocal stutter and trembling hands and taken thyroid medication to lose weight that left him tired and short of breath.
Ignoring pleas for his retirement, Ali stretches before a fight against Trevor Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas. Ali lost to Berbick in a unanimous decision and retired after the bout, the 61st of his career.
Ali pretends to spar with artist LeRoy Neiman at his home in Los Angeles. Neiman met Ali in 1962 and made many paintings and sketches from throughout Ali's life.
Cake in hand, Ali poses for a 50th birthday portrait in 1991. Although diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome seven years earlier, Ali was still active, traveling to Iraq during the Gulf War to meet with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages.
The same year, Ali stands atop of the Sonny Liston rock at his old training camp cabin. Ali and his father painted the names of famous boxers he admired on 18 boulders at the camp.
Ali carries the Olympic torch inside Centennial Olympic Stadium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Despite trembling hands, Ali had the honor to light the Olympic flame in the stadium.
Husband and wife pose for a portrait during a photo shoot in 1997. Muhammad and Lonnie married in 1986 and have an adopted son together, Asaad Amin Ali.
Ali messes around with actor Billy Crystal during a photo shoot in 2000. Crystal's impression of Ali was notorious, and he performed at a tribute to the boxer on his 50th birthday in December 1991.
Ali lies on the canvas as his son, Assad Amin Ali, stands over him invoking memories of Ali's victory over Sonny Liston during a photo shoot in the gym at his farm on Kephart Road near Berrien Springs in 2001.
Fierce rivals in the ring, Ali and Joe Frazier pose for a portrait in the boxing robes they wore the night of their first bout at Frazier's Gym in 2003. Ali said after Frazier's death in 2011 that he was "a great champion."
Ali takes a punch from his daughter Laila Ali while sparring before her fight against Erin Toughill in 2005. Laila retired from her own successful boxing career with a professional record of 24-0.