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.