This story originally appeared in the February 24, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
If I were like a lot of guys—a lot of heavyweight boxers, I mean—I'll bet you a dozen doughnuts you wouldn't be reading this story right now. If you wonder what the difference between them and me is, I'll break the news: you never heard of them. I'm not saying they are not good boxers. Most of them—people like Doug Jones and Ernie Terrell—can fight almost as good as I can. I'm just saying you never heard of them. And the reason for that is because they cannot throw the jive. Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody you will probably ever meet anywhere. And right there is why I will meet Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world next week in Miami Beach. And jive is the reason also why they took my picture looking at $1 million in cold cash [see cover]. That's how much money my fists and my mouth will have earned by the time my fight with Liston is over. Think about that. A southern colored boy has made $1 million just as he turns 22. I don't think it's bragging to say I'm something a little special.
Where do you think I would be next week if I didn't know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice? I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, Ky., my home town, washing windows or running an elevator and saying "yes suh" and "no suh" and knowing my place. Instead of that, I'm saying I'm one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, which is true, and that I'm the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public has heard me talk enough and they're saying to me, "Put up or shut up." This fight with Liston is truly a command performance. And that's exactly the way I planned it.
Part of my plan to get the fight has made me say some pretty insulting things about Sonny Liston, but I might as well tell you I've done that mostly to get people to talking about the fight and to build up the gate. I actually have a certain amount of respect for Liston; he's the champion, isn't he? That doesn't mean I think he's going to stay champion. I have too much confidence in my own ability to think I'm beaten before we start. I do mean he is a strong, hard puncher, and he's not a fighter anybody can laugh at. When I walk into a room where he is and see him staring at me with that mean, hateful look, I want to laugh, but then I think maybe it's not so funny. I'm pretty sure the way he acts is just a pose, the same way I have a pose, but that look of his still shakes me. I wonder what's really going on in that head of his, and I wonder what poor, humble Floyd Patterson was thinking when he had to climb into the ring with Liston.
But I am not fooled by what Liston did to Patterson once they started to fight. Liston didn't do anything except hit Floyd while he stood there and took it. Now don't think for even a little bit I'm going to stand around for Liston to do with as he pleases. The way I plan for things to go is to stay out of his way during the early rounds, and I count on him to wear himself out chasing me. I'll circle him and jab him and stick and fake, dogging him most of the time and tying him up when he gets too close. He won't be able to hurt what he can't even hit.
Otherwise, I'll fight him the same as I've fought the others. I've been criticized for leaning away from the other man's punches instead of ducking, but I'm not going to change my style. Leaning away is a faster reflex than ducking and I'll go on doing it until somebody proves it's a mistake—and that somebody has got to be another boxer, not a trainer. They also tell me I carry my hands too low—that it's showoff and dangerous. Well, I just answer have you ever seen a mirage on the desert? You walk along locking for a drink of water, and suddenly you see a lake and you jump in. All you get is a mouthful of sand. Mr. Liston will get a mouthful of leather the same way.
So I'm saying I will win this fight in the eighth round because I think Liston will be worn out by then. If he's not, I sure can go on longer until he is. I'm 22 and he's 34 or 36 and I just don't believe he can outlast me. If I don't win the fight in any round—and "if" is a big word—if I don't win, I still think I will have given Liston a good fight and there is bound to be a rematch. That wouldn't bother me too much, either, because that way I'll be able to have another big payday. I'll just start hollering, "Look out, world, here I come again. I didn't feel too good that night, but now I'm on my way back." I don't think I'd have too much trouble drawing another crowd.
I don't seem to have trouble drawing a crowd anywhere. I can even do it on the sidewalks of New York, where people are used to everything. But when I get a crowd around me, somebody always wants to know if I'm really like the way I act. Well, of course I'm like I act or else I couldn't act this way. But what I have done is to exaggerate the natural way I am. I wouldn't sit around my house shouting and carrying on if it was just me and my folks, but I would if there was anybody else there to hear me. I do that for the reason I've already said: to attract attention and to get rich. I don't really love to fight, you see, but as long as I'm doing it I sure don't want to do it for free. I've been boxing since I was 12 years old and I'm getting mighty tired of training and always having somebody trying to pop me in the mouth. But I probably won't ever get tired of money. I love money and we're going to go on like that for a long, long time. The fame and pride of doing something real well—like being the world champion—is a pretty nice thing to think about sometimes, but the money I'm making is nice to think about all the time. I suppose it's the one thing that keeps me going.
I remember one day in Louisville I was riding a bus reading in the paper about Patterson and Ingemar Johansson. It was right after I had won the Olympic gold medal in Rome and had turned professional, and I was confident then I could beat either one of them if I had the chance. But I knew I wouldn't get the chance because nobody much had ever heard of me. So I said to myself, how am I going to get a crack at the title? Well, on that bus I realized I'd never get it just sitting around thinking about it. I knew I'd have to start talking about it—I mean really talking, screaming and yelling and acting like some kind of a nut. I thought if I did that people would pretty soon hear enough of that and insist I meet whomever was champion. I would be like Georgeous George, the wrestler, who got so famous by being flashy and exaggerating everything and making people notice him.
You can see how it has turned out—just the way I wanted it to. I started off slow because I was feeling my way, but pretty soon I caught on to what reporters like to hear and what would make the public pay attention. I told this man I was going to knock that boy down in the sixth round, and then I did. I said I am the greatest, I am a ball of fire. If I didn't say it, there was nobody going to say it for me. Then people commenced to say, "What's that loudmouth talking about?" and it grew and it grew. And pretty soon other people were saying I'm the greatest, and I said, "Didn't I tell you so in the first place?" And you know what? The more I talked, the more I convinced myself. I believe in myself so much by now it's embarrassing.
All the time I was building myself up, of course, I was fighting and winning. I don't pretend I fought a lot of great boxers in the beginning, because I certainly did not. I fought a bunch of bums exactly like Liston and Patterson did when they were starting out. But every time I won a fight, I also made a lot of fresh enemies. One thing people can't stand is a blowhard, and the more I blew, the more people would come out to see me get beaten. I said I was pretty (I'm not as pretty as I let on), I said I was fast, I said I was terrific and it got so you couldn't keep people away. And those that got in would yell, "Take away his pink Cadillac, the bum," and, "Bash in his pretty nose," and, "Button his fat lip." Well, that's just fine. I don't really care what people say about me personally as long as they buy a ticket to come see me. After they pay their money, they're entitled to a little fun.
After the Doug Jones fight in Madison Square Garden last year, for instance, people who thought Jones should have had the decision got so mad they didn't know what to do. They were booing and screaming and trying to get at me as I walked out of the ring. So I just yelled right back at them to shut up or I'd beat their ears off, and all the way to the dressing room I was thinking, "Cassius, you are even better than Gorgeous George. You have just made a whole lot more enemies and every one of them will be back for your next fight. Only then the tickets are going to cost more."
Of course, the real way I built up my fame was by predicting the round I would knock out some guy. I forget now when I first started doing that and how many times it has worked, but I know it has worked most of the time. How do I do it? I do it by trying extra hard and the other boxer helps by worrying extra hard. Sometimes, though, I tell reporters who don't know me that I hear voices in the night saying, "You'll win in five, no jive," or something. I did that in England when I fought Henry Cooper and the reporters' eyes got big and round and they wrote down every word. Those English were sure I was crazy. The only voices I hear, of course, are people telling me I can't do what I say.
Already they're saying I can't get Liston in eight. Maybe I can and maybe I can't, but you better believe he's wondering about the same thing right this minute. If I do get him like I say, there won't be anybody who will care, because they'll be for Liston anyway. It's easier to like an ugly old man than it is to like a loudmouth kid, and everybody wants him to teach me a lesson. But just as sure as I do the teaching and win, people will say, "Aw, so what? Liston was a nothing anyway." People are hypocrites, if you don't know that already.
Folks ask me what I'll do if I win and what I'll do if I don't win, but I don't have the answer yet. I have to go into the Army pretty soon, and after that I don't know. Maybe I'll build a big housing project and get married and settle down and think about being rich. But I'm not too worried. I think I can make it in something else the same way I've made it in boxing. If things go wrong in the fight, I'll just wait a while. Summertime comes, flowers start blooming, little birds start flying and you wake up, get up and get out. You change with the times.
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.