Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world, will meet his match next Tuesday night in Convention Hall in Miami Beach—his match, that is, in confidence, arrogance and psychological left jabs. Unfortunately for Cassius Marcellus Clay, he is not yet a match for Liston in the somewhat more pertinent matters of ring craftsmanship, punching power and the ability to take a smart clip on the jaw with no loss of equanimity or senses.
Both Liston and Clay have predicted early knockouts. No one who has seen any of Liston's last three fights—each of which went less than a round—can doubt his ability to end any bout suddenly and dramatically. But Clay is a good fighter, better than his constant bragging would lead one to believe. He can, and should, make a "battle of it.
A great deal depends upon Clay's power of concentration; more accurately, upon his span of attention. He has a history of showing a curiously casual attitude at one time or another in most of his professional fights. Three times this inattention to the matter at hand has resulted in his being deposited abruptly on the seat of his pants by punchers of far less authority than Liston. It is beside the point that in each case Clay fought back savagely to win either by a knockout or by a technical knockout.
The same carelessness against Liston would end the fight. Even if Clay were fortunate enough to keep a few of his senses after Liston dropped him, it is doubtful that he would retain enough of his marvelous speed and coordination to hold off the ensuing brutal attack by the champion.
February 24, 1964
Angelo Dundee, who trains Clay, has devised an intelligent battle plan for him. "We have many assets," Dundee said as he watched Clay working in his Fifth Street Gym training quarters. "Clay has a style Liston has never seen before. He is much faster than Liston. He has the faculty of getting under Liston's skin and he will not be browbeaten by him. Cassius respects the champion, but really, deep down inside himself, Clay thinks he is unbeatable. And he can hit Sonny with every punch he has. Sonny isn't hard to hit. We can beat Liston with quantity and consistency. We can hit him with uppercuts. Left and right. Cassius is the only heavyweight in the world with a good left uppercut, and Liston can be hit easy with uppercuts.
"If you built a prototype of what kind of fighter can whip Liston, you couldn't improve on Clay. He hits hard, he moves, he has every punch in the book. We can knock Liston out in the 11th or 12th round by wearing him down with the quantity of punches. If Cassius will do what he is told."
He said the last words wistfully, for Clay is not known for his coachability. "It makes you want to cry," says Solomon McTier, who was a good heavyweight himself until he got a detached retina and Dundee made him quit. McTier is a big, quiet, thoughtful man who is a part of Clay's entourage and who has a vast respect for Cassius' physical ability. "You see this kid, the way he can go, the things he can do. He can be a great man if he only does what he is told. All he needs to be afraid of is Clay. If he keeps his cool and outboxes and outfoxes Liston—which he can do with ease—he can win without any trouble. He's the most wonderful boxer there is; Liston could be just another sparring partner for him. But he gets carried away. He's young and restless and foolish sometimes."
In one memorable workout before this fight, Clay demonstrated just how effective he can be when he uses all his speed and his wide assortment of punches. On a Sunday afternoon he sparred a full six rounds with the two massive heavyweights Dundee had imported to impersonate Liston, Harvey Cody Jones and Dave Bailey, both of whom are tall, slab-muscled 215-pounders. Both hit very hard and both worked against Clay in deadly seriousness, doing their utmost to destroy him.
In earlier workouts Clay had seemed listless, often careless. In this one he seemed determined to prove something to himself. He wasted no time on impromptu speeches to the crowd on the excellence of Cassius Clay and he eschewed the farcical interchange of slogans with Drew (Budini) Brown, his foil in the low vaudeville act with which he usually enlivens his training sessions. Clay's little-boy face was grim and cruel and he fought viciously.
One felt that this was a true dress rehearsal for the main event. In it, Clay followed almost to perfection the Dundee war plan. He circled to the left, away from the biggest gun in the Liston arsenal, the left hook, moving with the fluid speed that always surprises observers. He hit in quick, deceptively easy-looking combinations, the long left jab very accurate. It was hard to realize how hard he was hitting until one saw the head of his sparring partner snap back from the force of the blow. At one point Jones came to the ropes between rounds with a thin smear of blood trickling from his nose, despite the protection of a face guard.
Twice in the course of the six rounds Clay had his sparring partners dazed and ready for the kill. Each time he let up long enough for them to recover. Once he hit Dave Bailey with a snapping left uppercut that seemed to lift the big fighter from the canvas. Once he deliberately allowed himself to be trapped in a corner, then for a full minute, in a virtuoso display of defensive reflexes, bobbed and ducked and slipped punches without striking back and without being hit.
Although Clay has enough power to stun the average heavyweight with a single punch, he dazed Jones and Bailey with the cumulative effect of a series of sharp punches. Charlie Powell, the onetime San Francisco 49er end turned boxer, testified to the growing effect of the Clay barrage.
"When he first hit me," Powell said, describing the fight in which he was knocked out by Clay, "I thought to myself, I can take two of those to get in one of my own. But in a little while I found out I was getting dizzier and dizzier every time he hit me, and he hurt. Clay throws punches so easily you don't realize how much they shock you until it's too late."
As impressive as Clay looked in his workout with Jones and Bailey, he still displayed the flaws that probably will lead to his defeat by Liston. Clay fought, as he always does, with his hands low, at the level of his belt. He leaned back from the counterattacks of his sparring partners, depending upon the speed of his reflexes to avoid their punches. Several times he was brushed by left hooks that he could have blocked had his hands been high. He changed now and then to a right-hand lead, which was effective against Jones and Bailey but which could be fatal against Liston, opening him up to a left hook over the right jab.
Watching Clay back away from a flurry of punches with his hands down, arched back to let Bailey's counterpunch swish by an inch from his chin, Light Heavyweight Champion Willie Pastrano shook his head sadly.
"He can get away with that against a guy who is shorter than he is and can't reach him," Pastrano said. "He'll have trouble with a tall guy, like Liston. That's how Billy Daniels put it to him two years ago. Daniels is tall and when Clay leaned back, Daniels hit him with a left hook. If Liston does that, it's all over."
In his preparation for the title fight Liston did not look as impressive in any one session as Clay did on his Sunday afternoon workout. Most of the time he sparred with Leotis Martin, a fast light heavy who looked more like an overgrown middleweight and who had neither Clay's speed nor his bewildering variety of punches. Martin bobbed and weaved and danced, giving Liston a moving target upon which to sharpen his hand and eye coordination, but he was nowhere near a reasonable facsimile of the challenger.
Jesse Bowdry, Liston's other sparring partner, was a true heavyweight, but far smaller and slower than Clay. The two provided Liston with live punching bags. They offered him not a hint of what he will face on the night of February 25, and this could be a considerable disadvantage to him.
Despite the inadequacy of his sparring partners, Liston demonstrated, time and again, why he is the champion of the world. The main reason is his possession of one awesome weapon—his left hand. Where Clay's jab stings, Liston's wounds. His arms are massively muscled, and the left jab is more than a jab. It hits with true shock power. Even when it is off target, which it seldom is, it explodes with enough force to knock the recipient off balance so that he must recover and set up again before he can attack.
His left hook is as quick as a snake's strike, but Liston does not have to coil to throw it. It follows the jab as rapidly as a drumbeat. Liston, in the words of the trade, can hook off the jab, which means that he does not have to recock his left arm to hook after he has hit an opponent with a jab.
Clay is known as a Los Angeles fighter—a fighter who hot-dogs and shows off and fights with his hands low. Liston, on the other hand, is a Chicago fighter, economical in movement, his hands held high. He is an expert at moving his head ever so slightly to let a punch slide by, or at picking off a punch with his big hands and arms, always keeping his balance, always ready to hit back from a solid base.
Mike DeJohn, who lost to Liston and who has sparred with Clay, says, "I don't see the kid going more than one, two rounds. Maybe in a year, two years. But he isn't ready now. Liston is too strong. He can take a big punch. He doesn't blink or flinch. He just fights harder. I hit him my Sunday punch, I thought I hurt him, but he covers up so well with those big arms I never got another shot. Clay can't take that kind of punch."
Liston's left hook is so powerful that it does damage wherever it hits. Ernie Terrell, now a heavyweight contender, was a Liston sparring partner for one fight. After a couple of sessions he chose discretion over sparring partner's wages. "I can't raise my arms anymore," he said.
Some fighters who knew Liston when he started say that he was a southpaw then. His fighting style today supports this notion. He has only recently begun to make adequate use of his right hand. Previously his right cross seemed an unnatural punch and he launched it with a shotputting motion. It was a clubbing punch and very often a damaging one, but not nearly as effective as the left hook.
In the weeks before the fight Willie Reddish, Liston's trainer, stood just outside the ropes of the small ring on the stage at the Surfside Civic Center offering low-voiced instructions to Liston as he sparred with Martin and Bowdry. His most frequent instruction was to "cut him off, cut him off."
Liston moved slowly, commanding the center of the ring, watching Martin or Bowdry circling to his right, away from the left hook, then shuffled forward and to his right nimbly, blocking their route and forcing them to stop or retreat toward the ropes. He followed then, the brutal left jab searching and the left hook winging in. When he was able to pin one of them against the ropes, the attack that followed was animal-like in its savagery and it demonstrated another of Liston's assets: his single-minded killer instinct.
It never occurs to Liston that he may lose a fight. He does not enter the ring hoping to outpoint his rival in 15 rounds and knock him out only if the opportunity offers. His aim is destruction. He may, in the course of a fight, hit his opponent low, in the kidneys, or on the back of the neck. The legality of his attack is of no concern to him. He cares less for points than he does for doing damage. This intended violence has given him command both physically and psychologically in past fights, and it has caused his opponents—Floyd Patterson, for example—to fight in terror.
Patterson once was thought to be the type of fighter who could handle Liston. He was one of the best combination punchers in the business, and Liston had, in the past, shown signs of confusion against a fighter who attacked him with combinations. But Patterson gave up the combinations in favor of retreat. He made the bad mistake of fighting Liston's fight and was demolished.
For all his speed and youth and the completeness of his arsenal of punches, Cassius Clay's best weapon against Sonny Liston may be his very arrogance, his youthful, absurd confidence. He has a chance if he fights his fight—or Angelo Dundee's version of his fight. If he pops and runs and pops and runs and forces Liston to come after him, he may last. He might even win.
But he has to come within arm's reach of Liston every time he hits him and he must concentrate for 15 rounds. He cannot afford a mistake. Unfortunately, the arrogance which could give him the confidence to fight Liston as though he were another sparring partner could also push him past the edge of discretion into disaster. If he decides he can stand head to head with Liston, he may suffer the same fate that befell Billy Conn when he abandoned caution and traded punches with Joe Louis.
"Maybe I can be beat," Clay said the other day, in an unaccustomed moment of self-appraisal. "I doubt it. But the man is going to have to knock me down and then I'll get up and he'll have to knock me down again and I'll get up and he'll have to knock me down and I'll still get up. I've worked too hard and too long to get this chance. I'm gonna have to be killed before I lose and I ain't going to die easy."