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A Lot More Than Lip Service FEBRUARY 25 1964 CASSIUS CLAY BEATS SONNY LISTON

Nov. 29, 1999
Nov. 29, 1999

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Nov. 29, 1999

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A Lot More Than Lip Service FEBRUARY 25 1964 CASSIUS CLAY BEATS SONNY LISTON

He'd have better fights, create greater spectacle, make more
history, practice another religion, have another name, become a
so-called traitor to his country, transform himself into its
conscience and light an Olympic torch. So there was a lot more
news in him than this. But in February 1964, when he was 22,
Cassius Clay helped set the tone for a decade (at least) when he
toppled Sonny Liston in one of sport's most important upsets.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue

Maybe the '60s would have been tumultuous without Clay's wild
personality. Probably the times, they were a-changin' anyway.
But give Clay--later Muhammad Ali, of course--credit for being a
magical character who in the course of a spectacular boxing
career somehow made us reconsider politics, war, race and
religion. Poetry, too.

The spell in which he held us was cast that night in Miami
Beach, when he dared challenge Liston, an unsavory personality
but the establishment nonetheless. Clay, despite his Olympic
gold in 1960 and his obvious charisma, was a huge underdog.
Liston, the champion after a couple of unsettling knockouts of
Floyd Patterson, was considered indomitable. He fit in with
America's principal value at the time: Bigger is better. He was
a 9-to-1 favorite at one point and the expert opinion was that
the ringside physician had better have some postmortem experience.

There was--and this is difficult to believe from our vantage
point--little interest in the fight. For all Clay's charm, and
for all his media-friendly capers, the bout was indifferently
covered and attended. This was partly because it was considered
a mismatch, but it didn't help that Clay gave off the scent of
the counterculture. Clay was an upstart showing a budding
interest in a religion and a brand of politics that were out of
the mainstream. He was a character, all right, but a lot of
people couldn't wait to see his act retired. The surly Liston,
much to his surprise, found himself in the unaccustomed role of
people's choice. It was one thing to have been in the pen as
Liston had been for more than two years after being found guilty
of two counts of larceny and two counts of first-degree robbery,
but quite another to flirt with Muslims and the antiwar movement.

It being a heavyweight title fight, there was the usual
nonsense; to this day, reporters there to cover this hopeless
bout remember a washed-up fighter named King Levinsky
circulating through press headquarters, demanding that they buy
his ties. It was chilling to see Levinsky, who had been one of
Joe Louis's bums of the month, peddle his wares, the more so
when he sidled up to Clay and, proposing a partnership, said,
"Liston's gonna make you a guy selling ties."

As Clay went about provoking mayhem (before the fight he drove
up to Liston's house to shout at him from the sidewalk, a
mortifying insult to Liston, who had only recently obtained
white-collar quarters), there was a sense that even he thought
he was in over his head. This seemed to be confirmed at the
weigh-in when Clay went so far over the edge in creating chaos
that he had to be restrained. He later maintained it was all in
the script--"Liston's not afraid of me, but he's afraid of a
nut"--but the doctor at the weigh-in, who took Clay's soaring
blood pressure, let it be known which way he was betting: "This
fighter is scared to death."

Clay wasn't. In front of a half-empty house, one of the few he
would ever play to, Clay marched up to Liston at the
introductions and said, "I've got you now, sucker." And, of
course, he did. Clay not only survived Liston's fabled jab,
tilting his jaw back in a kind of contempt, but also bloodied
the champ in the third round. By then Clay was spending the time
between rounds mugging for reporters and photographers at
ringside.

The Liston bout was to become the business plan for Clay's
career, featuring, among other things, the element of confusion
that would characterize so many of his other big events. A
caustic solution, probably being used to stop Liston's bleeding,
got into Clay's eyes in the fourth round, and Clay, believing
himself blinded, nearly did not come out for the fifth. Suddenly
it occurred to onlookers that the fix was in. Clay had given his
little show and now he was about to be consigned to the
obscurity he deserved.

He lasted the fifth round, though, and the next. But Liston
refused to get up off his own stool after six. His face a mess,
Liston had suddenly realized that this wasn't going to end
pretty for him. So he ended it sooner. You could say that bedlam
ensued.

Clay had a higher tolerance for bedlam than most of us and,
indeed, it was an ideal working condition for him. After the
Liston fight he was known alternately as Muhammad Ali and the
Greatest, and he became as much instigator as athlete, using his
growing celebrity to stir things up. He was playful enough that
people found it impossible to hold an issue against him for
long. Even when he rejected blind patriotism, refusing to fight
in Vietnam, his exile was impermanent. He eventually was
welcomed back, and the excitement he gave us in various rumbles
and thrillas forged a forgiveness that will certainly last him a
lifetime.

His charm is as bound up with his grace and fearlessness in the
ring as with his prankish bravado outside it. It has lasted so
long that we rarely stop to think about it anymore. Similarly,
it's no longer easy to measure his impact on our culture,
because that impact has taken so many forms over the years. But
if an antic and half-hysterical Cassius Clay hadn't beaten
Liston that night in 1964, we all might have been just a little
slower in developing our own taste for bedlam--or for change,
anyway.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY OWEN SMITH Clay talked the talk, then fought the fight, delivering a six-round pounding to the supposedly invincible Liston.
Clay marched up to Liston at the introductions and said, "I've
got you now, sucker." And, of course, he did.