Fifty years ago, Clay stopped Liston
( First of two parts)
Cassius Clay was in a psychotic rage. Or at least he wanted to the world to think he was.
“You ain't got no chance!” he yelled at Sonny Liston. “You whupped!”
It was the morning of Feb. 25, 1964. The fighters were weighing in for that night's heavyweight championship fight.
Two priests were at the Miami Beach Convention Hall. They'd been brought in as spiritual advisers to Liston, who'd never been much for forgiveness.
As Clay banged an African walking stick on the floor and ranted, “You're a chump, a chump, a chump,” one of the priests turned to the other.
“Do you see Sonny's face?” he asked. “You know what he is going to do to this fellow?”
Against all odds and almost everyone's wishes, he would lose to him. The world didn't just crown a new champ. Clay vs. Liston launched the phenomenon known as Muhammad Ali.
The gloves he used against Liston sold for $836,000 at auction Saturday. That's $206,000 more than Clay made that night.
After a half-century, we can still wonder what would have happened if Liston had won. That other fellow might still have gone on to transcend sports and reshape culture. Or he might have been dismissed as a loudmouth rebel unworthy of further attention.
Those priests certainly weren't the only ones ready administer last rites on that rainy night.
“Liston in his day was like Mike Tyson in his prime,” Ali biographer, Thomas Hauser, said. “He was Godzilla and was going to reign for 1,000 years.”
Liston was the 24th of 25 children born in a shack outside of Forrest City, Ark. He could barely read or write, but he had fists like bowling balls and a head to match.
His record going into the bout was 35 wins, one loss and 19 arrests. He was called the Big Bear, and once dumped a cop headfirst into a trash can. His contract had been owned by mobsters.
In short, this was not a man to be messed with.
“In the ring, Sonny was a killing machine,” trainer Johnny Tocco said before the fight.
Then there was the 22-year-old talking machine. Clay had won the light-heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, but he was still largely an unknown quantity in and out of the ring.
Promoters wanted to fit him with a white hat against the brooding Liston. It didn't fit, not with Malcolm X hanging around training camp, and rumors that Clay had secretly joined the Black Muslims.
Clay was 19-0, but his bouncy, circling, punch-slipping style did not impress the boxing establishment. Then there was his cocky irreverence.
A few in the old guard found it amusing. Others, not so much.
“I pity Clay,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, probably America's most influential sportswriter, “and abhor what he represents.”
In many ways, he represented the future. Nobody suspected that in 1964. Clay was more an oddity who pushed the limits of sports decorum. Like when he drove a bus full of supporters to Liston's training site and started taunting the champ.
“Liston even smells like a bear,” Clay said. “I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him.”
That's why they called him “The Louisville Lip,” but there was a method to his madness. Clay wanted to fill Liston with rage. Boxing observers mainly saw it as false bravado from a petrified opponent.
The day of the fight, a radio station reported that Clay was spotted at the airport buying a ticket to South America. Florida Gov. Farris Bryant reportedly wanted the fight called off. The New York Times told its reporter to map the quickest route from the Miami Beach Convention Center to the hospital, sensing Clay would certainly end up there on a stretcher.
It was the first boxing match transmitted via satellite. Eleven nations would tune in, mostly in Europe. Liston was a 7-1 favorite in gambling parlors around the world.
“Barring the unexpected,” wrote Red Smith of the New York Herald-Tribune, “Clay will be the first man floored in Helsinki from a punch thrown in Miami Beach.”
His performance at the weigh-in was final proof that Clay had lost his mind. He burst out of his dressing room wearing a denim jacket with “Bear Hunting” embroidered on the back.
“Someone is going to die at ringside tonight!” Clay screamed.
Trainer Angelo Dundee and the rest of the entourage had to restrain him. His pulse was 120 beats a minute. The boxing commission's doctor said if Clay's blood pressure didn't return to normal, the fight would be canceled.
That wouldn't be a problem. According to writer David Remnick, Dundee asked Clay on the way back to the hotel why he went berserk.
“Because Liston thinks I'm a nut,” he said. “He is scared of no man, but he is scared of a nut. Now he doesn't know what I'm going to do.”
The act also masked real fear. Years later, Clay admitted he was scared of The Bear.
“Wouldn't you be?” Hauser said.
Liston thought so little of Clay that he'd slacked off his usual training regimen. When fight publicist Harold Conrad reminded him of Ali's size and speed, Liston was not impressed.
“Ah, you're kidding,” he said. “I'll scare the (bleep) out of that (bleep).”
In the quiet dressing room before the fight, Clay and Malcolm X tried to figure out which way was east. Then they bowed in that direction and prayed.
The only direction Liston had in mind was straight ahead. When the bell finally sounded, he charged across the ring and started swinging away.
Clay had a habit of dropping his gloves, the only defense being his dancing elusiveness. Few thought that would work against Liston, but Clay had studied film and detected that Liston tended to telegraph punches with his eyes.
Liston couldn't land a solid blow, and near the end of the round Clay unleashed a barrage to Liston's head. The crowd of 8,927 roared so loudly the fighters couldn't hear the bell. When referee Barney Felix separated them, a stunning thought raced from Miami Beach to Helsinki.
Could Clay actually know what he's doing?
“I think this is one of the greatest rounds of any fight we've seen in a long time,” said Joe Louis, who was ringside.
Liston might have injured his left shoulder while flailing away at the end of the round. Or he might have hurt it before the fight. Or a bum shoulder could have been an excuse for what was to come.
After 50 years, boxing historians still debate all that. Whatever the truth, Liston's fearsome left hook didn't show up that night. Historians also still have no idea how old Liston really was.
He claimed he was 32, but birth records from the backwoods of Arkansas didn't offer much proof. Some think Liston was closer to 40, if not older.
Whatever that truth, the dynamics quickly changed. It was an aging, overconfident, out-of-shape and possibly injured fighter against a boxing force nobody had seen.
Clay peppered Liston with jabs and opened a cut on Liston's left cheek. He dictated the fight until the fourth round, when another mystery evolved.
Clay's eyes started to burn. Between rounds, the pain was so bad he told Dundee to cut off his gloves and end the fight.
After 50 years, the explanations still vary. Some say the irritation was caused by a solution Liston's corner used to help stop bleeding. Others say Liston's men sprayed his gloves with some nefarious liquid, knowing the fight was slipping away.
Intentional or not, Dundee feverishly squirted water into Clay's eyes and lifted him from his stool to start the fifth round.
“Big daddy, get in there,” he said. “This is your night!”
Clay kept his distance most of the round, and his vision slowly cleared. In the sixth round he went back to work on Liston's face. The Bear lumbered back to his corner and said, “That's it.”
Again, what actually happened is forever clouded. Some think Liston meant he was tired of messing around and ready to crush Clay. Others say Liston's shoulder was shot and he knew the battle was lost. That seems more likely, since Liston spit out his mouthpiece and didn't get up when the bell sounded.
The only one who seemed to notice was Clay. He strode to the middle of the ring, raised his arms and started dancing. Everybody else was confused at first, then stunned to discover the fight was over.
It was first time since 1919 that a heavyweight champion had quit sitting on his stool. As the ring filled up, Clay ran to the ropes to deliver a message to the assemblage of sportswriters.
“Eat your words!”
Of 46 writers covering the event, three had picked Clay to win. Priests, politicians and the general public would have agreed with that consensus.
“I am the king of the world!” Clay yelled. “You must all bow to me!”
The world had never seen a fight like that or a fighter like that. Two days later, the fighter had an announcement.
Clay revealed he had joined the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X.
A few days later, he changed it to Muhammad Ali.
As historic as that night in Miami was, the world hadn't seen anything yet.