ON THIS DAY, 50 YEARS AGO,YOUNG CASSIUS CLAY SHOOK THE WORLD AND CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY TO BE KNOWN AS ''THE GREATEST MUHAMMAD ALI''
On this day, 25th of February 1964, exactly 50 years ago, a boxing match changed the course of history.
That day, a brash kid named Cassius Clay beat a
terrifying brute of a man called Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight
title and in so doing challenged America to confront its own dark
reality. ‘I shook up the world,’ The mouthy Clay famously screamed. More than he knew at that frenzied moment when Liston failed to answer the bell for the start of the seventh round.
‘I’m The Greatest,’ the Louisville Lip shouted above the pandemonium in the Convention Hall at Miami Beach.
that evening of February 25, 1964 it was assumed that this seemingly
demented being was alluding solely to his prowess at prize-fighting.
He had indeed rocked planet Earth with one of the most seismic sporting upsets of all time.
And, yes, the dazzling manner in which he did so excited predictions that a legend really had been born.
Yet the world was soon to discover that this was not even the half of it.
The following day Clay announced he was changing his name to Cassius X.
within a week, he declared that he was rejecting his ‘slave name’
entirely, demanded that he be known thereafter as Muhammad Ali and
pronounced himself a member of the Black Muslims.
public affiliation to what was perceived as a ‘hate-white’ group was to
have repercussions which grew massively in tandem with his ensuing fame
and would alter the landscape of US life.
suspicion that he had already joined the Nation of Islam, before the
fight, so disturbed white America that many shied away on the night and
the promoter of one of the most significant sports events ever staged
ended up out of pocket to the tune of $300,000.
turned out to be the price of providing a global platform for the man
whose rocketing stardom was to make him the noisiest and most visible
spokesman for the civil rights movement and its campaign against racism.
The American majority would spend decades
trying to deny Ali’s phenomenal talent and thereby discredit his
But not even the furore which surrounded his refusal to be
drafted for military action in the Vietnam War – and his resulting
three-year banishment from the ring – could silence that brilliant
It has taken Parkinson’s Disease to do
that – but not before his own country had joined the rest of the world
in acknowledging that he is indeed The Greatest of all time. Before any of that, however, he first had to take on and defeat a man regarded as a monster.
Liston was nicknamed Big Bear. From the morning the fight was made Clay called him the Big Ugly Bear.
goading went on for weeks and many thought Clay, in his 22-year-old
craziness, was signing his own death warrant by provoking the
glowering, intimidating spectre who is still regarded as the mightiest
of all the heavyweight punchers.
insisted it was Liston who was going to be killed and that he would
then use his hide as a bear-skin rug in his living room. One morning he
turned up on the door-step of Liston’s home to screech that threat. At
the weigh-in Clay sported a denim jacket emblazoned with the logo Bear
Huntin’ and worked himself into such a lather while abusing his opponent
that his heart-rate soared from below 60 beats a minute to above 120.
Mind games on an epic scale or plain fear?
the stare-down before the first bell, Clay was to admit later: ‘I won’t
lie. I was scared just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no
choice but to go out and fight.’
he also knew that Liston was older than the 32 years he claimed – more
like 40 – and that the ominous presence and fearsome criminal reputation
hid an insecure man so simple as to be almost child-like.
Liston was bemused by Clay’s antics before the fight, he became totally
befuddled as soon as it began. The first-round charge with which he
expected to blow this upstart away hit… thin air.
not only did Clay dance away but as he did so he clipped the fighter
who was thought to be unbeatable with lightning combinations.
A desperate Liston caught Clay with a
huge left in the second but neither he nor the rest of us were as yet
aware that this kid had the chin of a buffalo.
took full control in the third, in which Liston suffered a cut eye for
the first time in his career and which he ended gasping for air. So
why did Clay coast through the fourth? When he got back to his corner
he complained that his eyes were on fire and begged for his gloves to be
cut off. The blame was laid later on a substance used to treat Liston’s
Clay’s fabled trainer, Angelo Dundee,
sponged down his face and told him ‘get out there and run.’
reluctantly did he comply that he was almost disqualified by the referee
for delaying the start of the fifth. He stayed out of trouble, despite
shouting ‘all I can see of that bear is a shadow.’ The
vision cleared in the interval, fatefully for Liston as he spent the
sixth being pummelled by clusters of punches too fast for him to
comprehend. At the round’s end he slumped, bewildered, on his stool and
refused to rise again.
There was talk of a shoulder injury but the vacant expression told its own story of a mental blockage.
That state of confusion was to be seen
again in the re-match, 15 months later. Midway through the first round
Liston went down from what became known as ‘the phantom punch’ – at best
a glancing blow - rolled over and waited to be counted out. Some cried ‘fix.’ A psychological break-down, more likely. Clay
went on to become Ali. The Greatest. The fighter for freedom as well
world titles. The most recognisable person on the planet.
lumbered on through 14 unremarkable fights and six-and-a-half years of
embarrassment until he died alone in his bedroom, his heart as broken as
Ali , at 72, lives on. Which after all
these years in the clutches of Parkinson’s is another remarkable
tribute to his fighting spirit and his zest for life. The
‘big ugly bear’ he taunted to despair is buried in a cemetery below the
flight path at Las Vegas airport, his tomb-stone simply inscribed with
these two words: A Man.
Whenever Ali travels to Sin City he visits that grave.
After all, without Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, Cassius Marcellus Clay could not have shaken up the world.