Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Raising his game: Clay is lifted off his feet in celebration following his seismic victory over Liston

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.
                           I'm the champ! Cassius Clay, later renamed Muhammad Ali, screams out after beating Sonny Liston in 1964
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.

On 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. 

Then, 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.

That 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.

A 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.
Not packing a punch: Liston (left) could not live with Clay on that night half a century ago

That 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 message. 

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 voice.

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.

The 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.

Clay 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.
                            Goading: Clay gives his prediction on how many rounds the 1964 would last - in the end, he was one out
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?


Of 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.’

But 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.

If 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.

And not only did Clay dance away but as he did so he clipped the fighter who was thought to be unbeatable with lightning combinations.
                          Magnificent Seven: Clay befuddled Liston, bobbing and weaving, and won in seven rounds
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.

Clay 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.
                           Stinging like a bee: Clay plants his left fist into the face of Liston
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 cut.

Clay’s fabled trainer, Angelo Dundee, sponged down his face and told him ‘get out there and run.’  

So 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.’
                               Looking down on the competition: While Clay (as Ali) became a legend, Liston fell into obscurity
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.
                          Standing tall: Ali looks down at Liston in 1965 after the challenger hit the canvas
Clay went on to become Ali. The Greatest. The fighter for freedom as well world titles. The most recognisable person on the planet.

Liston 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 his mind.

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.
                             Legend: Ali (centre) with our man Jeff Powell (second left) at the Greatest's 70th birthday celebration
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.

Courtesy of Dailymail.co.uk

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