“I’m still the prettiest, and he is in hospital. I came, I saw, I conquered. I borrowed that line from Caesar,” said a triumphant Cassius Clay after he rocked the boxing world, half a century ago with a sixth-round stoppage of Sonny Liston—at the time the ferocious heavyweight champion of the world.
On 25th February 1964, Miami witnessed Clay’s first and arguably most significant step in a legendary journey culminating in his illustrious place in the sporting book of immortality.
The then-outspoken but promising 22-year-old was a distinct underdog for the heavyweight championship of the world bout. Despite being undefeated, he faced what many perceived to be an immoveable object in Liston.
Clay’s trainer, Angelo Dundee said in his autobiography My View From The Corner, that “few observers gave Cassius Clay a snowball’s chance in hell against the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston. Others gave him even less.” He added:
Liston was a giant compressed into a 6’1″ frame. His fists were 15″ in circumference and he had an 84″ reach, 16″ longer than Rocky Marciano’s. He made a science out of inspiring fear in the hearts and minds of his opponents.
Clay’s biggest strength was seemingly his mouth and his uncompromising ability to irritate his opponents—something which Liston was famously on the receiving-end, for a lengthy period before their first bout.
The challenger hurled regular insults at the champion for almost two years before Liston finally agreed to fight. His particular favourite appeared to be referring to Liston as a bear. The gamesmanship reached a tipping point when Clay was ringside for the second Liston vs Patterson pre-fight introductions:
Turning to Paterson, he bowed with a flourish; turning to face Liston, he dropped his jaw, threw up his hands in a make-believe surrender sign, and beat a hasty retreat from the ring. Everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, except Liston.
Enough was enough. The fight was agreed and Clay emphatically walked the walk. Donald Saunders, the Daily Telegraph’s boxing correspondent, reported that Clay “boxed beautifully in the first round, and may well have established control there and then”. He ducked, dived and counterpunched from the first bell to immediately seize the initiative.
Saunders added that Clay “flashed his jab and left hooks into Liston’s scowling face, with amazing ease”, culminating with Liston quitting whilst on his stool after the sixth round. The win propelled Clay into boxing folklore.
Soon after the bout Clay, no stranger to controversy, provocatively pledged his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This move, during the height of the civil rights era, accompanied with Ali’s future feats of Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla ensured that the American became more than just a sportsman—evident in the recent auction where Ali’s gloves from the said Liston fight fetched an unprecedented $836,500 (the highest amount ever for boxing memorabilia) last Saturday.
The ambiguous criterion of “legend”, particularly in the world of sport, results in regular over usage. However current Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promoted Ali later in his career, summed up the certain legend that is Muhammad Ali to the Telegraph on Monday:
Muhammad Ali changed the world, changed how people thought. He made fun of racism, changed perception and for me that was one of his greatest accomplishments. There’s nobody that even remotely compares. I really sensed that from the beginning. He was beautiful as a person, he was one of the most handsome people you could ever see there was an aura about him that transcended any type of normal humanity.
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