Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston (I)

February 25, 1964
Miami Beach, Florida

22-year-old Cassius Clay had been pro for just four years when he faced the undisputed heavyweight champion Sonny Liston for the first time.

Before the contract was signed, Clay had been travelling around the states with his bus "Big Red", painted with provocant slogans in order to promote a bout between him and Liston. Thus, Clay increased the pressure on Sonny and his management until a championship bout was unavoidable.

Clay, who had a fight record of 19 wins with an average length of five rounds, used to call his opponent "ugly, brown bear" and appeared in public wearing shirts with slogans like "bear huntin‘".

When the contract had been signed, Clay however did not stop to ridicule and mock Liston. He drove to Liston’s house at 3 a.m. and ran riot until the house owner went out with a poker to smash one of the bus‘ windows before the police pulled him back in.

Liston had to deal with sardonic poems describing how Clay would knock him out.

During the traditional weigh-in on the morning of the fight, Clay went absolutely crazy. He shouted "I’m ready to rumble!" and "I’m gonna eat you alive!" and it seemed it took Clay’s staff a great effort to prevent their boxer from attacking Liston. The present doctor announced a pulse of 120 bpm and declared Clay "emotionally unbalanced and scared to death" (Th. Hauser, p. 71).

In fact, Clay had fooled everyone including Liston. He wasn’t crazy at all but rather wanted to make everyone think he was. And everyone believed in his show.

43 out of the 46 sportswriters covering the bout thought that Clay, who was seven to one underdog, would be no match for Liston. Only half of the seats at Miami's Convention Hall had been sold. One reason were the high ticket prices. 8,000 people finally attended the fight.

At the beginning of the fight, Liston attacked Clay as if he wanted to finish him like he finished Floyd Patterson two times - by a first round knockout. But the challenger didn’t let him come close. He danced around the flat-footed champion the whole time. Liston's punches missed the continously moving Clay. The champion himself had to take straight lefts again and again. From the third round on, he suffered from a cut under his left eye.

But suddenly Clay’s victory was questioned because of an incident never totally cleared up. After the fourth round, Clay couldn’t see. "Cut the gloves off. We’re going home!", the desperate contender told his trainer Angelo Dundee. But the coach pushed him back in the ring before the referee could stop the fight. His words as documented by Ali-biographer Thomas Hauser were: "This is the big one, daddy. Stay away from him. Run!". By doing so, Dundee made Clay win and probably saved his career. Experts doubt that Liston being the winner would have accepted a rematch against this uncomfortable opponent.

Half-blind Clay somehow got through round five by avoiding punches he hardly saw. At the end of the round, Clay’s eyes cleared and he dominated Liston again in the sixth.

When the gong for the beginning of the seventh round came, Liston stayed on his stool.

Clay couldn’t believe it. He ran around the ring shouting "I must be the greatest - I shook up the world!". Indeed, a 22-year-old country boy from Louisville had turned the boxing scene upside down. He had beaten a supposedly invincible opponent and climbed the heavyweight throne for the first time.

The second bout against Liston

vs. Sonny Liston (I) - vs. Sonny Liston (II) - vs. Joe Frazier (I)vs. George Foreman - vs. Joe Frazier (III)

© 2000 by Johannes Ehrmann