Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
The two fights between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston for boxing's World Heavyweight Championship were among the most anticipated, watched and controversial fights in the sport's history. Sports Illustrated magazine named the first Clay–Liston fight (Ali had not yet changed his name from Cassius Clay) as the fourth greatest sports moment of the twentieth century.
Clay vs. Liston I
Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion at the time of the first Liston-Clay fight in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, having demolished former champion Floyd Patterson by a first-round knockout in September 1962. Ten months later, Liston and Patterson met again with the same result—Patterson was knocked out in the first round.
Liston was the most intimidating fighter of his day, and considered by some, at the time of the Clay fight, as among the best heavyweights of all time. Many were reluctant to meet him in the ring. Henry Cooper, the British champion, said he would be interested in a title fight if Clay won, but he was not going to get in the ring with Liston. Cooper's manager, Jim Wicks, said, "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street."
Boxing promoter Harold Conrad said, "People talked about Tyson before he got beat, but Liston was more ferocious, more indestructible.... When Sonny gave you the evil eye—I don't care who you were—you shrunk to two feet tall." Tex Maule wrote in Sports Illustrated: "Liston's arms are massively muscled, the left jab is more than a jab. It hits with true shock power. It never occurred to Liston that he might lose a fight." Johnny Tocco, a trainer who worked with George Foreman and Mike Tyson as well as Liston, said Liston was the hardest hitter of the three. Several boxing writers actually thought Liston could be damaging to the sport because he couldn't be beaten. Liston's ominous, glowering demeanor was so central to his image that Esquire magazine caused a controversy by posing him in a Santa Claus hat for its December 1963 cover.
Liston learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery. Later, he was re-incarcerated for assaulting a police officer. For much of his career, his contract was majority owned by Frankie Carbo, a one-time mob hit man and senior member of the Lucchese crime family, who ran boxing interests for the Mafia. The mob was deeply engaged in boxing at every level at the time, and Liston was never able to escape being labeled as the personification of everything that was unseemly and criminal in the sport, despite the fact that his criminality had been in the past. He distrusted boxing writers, and they paid him back, often depicting him as little more than an ignorant thug and a bully. He was typically described in thinly veiled racist terms—a "gorilla", "hands like big bananas". Author James Baldwin understood Liston perhaps better than anyone in the press and sympathized with him and liked him, unlike boxing writers. He said, "Liston was the big Negro in every white man's hallway." He was a man who, according to Ali biographer David Remnick, "had never gotten a break and was never going to give one".
On the other hand, Clay was a glib, fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who enjoyed the spotlight. Known as "The Louisville Lip," he had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He had great hand and foot speed and lightning fast reflexes, not to mention a limitless supply of braggadocio.  However, Clay had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career, and, in his previous two fights, had eked out a controversial decision against Doug Jones and—more seriously—was knocked down by a left hook at the end of round four against the cut-prone converted southpaw Henry Cooper. Clay was clearly "out on his feet" in his corner between rounds, and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, stalled for time to allow Clay to recover. Although Clay rallied to win the fight in the next round, it seemed clear to many that he would be no match against the daunting Liston, who seemed a more complete boxer in every way than Cooper.
The brash Clay was equally disliked by reporters and his chances were widely dismissed. Lester Bromberg's forecast in the New York World-Telegram was typical, predicting that "It will last longer than the Patterson fight—almost the entire first round". The Los Angeles Times' Jim Murray observed, "The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary", adding that the face-off between the two unlikeable athletes would be "the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin—180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout". The New York Times' regular boxing writer Joe Nichols declined to cover the fight, assuming that it would be a mismatch. By fight time, Clay was a seven to one betting underdog. Of the 46 sportswriters at ringside, 43 had picked Sonny Liston to win by knockout.
Liston, however, brought weaknesses into the Clay fight that weren't fully apparent at the time. He claimed to be 32 years old at the time of the bout, but many believed that his true age was closer to 40, perhaps even older. Liston had been suffering from bursitis in his shoulders for close to a year and had been receiving cortisone shots. In training for the Clay fight, he re-injured his left shoulder and was supposedly in pain striking the heavy bag. He secretly resorted to heavy icing and ultrasound therapy after each training session. And, ironically, because of his dominance, Liston had actually logged little ring time in the past three years. Between March 1961 and the Clay fight, Liston had fought three times and won each bout with a first-round knockouts—meaning that he had fought a total of just over six minutes during a 35-month stretch.
One of the reasons that Clay's chances were dismissed is that his boxing style seemed ill-suited to the heavyweight division. He was widely viewed as a fast but light puncher lacking the ability to take a punch or to fight inside. The signatures of Clay's style and later greatness—the tendency to keep his hands low and lean away from punches (often leaving his opponent hitting air, off balance, and exposed to counter punches), his constant movement and reluctance to set (making him extremely difficult to hit)—were viewed as fundamental technical flaws that would be quickly exploited by an experienced, hard-hitting heavyweight like Liston. New York Journal-American columnist Jimmy Cannon summarized this view when he wrote: "Clay doesn't fight like a valid heavyweight he is. He seldom sets and misses a lot. In a way, Clay is a freak. He is a bantamweight who weighs more than 200 pounds (91 kg)."
Liston trained minimally for the bout, convinced that he would dispose of Clay within the first two rounds. He typically ran just one mile a day instead of his usual five, reportedly ate hot dogs and drank beer, and was rumored to have been furnished with prostitutes in training camp.
The television series I've Got a Secret did multiple segments about the title fight. Panelists Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Betsy Palmer predicted that Liston would win in the third, second, and first rounds, respectively. Host Garry Moore was even more pessimistic about Clay's chances, estimating a Liston knockout "in the very early moments of round one," adding, "if I were Cassius, I would catch a cab and leave town." Actor Hal March went a step further: "I think the fight will end in the dressing room. I think [Clay] is going to faint before he comes out."
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, Just look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room, It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom. Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring. Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown, But he can't start counting until Sonny comes down. Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic. Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight, That they would witness the launching of a human satellite. Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money, That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.
Jesse Bowdry brought a much terser written message from Sonny Liston:
Cassius, you're my million dollar baby, so please don't let anything happen to you before tomorrow night.
The following week, I've Got a Secret brought on two sportswriters whose secret was that they had been the only writers to correctly predict Clay's victory.
Baiting the bear
Clay began taunting and provoking Liston almost immediately after the two agreed to fight. He purchased a bus and had it emblazoned with the words "Liston Must Go In Eight." On the day of the contract signing, he drove it to Liston's home in Denver, waking the champion (with the press in tow) at 3:00 a.m. shouting, "Come on out of there. I'm gonna whip you now." Liston had just moved into a white neighborhood and was furious at the attention this caused. Clay took to driving his entourage in the bus to the site in Surfside, Florida where Liston (nicknamed the "Big Bear") was training, and repeatedly called Liston the "big, ugly bear". Liston grew increasingly irritated as the motor-mouthed Clay continued hurling insults ("After the fight, I'm gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him... if Sonny Liston whups me, I'll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he's the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country."). Clay insisted to a skeptical press that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds (Former Light Heavyweight Champion José Torres, in his 1971 biography of Ali, Sting Like a Bee, said that as of 1963, Ali's prophetic poems had correctly predicted the exact round he would stop an opponent 12 times).
Clay's brashness did not endear him to White America, and, in fact, even made Liston a more sympathetic character. In The New Republic, the magazine's editor, Murray Kempton (a future Pulitzer Prize–winner for distinguished commentary), wrote, "Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line."
It has been widely stated that Clay's antics were a deliberate form of psychological warfare designed to unsettle Liston by stoking his anger, encouraging his overconfidence and even fueling uncertainty about Clay's sanity. As Clay himself said, "If Liston wasn't thinking nothing but killing me, he wasn't thinking fighting. You got to think to fight." Former World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis said, "Liston is an angry man, and he can't afford to be angry fighting Clay." Clay's outbursts also fed Liston's belief that Clay was terrified (something Clay's camp did little to disavow). Clay said later, "I knew that Liston, overconfident that he was, was never going to train to fight more than two rounds. He couldn't see nothing to me at all but mouth." In contrast, Clay prepared hard for the fight, studying films of Liston's prior bouts and even detecting that Liston telegraphed his punches with eye movement.
The Nation of Islam
Several weeks before the fight, the Miami Herald published an article quoting Cassius Clay Sr. saying that his son had joined the Black Muslims and that they had brainwashed him to hate white people. As the story began to spread, promoters became increasingly uneasy. Bill MacDonald, the main promoter, threatened to cancel the fight unless Clay publicly disavowed the Nation of Islam. Clay refused. A compromise was reached when Malcolm X, at the time a companion of Clay's as well as a feared and incendiary spokesperson for the Nation, agreed to leave town, although he returned the night of the fight. While Clay would not definitively link himself with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, until after the fight, his association with members of a "white-hate group" further complicated his relations with the press and the white public, further deprived the fight of the "good guy/bad guy" narrative, and negatively impacted the gate. MacDonald would ultimately lose $300,000 on the bout.
Clay's outbursts reached their peak at the pre-fight weigh-in/physical the morning of the event. Championship bout weigh-ins, before this, had been predictable and boring. Clay entered the room where the weigh-in would be held wearing a denim jacket with the words "Bear Huntin'" on the back and carrying an African walking stick. He began waving the stick, screaming, "I'm the champ! Tell Sonny I'm here. Bring that big ugly bear on." When Liston appeared, Clay went wild. "Someone is going to die at ringside tonight!" he shouted. "You're scared, chump!" He was restrained by members of his entourage. Writer Mort Sharnik thought Clay was having a seizure. Robert Lipsyte, the New York Times writer, likened the scene to a "police action, with an enormous amount of movement and noise exploding in a densely packed room." Amidst the pandemonium, he was fined $2,500 by the commission for his behavior. Clay worked himself into such a frenzy that his heart rate registered 120 beats per minute, more than twice its normal rate, and his blood pressure was 200/100. Dr. Alexander Robbins, The chief physician of the Miami Boxing Commission, determined that he was "emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring." He said if Clay's blood pressure didn't return to normal, the fight would be canceled. Many others also took Clay's antics to mean that he was terrified. In fact, a local radio station later reported a rumor that he had been spotted at the airport buying a ticket to leave the country. A second examination conducted an hour later revealed Clay's blood pressure and pulse had returned to normal. It had all been an act. Clay later said, "Liston's not afraid of me, but he's afraid of a nut."
|Date||February 25, 1964|
Miami Beach, Florida
|Title(s) on the line||WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion|
|Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay|
|"Big Bear"||"Louisville Lip"|
|Tale of the tape|
|Sand Slough, Arkansas||From||Louisville, Kentucky|
|35–1 (24 KOs)||Pre-fight record||19–0 (15 KOs)|
|6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)||Height||6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)|
|218 lb (99 kg)||Weight||210 lb (95 kg)|
|WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion||Recognition||none|
Clay weighed in at 210 lb (95 kg) while Liston was several pounds over his prime fighting weight at 218 lb (99 kg). Many of those watching were surprised during the referee's instructions to see that Clay was considerably taller than Liston. While receiving instructions, Liston glowered at Clay, while Clay stared back and stood on his toes to appear even taller. Clay later said of the moment: "I won't lie, I was scared… It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn't have no choice but to go out and fight."
At the opening bell, an angry Liston charged Clay, looking to end the fight quickly and decisively. However, Clay's superior speed and movement was immediately evident, as he slipped most of Liston's lunging punches, making the champion look awkward. Clay clearly gained confidence as the round progressed. He hit Liston with a combination that electrified the crowd with about 30 seconds left in the round and began scoring repeatedly with his left jab (the round lasted an extra 20 seconds because referee Barney Felix didn't hear the bell). Clay had been hit hard by a right to the stomach, but he said later, "I felt good because I knew I could survive." Milt Bailey, one of Liston's cornermen, recalled, "In the first round Sonny couldn't catch up with Clay, and I thought we might have some trouble." Indeed, it was perhaps the worst round of Liston's career. Between rounds, sitting on his stool, Clay turned to the press contingent at ringside and opened his mouth as if making a mocking, mute roar.
Liston settled down somewhat in round two. At one point, he cornered Clay against the ropes and hit him with a hard left hook. Clay later confessed that he was hurt by the punch, but Liston failed to press his advantage. Two of the official scorers awarded the round to Liston and the other had it even.
In the third round, Clay began to take control of the fight. At about 30 seconds into the round, he hit Liston with several combinations, causing a bruise under Liston's right eye and a cut under his left, which eventually required eight stitches to close. It was the first time in his career that Liston had been cut. At one point in this attack, Liston's knees buckled and he almost went down as he was driven to the ropes. Les Keiter, broadcasting at ringside, shouted, "This could be the upset of the century!" Mort Sharnik described the moment: "Cassius hit Liston with a one-two combination; a jab followed by a straight right. Cassius pulled the jab back and there was a mouse underneath Sonny's right eye. Then he pulled the right back and there was a gash underneath the other eye....It was like the armor plate of a battleship being pierced. I said to myself, 'My God, Cassius Clay is winning this fight!'" A clearly angered Liston rallied at the end of the round, as Clay seemed tired, and delivered punishing shots to Clay's body. It was probably Liston's best moment in the entire fight. But as the round ended, Clay shouted to him, "you big sucka, I got you now". Sitting on his stool between rounds, Liston was breathing heavily as his cornermen worked on his cut.
During the fourth round, Clay coasted, keeping his distance. However, when he returned to his corner, he started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and he could not see. "I didn't know what the heck was going on," Angelo Dundee recalled on an NBC special 25 years later. "He said, 'cut the gloves off. I want to prove to the world there's dirty work afoot.' And I said, 'whoa, whoa, back up baby. C'mon now, this is for the title, this is the big apple. What are you doing? Sit down!' So I get him down, I get the sponge and I pour the water into his eyes trying to cleanse whatever's there, but before I did that I put my pinkie in his eye and I put it into my eye. It burned like hell. There was something caustic in both eyes."
The commotion wasn't lost on referee Barney Felix, who was walking toward Clay's corner. Felix said Clay was seconds from being disqualified. The challenger, his arms held high in surrender, was demanding that the fight be stopped and Dundee, fearing the fight might indeed be halted, gave his charge a one-word order: "Run!"
Many theorized that a substance used on Liston's cuts by Joe Pollino, his cutman, may have inadvertently caused the irritation. "Joe Pollino had used Monsel's Solution on that cut," Dundee said. "Now what had happened was that probably the kid put his forehead leaning in on the guy—because Liston was starting to wear in with those body shots—and my kid, sweating profusely, it went into both eyes." However, Pollino allegedly confessed to reporter Jack McKinney years later that Liston ordered him to rub an astringent compound on his gloves before the fourth round. Pollino complied, and Liston shoved his gloves into Clay's face in the fourth.
Clay later said he could only see a faint shadow of Liston during most of the round, but by circling and moving he managed to avoid Liston and somehow survive. By the sixth round, Clay's sight had cleared, and he began landing combinations of punches seemingly at will. "I got back to my stool at the end of the sixth round, and under me I could hear the press like they had gone wild," Clay later said. "I twisted round and hollered down at the reporters, 'I'm gonna upset the world.'" 
There are two basic narratives about what occurred next in Liston's corner. According to David Remnick, Liston told his cornermen "that's it." This supposedly rallied Liston's handlers, who thought he meant he was finally angry enough to win, but Liston really meant that he was through fighting, which he indicated by spitting out his mouth guard.
Liston biographer Paul Gallender's take is that Liston's shoulder was essentially paralyzed by the end of round six, and his corner made the decision to end the fight, despite Liston's protests. Liston spit out his mouth guard in disgust, still not believing that Clay was the superior fighter.
As the bell sounded for the seventh round, Clay was the first to notice that Liston had spat out his mouth guard. Clay moved to the middle of the ring with his arms raised, dancing the jig that would become known as the "Ali Shuffle" while Howard Cosell, broadcasting at ringside, shouted "wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out!" Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout. It was the first time since 1919 that a World Heavyweight Champion had quit sitting on his stool.
Sensing that he had made history, Clay quickly ran to the ropes amidst the commotion in the ring and shouted at sportswriters, "Eat your words!" In a scene that has been rebroadcast countless times over the ensuing decades, Clay repeatedly yelled "I'm the greatest!" and "I shook up the world."
Clay had to be persuaded to hold the traditional post-fight press conference. He called the writers "hypocrites" and said, "Look at me. Not a mark on me. I could never be an underdog. I am too great. Hail the champion!"
On February 27, 1964, Clay announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. His membership in the group was first disclosed the previous night at the group's annual national convention in Chicago by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
"I began worshiping this way five years ago when I heard a fellow named Elijah Muhammad on the radio talking about the virtues of the Islam religion," Clay said. "I also listened to his ministers. No one could prove him or them wrong, so I decided to join."
Clay started going by the name Cassius X, as members of the organization adopt the last name X because they no longer want to bear names handed down by former slave-owning families.
On March 6, 1964, Elijah Muhammad announced in a recorded statement played over the radio that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means “worthy of all praises,” while Ali means “most high."
On March 1, 1964, Ed Sullivan would state on his show: "I saw the Liston-Clay fight. This was a stinker of all time. I swear The Beatles could beat the two of ’em! No kidding!" The Beatles had been on The Ed Sullivan Show twice in February. During their second appearance, which aired February 16 from Miami, Sullivan actually had Liston and Joe Louis—who were in the audience—stand up for applause.
Liston said he quit the fight because of a shoulder injury, and there has been speculation since about whether the injury was severe enough to actually prevent him from continuing. Immediately after the fight, Liston told broadcasters that he hurt the shoulder in the first round. Dr. Alexander Robbins, chief physician for the Miami Beach Boxing Commission, diagnosed Liston with a torn tendon in his left shoulder.
For his book, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, David Remnick spoke with one of Liston's cornermen, who told him that Liston could have continued: "[The shoulder] was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, but if you say your guy just quit, who is gonna get a return bout. We cooked up that shoulder thing on the spot."
Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule wrote that Liston’s shoulder injury was legitimate. He cited Liston’s inability to lift his arm: "There is no doubt that Liston's arm was damaged. In the sixth round, he carried it at belt level so that it was of no help in warding off the right crosses with which Clay probed at the cut under his left eye." He also cited medical evidence: "A team of eight doctors inspected Liston's arm at St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach and agreed that it was too badly damaged for Liston to continue fighting. The torn tendon had bled down into the mass of the biceps, swelling and numbing the arm."
Those findings were confirmed in a formal investigation immediately after the fight by Florida State Attorney Richard Gerstein, who also noted that there was little doubt that Liston went into the fight with a sore or lame shoulder.
|Date||May 25, 1965|
|Location||Central Maine Youth Center
|Title(s) on the line||WBC Heavyweight Champion|
|Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston|
|"Louisville Lip"||Big Bear|
|Tale of the tape|
|Louisville, Kentucky||From||Sand Slough, Arkansas|
|20–0 (16 KOs)||Pre-fight record||35–2 (24 KOs)|
|6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)||Height||6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)|
|206 lb (93 kg)||Weight||215 lb (98 kg)|
|WBC Heavyweight Champion||Recognition|
Following Clay's upset victory over Liston, both fighters were almost immediately embroiled in controversy that was considered detrimental to the sport of boxing. A couple days after the fight, Clay publicly announced that he had joined the "Black Muslims"—which was widely viewed as a hate group against white people—and started going by the name Cassius X. The following month, he was renamed Muhammad Ali by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. This evoked widespread public condemnation. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X, he became a champion of racial segregation." As for Liston, he was arrested on Match 12 and charged with speeding, careless and reckless driving, driving without an operator's license and carrying a concealed weapon. The arresting officer said the former champion was driving between 76 and 80 mph in a residential zone. Liston had a loaded .22 caliber revolver in his coat pocket and there were empty bottles of vodka in the car. A young woman was in the car with Liston, but she was not arrested. In short, at a time when Congress was investigating corruption and organized crime influence in boxing, neither fighter was seen as a poster child for the sport.
In the view of some, the unexpected ending of the bout took on suspicious overtones when it was discovered that the contract for the fight contained a rematch clause. Many argued that Liston had more to gain financially from losing the bout and fighting a rematch than he did from winning. The contract gave Inter-Continental Promotions, Inc., a firm organized to promote Liston's fights, the right to promote Ali's first fight as champion—if he should beat Liston—and pick his opponent (Liston, of course). It was phrased as it was because the World Boxing Association did not allow fight contracts with rematch clauses. Gordon B. Davidson, an attorney for the group sponsoring Ali, said, "We felt we would be better advised not to have a guaranteed rematch clause. We felt this was more in the spirit of the WBA rules than a direct rematch which was clearly outlawed." He agreed that it was "subterfuge." When Ali and Liston signed to fight a rematch, the WBA voted unanimously to strip Ali of the title and drop Liston from its rankings. However, the World Boxing Council, the New York State Athletic Commission and The Ring magazine continued to recognize Ali as champion.
Pressed by the WBA—which included every U.S. state except California, Nevada and New York—state boxing commissions throughout the nation were reluctant to license a rematch between the two controversial fighters, and it was difficult to find a venue. Ultimately, Massachusetts agreed to host the bout, which resulted in the suspension of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission by the WBA. The fight was set for November 16, 1964, at the Boston Garden. Liston was immediately established as a 13-5 favorite, making Ali a greater betting underdog than Floyd Patterson in his two fights against Liston. This time, Liston trained hard, preparing himself for a 15-round bout. In fact, Time magazine said that Liston had worked himself into the best shape of his career. Ali, for his part, continued to taunt Liston, dragging a bear trap to the pre-fight physical and announcing that he might begin manufacturing the "Sonny Liston Sit-Down Stool."
However, the Boston fight would never occur. Three days before the scheduled bout (Friday the 13th), Ali needed emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. The bout would need to be delayed by six months.
The new date was set for May 25, 1965. But as it approached, Liston was involved in yet another arrest and there were fears that the promoters were tied to organized crime. Massachusetts officials, most notably Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne, began to have second thoughts. The promoters, Intercontinental Promotions, Inc. and Sports Vision, Inc., realized that 90% of the fight's revenue would come from closed-circuit TV receipts, and that the live gate and venue were therefore less important. They decided to cut their losses and negotiations with state authorities floundered. Five days before the scheduled bout, the search was on for a new venue.
The promoters contacted promoter Sam Michael, who arranged for the bout to be held in Lewiston, Maine, a mill town located 140 miles (230 km) north of Boston. The venue selected was the Central Maine Youth Center (now called Androscoggin Bank Colisée), a junior hockey rink. Lewiston was the smallest city to host a heavyweight title bout since Jack Dempsey fought Tom Gibbons in Shelby, Montana (population 3,000) in 1923. It remains the only heavyweight title fight held in the state of Maine.
The fight was embraced by the Pine Tree State. Governor John H. Reed announced to the press, "This is one of the greatest things to happen in Maine." Nevertheless, it would go down in history as a debacle.
The atmosphere surrounding the fight was tense and sometimes ugly, largely due to the repercussions of Ali's public embrace of Elijah Muhammed, black separatism and a variant of Islam. Malcolm X had been assassinated several months before the bout, almost certainly by the Nation of Islam, and rumors circulated that Ali might be killed by Malcolm's supporters in retaliation (Ali had publicly snubbed Malcolm after Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad). The FBI took the threats seriously enough to post a 12-man, 24-hour guard around Ali. Liston's camp, in turn, claimed he had received a death threat from Nation of Islam. The omnipresent bow-tied, Fruit of Islam entourage surrounding Ali only added to the sense of foreboding and hostility. Security for the fight was, for that time, unprecedented.
Due to the remote location, only 2,434 fans were present (the arena seated less than 3,700), setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight.
The phantom/anchor punch
The ending of the second fight remains one of the most controversial in boxing history. Midway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas, then struggled to his knees, only to roll over on to his back. Few of the attenders saw Clay deliver a knockout punch. The fight quickly descended into chaos. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former world heavyweight champion himself, appeared confused after Clay refused to retreat to a neutral corner. Clay initially stood over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, "Get up and fight, sucker!" The moment was captured by ringside photographer Neil Leifer in what became one of the most iconic images in sport, chosen as the cover of the Sports Illustrated special issue, "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos". Clay then began prancing around the ring, raising his arms in the air celebrating the knockdown.
Walcott tried to sort out the situation as 20 seconds passed, and by then Liston had gotten to his feet and resumed boxing. Sitting at ringside, Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, took it upon himself to call Walcott over and explain that, as Liston had spent over 10 seconds on the canvas, he had been KOed. Walcott stopped the fight—awarding Clay a first-round knockout. However, Fleischer was quite wrong in his interpretation of how the rules applied: Cassius had deliberately not gone to a neutral corner, so Walcott had been correct in not counting Liston out; the actual time that Liston had been down was irrelevant. The counting officially begins only when a fighter is in the neutral corner.
Walcott later said that he did not more forcefully move Clay to a neutral corner because Clay was so enraged at Liston as he ran around the ring that he thought Clay might kick Liston.
The fight ranks as one of the shortest heavyweight title bouts in history. Many in the small crowd had not even settled in their seats when the fight was stopped.
The blow that ended the match became known as "the phantom punch", so named because most people at ringside did not see it. Clay called it the "anchor punch" and claimed that it was taught to him by Hollywood actor Stepin Fetchit, who had learned it from Jack Johnson. However, Clay himself was unsure immediately after the fight as to whether or not the punch connected, as footage from the event shows Clay asking his entourage "Did I hit him?" Slow motion replays show Clay connecting with a quick, chopping right that snapped Liston's head after Liston missed a left jab and was off balance. In their book on Clay, Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo argued that "the blow generated enough power to lift Liston's left foot, upon which most of his weight was placed, off the canvas".
In the final analysis, it remains inconclusive whether the blow was a genuine knockout punch. George Chuvalo, seated at ringside, said, "[Liston's] eyes were the eyes of a man faking. When a guy is really stunned his eyes roll. [Liston's] were going side to side."
Yet if Liston did throw the fight, the reason why remains unclear. Among the theories are claims that he bet against himself, perhaps because he owed money to the Mafia. Las Vegas bookies reported no notable late betting on Clay prior to the fight. Others speculate that he feared for his safety from Nation of Islam members who supported Clay. This theory was supported by Mark Kram's book Ghosts of Manila, which included an interview with Liston conducted years after the fight. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger said that years after the fight, Liston told him that he lost simply because "the timekeeper couldn't count".
Clay biographer Wilfred Sheed offered his opinion in Muhammad Ali that Liston was going to throw the fight going in and, when he suffered a legitimate flash knockdown from the punch in round one, decided on the spot to seize the opportunity and end the fight. It was Walcott's confusion and Clay's behavior that forced Liston to feign disorientation for far longer than a knockdown of that type would have caused.
The two bouts launched one man and ruined the other. For Ali, this was the beginning of Ali myth: the people's hero confronting seeming impossible odds and insurmountable foes (both inside and outside the ring) only to triumph through his wit, integrity, courage, and talent. On the other hand, the fights left Liston's reputation in tatters. In just a little over one year he went from being considered one of the most fearsome heavyweights of all time to an overrated champion. "[After the two Ali fights] Liston would never again intimidate a world-class fighter," wrote Bob Mee, "and therefore would never again be the fighter he used to be." Worse, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the end of the second fight linked Liston probably forever to all that was corrupt and suspect in boxing. Recent attempts to introduce more balance and fairness in understanding Liston's career and life have faced a stiff challenge posed by the final 20 seconds of the second fight in Lewiston, Maine in 1965.
Calypsonian Lord Melody recorded a song titled "Clay vs Liston" in 1964. The song's lyrics deal with the first fight between the two. This song was not released until 1994, when it appeared on the CD compilation Precious Melodies.
- "Quick look at facts, figures". Miami News. February 25, 1964. p. 2B.
- Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser
- quoted in Sonny Liston, Paul Gallender
- Sonny Liston, Paul Gallender
- Irusta, Carlos (2012-01-17). "Dundee: Ali was, still is 'The Greatest'". ESPN. Retrieved 2012-01-17.
- Random House for High School Teachers | Catalog | King of the World by David Remnick
- Dennis, Felix (2003). Muhammed Ali. Miramax Books. p. 100.
- Sonny Liston, Paul Gallender
- Gallender, op cit
- Harvey Jones and Jesse Bowdry appearance on CBS' I've Got a Secret, February 24, 1964. Rebroadcast on Game Show Network on March 24, 2008.
- Kalb, Eliot (2007). The 25 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All-Time: Ranking Sports' Most Notorious Fixes, Cover-Ups and Scandals. Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 978-1-60239-089-8.
- Gallender, op cit
- Paul Gallender, op cit
- Hauser, Muhammad Ali
- Kirkby, Evans (February 25, 1964). "Howling Clay fined $2,500 for his antics at weigh-in". Milwaukee Journal. p. 11.
- The Fight of the Century" Ali vs. Frazier, March 8, 1971, Michael Arkush
- Muhammed Ali: His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser
- Hoffer, Richard. "A Lot More Than Lip Service". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 29 November 1999.
- Hauser, op cit
- Gallender, op cit
- Muhammed Ali, Thomas Hauser
- interview with Alex Haley in Muhammed Ali by Thomas Hauser,
- Gallender, op cit
- Groves, Lee. "Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston I: 50 Years Later". RingTV.com. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
- Remnick, King of the World
- Bob Mee, Ali and Liston
- "Clay Admits Joining Black Muslim Sect". Lodi News-Sentinel. February 28, 1964.
- Luckhurst, Samuel. "Cassius Clay Was Renamed Muhammad Ali 50 Years Ago Today". Huffinton Post. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
- Judge, E.J. "The Beatles & Cassius Clay Meet in the Ring". WCBSFM 101.1. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
- David Remnick, King of the World, pg. 202
- Maule, Tex (March 9, 1964). "Yes, it was good and honest". Sports Illustrated: 20.
- Gallender, Sonny Liston, op cit
- Kirkby, Evans (May 25, 1965). "Boasts and threats past, only the fighting remains". Milwaukee Journal. p. 14.
- "Rev. King Gives Clay Advice". Lawrence Journal-World. March 20, 1964.
- "Policeman Says Liston Was 'Unruly'". The News and Courier. March 12, 1964.
- "Rematch Clause Clouds Clay's Contract". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. March 26, 1964.
- quoted in Gallender, op cit
- Allen, Mel. "The Night Lewiston, Maine, Can Never Forget". Yankee Magazine. Yankee Publishing. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
- The 12 Greatest Rounds Of Boxing: The Untold Stories.,Ferdie Pacheco (2004)
- Dennis, Felix (2003). Muhammed Ali. Miramax Books.
- Andrew Vachss, Only Child, p.89, Vintage, 2003. Vachss further explains the way such a fix would have been engineered in Two Trains Running, pp.160–165, 233, Pantheon, 2005.
- Gallender, Sonny Liston
- Black is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay, by Jack Olsen (1967).