Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
The two Ali versus Liston fights 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 
At the time of the first Liston-Clay fight on February 25, 1964, Sonny Liston was the world heavyweight champion, 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 potentially among the best heavyweights of all time. Many other heavyweights were reluctant to meet him in the ring. Henry Cooper said that if Cassius Clay won, he was interested in a title fight, but if Liston won, he was not going to get in the ring with him. Cooper's manager Jim Wicks said, "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street." Harold Conrad, the boxing promoter, 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, writing for Sports Illustrated, said, "Liston's arms are massively muscled, the left jab is more than a jab. It hits with true shock power. It never occurs to Liston that he might lose a fight. Liston was a man who, according to David Remnick, "had never gotten a break and was never going to give one." He was often described in the media in thinly-veiled racist terms - a "gorilla," "hands like big bananas." James Baldwin - who understood Liston probably better than anyone in the press, and who sympathized with and liked him - said, "Liston was the big Negro in every white man's hallway." Liston also was an ex-con, and he learned to box in Missouri State Penitentiary where he was serving time for armed robbery. Later, he was reincarcinated for beating up a cop. His contract was majority owned by Frankie Carbo, a one time mob hit man and senior member of the Lucchese mob family, who ran boxing interests for the Mafia. 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.
Cassius Clay, on the other hand, 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 Rome Olympics. He had great hand and foot speed and lightning fast reflexes, not to mention a limitless supply of braggadocio and confidence. Nevertheless, Clay had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career, and, in his previous two fights had eked out a controvercial decision against Doug Jones and—more seriously— was sensationally knocked down by a fast left hook from the cut-prone converted southpaw Henry Cooper, who was widely viewed as a mid-level contender. Although Clay rallied to win that fight, it seemed to show he would be vulnerable to Liston's formidable left hook.
The brash Clay was not liked by most reporters, and based on his performance in the two prior fights, his chances were widely dismissed. Lester Bromberg's forecast in the New York World-Telegram was typical, predicting "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 faceoff 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 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.
One of the reasons Clay's chances were dismissed is that his boxing style seemed ill-suited to the heavyweight level. 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/Ali's style and later greatness—the tendency to anticipate and lean away from punches, the dancing, carrying his hands low—were at the time all viewed as fundamental 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."
Clay/Liston I 
Pre-Fight Publicity 
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 beginning almost immediately after the two agreed to fight. He purchased a bus emblazoned with the words "Liston Must Go In Eight" and drove it to Liston's home in Denver, waking the champion (with the press in tow) at 3:00am shouting, "Come on out of there. I'm gonna whip you now." During training, 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.
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, 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."
Rumors of Links to 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 (he returned the night of the fight). While Clay would not definitively link himself with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam until after the fight, his association with members of an "extremist 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.
The Weigh-In 
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." Retiring to a dressing room, he re-emerged, and when Liston appeared, 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." Ali worked himself into such a frenzy that his heart rate registered 120 beats per minute, more than twice its normal rate. Amidst the pandemonium, Clay was fined $2500 by the Miami Boxing Commission for his behavior. Many observers took Clay's antics to mean that he was terrified. In fact, later a local radio station reported a rumor that Clay had been spotted at the airport buying a ticket to leave the country.
The Fight 
|Date||February 25, 1964|
|Title(s) on the line||WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion|
|Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay|
|The Big Bear||The Louisville Lip|
|Tale of the tape|
|Sand Slough, Arkansas||From||Louisville, Kentucky|
|35-1 (24 KO's)||Pre-fight record||19-0 (15 KO's)|
|WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion||Recognition||none|
Clay weighed in at 206 lbs while Liston was 218 lb (at age 22 Liston had weighed 206 lbs while at 32 Ali weighed 217 lbs). 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 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."
Liston had not trained hard for the bout, convinced that he would dispose of Clay easily in the early rounds. When the fight began it became apparent that Liston was out of condition. Right from the early moments in the first round, Clay's superior speed was evident, as he slipped most of Liston's lunging punches. In the early rounds, Clay was constantly moving, and that, combined with his impressive reflexes, made Liston look slow and awkward. Toward the end of the round, Clay hit Liston with a combination that electrified the crowd. During the round Clay was hit hard by a right to the stomach, but he said later, "I felt good because I knew I could survive." Milt Bailey, Liston's cornerman, recalled, "In the first round Sonny couldn't catch up with Clay, and I thought we might have some trouble."
In round two Liston continued to chase Clay unsuccessfully, although at one point he cornered Clay against the ropes and hit him with a hard left hook.
In the third round, Clay began to take control of the fight. He opened up his attack and hit Liston with several combinations, causing a bruise under Liston's right eye and a cut under his left. At one point in this attack, Liston's knees buckled and he almost went down. 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 somewhat at the end of the round, as Clay seemed tired, and delivered some punishing shots to Clay's body. But as the round ended, Clay shouted to Liston, "you big sucka, I got you now." Sitting on the bench between rounds, Liston was breathing heavily.
During the fourth round, Clay coasted, keeping his distance. However, when he returned to his corner Clay started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. As the pain worsened, Clay shouted: "cut off my gloves," but trainer Angelo Dundee responded, "this is the big one, daddy...we're not quitting now!". He rinsed Clay's eyes with a sponge and pushed him off his stool to begin the fifth round, telling him to "get out there and run." It is a testament to Clay's reflexes that, although blinded, he managed to survive the round.
It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston's cuts from bleeding (possibly Monsel's solution) may have caused the irritation, either through accidental contact with Clay or by being purposely applied to Liston's gloves by his corner. Neither explanation has ever been proven.
By the sixth Clay's sight had cleared, and he resumed control of the fight, 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.'"  In Liston's corner, he told his corner-men "that's it." This rallied Liston's handlers, who thought he meant he was finally angry enough to win. Clay was the first to notice Liston spit out his mouth guard; he 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!" 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 heavyweight champion had quit sitting on his stool.
Sensing that he had made history, Clay quickly ran to the ropes 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!"
At St. Francis Hospital, where Liston was taken after the fight, he reportedly said, "That's not the guy I was supposed to fight. That guy could hit."
The day after the fight, Clay announced that he was changing his name to Cassius X, but then he adopted the name Muhammad Ali the following week.
The Shoulder Injury: How Severe? 
There has been speculation about whether Liston's shoulder injury was severe enough to actually prevent him from continuing the fight. Alexander Robbins, physican for the Miami Beach Boxing Commission, diagnosed Liston with a torn tendon in his left shoulder. However, author David Remnick states that he spoke with one of Liston's corner men years after the fight, who told him Liston could have continued: "[The shoulder] was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, and 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 covering the fight wrote in his March 9, 1964 piece titled Yes, It was Good and Honest," said Liston’s shoulder injury was legitimate. Maule cited Liston’s inability to lift his arm saying “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 cites medical evidence writing “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.” 
Clay/Liston II 
|Date||May 25, 1965|
|Title(s) on the line||WBC Heavyweight Champion|
|Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston|
|The Louisville Lip||The Big Bear|
|Tale of the tape|
|Louisville, Kentucky||From||Sand Slough, Arkansas|
|20-0 KO 16||Pre-fight record||35-2|
|WBC Heavyweight Champion||Recognition|
Because of the unexpected ending of the first bout, the World Boxing Council ordered a rematch, this time with Liston as challenger. The World Boxing Association disagreed, as immediate rematches were against its rules, and stripped Ali of his title.
Originally scheduled for the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1964, the fight was postponed six months when, three days before the scheduled bout, Ali needed emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. According to many, Liston had worked himself into the best condition of his career and was never able to achieve that level of readiness after the delay.
Massachusetts boxing authorities balked over allowing the rescheduled fight to go on, as a Bay State prosecutor claimed that it wasn't properly licensed. The promoters, Intercontinental Promotions, Inc. and Sports Vision, Inc., had $3.5 million (approximately $25 million in 2011 dollars) in closed-circuit TV contracts to preserve. If the fight didn't go off in Boston, it was feared that there would be no rematch between Clay and Liston and a lucrative payday would be lost.
Lewiston, Maine 
The promoters contacted promoter Sam Michael, who arranged for the bout to be held in Lewiston, Maine, 35 miles north of Portland. The venue selected was the Central Maine Youth Center (now called Androscoggin Bank Colisée), a junior hockey rink. Lewiston is 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 second Ali-Liston fight was embraced by The Pine Tree State. Maine Governor John H. Reed announced to the press, "This fight is one of the greatest things to happen in Maine." Nevertheless, it would go down in history as a debacle.
By this time, Clay had publicly embraced the Nation of Islam and the atmosphere surrounding the fight was tense and ugly. Malcolm X had been assassinated several months before the bout, likely by the Nation, and there were rumors fanned by the press that Clay might be killed by Malcolm's supporters in retaliation (Clay had publicly snubbed Malcolm after Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad). There was also media hostility toward the omnipresent bow-tied, Fruit of Islam handlers surrounding Clay. Liston's camp claimed he had received a death threat. Security for the fight was, for that time, unprecedented.
Compared to his antics leading up to the first fight, Clay was subdued. He recited no poetry and made few predictions for the fight. The weigh-in passed without incident.
Due to the remote location (140 miles north of Boston), 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, in what many have argued was not a legitimate knockdown. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former world heavyweight champion himself, appeared confused after Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner. Instead, Ali 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". Ali then raised his fists in the air celebrating the knockdown.
While Walcott tried to sort out the situation, 20 seconds passed, and by then Liston had gotten to his feet and resumed boxing. Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, took it upon himself to climb into the ring and tell Walcott that as Liston had spent over 10 seconds on the canvas he had been KOed. Walcott stopped the fight — awarding Ali a first-round knockout. However, Fleischer was quite wrong in his interpretation of how the rules applied: since Clay had deliberately not gone to a neutral corner, Walcott had been correct in not counting Liston out; the actual time Liston had been down was beside the point. The counting officially begins only when a fighter is in the neutral corner.
Walcott later said he didn't move Ali to a neutral corner because Ali was so enraged at Liston as he stood over him that he thought Ali might kick him.
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" (referred to by Ali as the "anchor punch") so named because most people at ringside did not see it. Even Ali was unsure as to whether or not the punch connected, as footage from the event shows Ali asking his entourage "Did I hit him?" after the match. Slow motion replays show Ali connecting with a quick, chopping right to Liston's head as Liston was moving toward him. In their book on Ali, 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." Liston was unsteady when he finally got to his feet, and the fight continued momentarily, with Ali connecting with four additional unanswered punches before Walcott belatedly declared the knockout, ending the contest.
Did Liston Take a Dive? 
In the final analysis, it remains inconclusive whether the blow was a genuine knockout punch. Among the theories that Liston threw the fight are claims that Liston had bet against himself, although his wife Geraldine said, "if he bet against himself, I never saw the money." Others speculated he took a dive because he owed money to the Mafia. Still others believe that he feared for his safety from Nation of Islam members who supported Ali. This theory was supported by Mark Kram's book Ghosts of Manila, which included an interview with Liston conducted years after the fight. No other substantiation of this claim has come to light. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star Ledger said that years after the fight, Liston told him that he lost the fight simply because "the timekeeper couldn't count."
Ali 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 1 decided on the spot to seize the opportunity and end the fight. It was Walcott’s confusion and Ali’s behavior that forced Liston to feign disorientation for far longer than a knockdown of that type would have caused.
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.
- Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser
- Muhammed Ali, His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser
- 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.
- 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.
- Hauser, Muhammad Ali
- Muhammed Ali: His Life and Times, Thomas Hauser
- Muhammed Ali, His Life and Times,Thomas Hauser
- Reputations: Sonny Liston: The Champion Nobody Wanted,(2001) 50 min, BBC Documentary
- Muhammed Ali, Thomas Hauser
- interview with Alex Haley in Muhammed Ali by Thomas Hauser,
- David Remnick, King of the Word, pg. 198
- Remnick, David. King of the World, pg. 195
- Remnick, King of the World
- David Remnick, King of the World, pg. 202
- 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.
Further reading 
- Black is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay, by Jack Olsen (1967).
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