“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived, and I just turned 22 years old! I must be the greatest! I told the world! I talk to God every day, if God’s with me, can’t nobody stop me! I shook up the world! ... I am the king of the world! I’m pretty! I’m a bad man! I shook up the world!”
On this day in 1964, Muhammad Ali — then still known as Cassius Clay — pulled a huge upset in Miami Beach, Fla., stopping the heavily-favored Sonny Liston after six rounds, when the world heavyweight champion Liston gave up on his stool before the start of the seventh round.
The 33-year-old Liston, who entered the fight with a record of 35-1 (25 KO), was the veteran, a hard-punching beast of a heavyweight, while the 22-year-old Ali (19-0, 15 KO) was “The Louisville Lip,” a brash, boastful young fighter who was largely disliked at the time, a “heel” of a character who had studied the act of the famed pro wrestler Gorgeous George and saw how easily that could make big money.
But Ali was able to back it up in the ring, to the shock of many. The youngster entered the fight about a 7-to-1 underdog, having ranted and raged at the weigh-in on the morning of the fight to the point that the chief physician deemed him “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring” due to his blood pressure and heart rate being so elevated. This was, of course, part of the act, the continued attempts — largely successful — to psychologically bait Liston before the fight.
Liston’s ire saw him come out charging at Ali, whose speed and evasiveness made Liston look bad repeatedly. But Liston didn’t go quietly, either. He found some success to the body, and then after the fourth round, Ali told his corner that his eyes were burning. Trainer Angelo Dundee would later say, “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.” Dundee gave Ali, who wanted the fight stopped, one instruction: “Run!”
Ali would later say he could see only a shadow of Liston in the fifth round, but by the sixth his sight was back enough to take the fight over again. After six rounds, Liston gave it up. A shoulder injury did Liston in, though some have long contended that he was simply done. Either way, he failed to answer the bell for round seven. There were allegations of a fix, too,
It was a momentous occasion, the crowning of a new young king in boxing. Just days after the fight, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. And it was also not the happiest occasion. America was in a major state of unrest at the time, of course, and Ali became a lightning rod. Sonny Liston, too, was arrested on March 12 while driving recklessly without a license and carrying a loaded gun.
Mostly, we forget all that now. The fight is largely remembered for the fight, for Ali’s rise to championship glory, the first truly huge pro win for arguably the most famous and important athlete of all time.
In a couple of days, big-time boxing will be back in the Miami area, as Canelo Alvarez defends his WBC and WBA super middleweight titles against Avni Yildirim. It is once again seem as a lock going in that the champ will retain. This time, more likely than not, that’s how it will play out.
And though Canelo-Yildirim will be held inside a football stadium in Miami Gardens and Liston-Clay took place at the humble Convention Center in Miami Beach, it’s hard to imagine Saturday’s fight — with respect to it being a big fight for today — having anywhere near the sporting or cultural event status of this fight. It’s a different world in just about every way, and frankly neither you nor I will ever see the like of this fight again in those terms.