On today’s date, February 25 in 1964 50 years ago, a young, and to say the least, outspoken 22 year-old boxer named Cassius Clay defeated the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight champion’s title in pro-boxing. The bout in Miami was a huge surprise to everyone (except perhaps to Clay himself), as Liston was a powerful and experienced boxer who was favored at 8-1 odds to win this fight. But Liston pulled out of the fight after the sixth round. The new champion, who would shortly change his name to Muhammad Ali would go on to dominate the world of pro-boxing for the more than 15 years of controversy and knock-outs.
Clay and Liston Rise to Challenge for the Title
Born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay was by 1960 already a force in the boxing world. Having put together over 100 wins in amateur competitions, and winning the International Gold Gloves heavyweight title in 1959, he won a Gold Medal in the light heavyweight competition of the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Beginning his pro-career in October of 1960 with a six-round decision over Tony Hunsaker, Clay had by 1963 amassed a record of 19 – 0 with 15 of those wins coming by knock-out. This made him the prime contender to challenge Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Liston,was a tough, sure-footed fighter with tremendous punching power. About 10 years older than Clay he had acquired the heavyweight title by wrecking Floyd Patterson in one round in 1962.
Liston and Clay Face Off in Miami
Clay had by this point in time made a practice of publicly belittling his opponents, which made him fairly unpopular with the press and some of the public. He had said that he would beat Liston in 8 rounds. So it was that some 8300 boxing fans crowded their way into the Convention Hall in Miami, Florida on this night, 50 years ago to see if this brash young fighter could back-up his boastful taunts. From the first round it was obvious that Clay’s taunts that he would “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…” were no idle boast as he swiftly dodged and evaded Liston’s powerful left hook. According to Donald Saunders of the Daily Telegraph, Clay just wouldn’t hold still: “He boxed beautifully in the first round, and may well have established control there and then. He flashed his jab and left hooks into Liston’s scowling face, with amazing ease, slipped the champion’s counters gracefully, and moved neatly out of distance when serious danger threatened.”
Liston Lashes Out, But Clay Wins
Liston hurt his shoulder during this first round as he lashed back at his elusive challenger, pulling some muscles as he swung at Clay and missed. Liston did better in the second round, but Clay managed to open a cut under Liston’s left eye during the third round with a right hand punch. In the fourth round the fight started to go perceptibly against Liston as he swung angrily back at Clay, but grew slower, while Clay only danced faster. Liston managed to land some powerful blows on Clay during the fifth round, but Clay’s young frame absorbed them. By the sixth round Clay was clearly dominating the fight. At this point following the sixth round, Liston went back to the stool in his corner, and stayed there. He would not come out for the seventh round. Clay, who had already called himself “the Greatest” exulted on his way out oft he ring: “I came, I saw, I conquered. I borrowed that line from Caesar.” Although he would be considerably more calm in the interviews the day after the fight, saying that he felt sorry for Liston, his way of trumpeting his ability to take other fighters apart would last throughout his career.
Cassius Clay Becomes Muhammad Ali
A short time after his victory over Liston, Clay would convert his religion to the Nation of Islam, and would change his name to Muhammad Ali, who would go on to terrorize opponents into the 1980’s. His brash nature was obvious enough to all who watched him at the time. But the controversy – his conversion to Islam, his subsequent refusal to be drafted for service in Vietnam, his fights with George Foreman, and Joe Frazier… all of these things were in the future 50 years ago. This date may very well have signaled the beginning of the 60’s, with all of the change and strife, Vietnam, Civil Rights that some writers have dubbed it. But on this date in 1964, all that could be said for sure was that there was a loud and new force on the scene in pro boxing.