Friday, February 25, 2011

February 25, 1964: Hail the conquering Clay

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - Sonny Liston was an imposing figure. A huge, punishing boxer, he was among the most feared heavyweight champions of all time. His intimidation came in part from his sullen demeanor, in part from his stunning record of knockouts, and in part from rumors that he was closely affiliated with the mob. Whatever the reason, many potential championship challengers refused to fight Liston.

Cassius Clay was not among them. Brash, cocky, and confident, the 1960 gold medal winner was not outwardly afraid of anybody. After winning his first 17 fights as a professional, Clay earned the right to fight Liston for the heavyweight championship. Despite his record, the young Clay was given almost no chance to beat Liston. Most experts thought that Clay's quick-moving, dancing style would be no match for the brute force of Liston, that the champion would win quickly and convincingly.

Liston was not a popular champion, considered too brooding and moody to be a popular figure. Clay was also unpopular, at least with the boxing press, but for an entirely different reason. His nonstop chatter and predictions got on people's nerves. Many saw his act as a cover for the fact that Clay was secretly terrified to get in the ring against Liston. The fact that at the weigh-in, Clay's heart rate was measured at 120 just further proved the point that Clay was in over his head.

But that was all part of the plan. All the talking, all the taunting, all the bragging was just Clay's way to get name recognition, to get more publicity for the fight. Normally, he might not have been considered a big enough name to warrant a large national audience for his title chance, but Clay's excessive talking got everybody's attention. The fight was previewed on game shows and news programs, and by the time the fighters entered the ring on February 25, 1964, it had become one of the most anticipated fights in years.

As the fighters came to the center of the ring, Clay kept talking. Why would he stop now? But he had a surprise for everybody. When Clay and Liston stood side-by-side before the fight, fans in attendence were shocked to see that Clay was bigger. Here he was, this young kid who made his living by dancing around punches, winning with finesse rather than force, and he was bigger than the most feared puncher of his day.

Clay had another surprise for the viewers, as he dominated the first three rounds, not letting Liston's powerful punches come anywhere close to landing. All that dancing and jabbing was causing damage to Liston. Clay was shocking the world.

Then in the fourth, Clay backed off. It seemed like he was just saving himself for later in the round, trying to preserve his energy for a last push. When he got to his corner, though, he complained that something was burning his eyes and that he couldn't see. It has been theorized that a substance that Liston's trainers used to stop his cuts from bleeding had gotten into Clay's eyes. Whatever the reason, Clay still couldn't see well in the fifth round, so he stayed away from Liston again.

Before the sixth round, Clay's trainers finally got the substance out of his eyes. Finally able to see again, Clay resumed his domination of the champion, landing punches at will and taking almost no damage himself. He wasn't just beating Liston, he was annihilating him. The beating was so complete that Liston didn't answer the bell for the seventh round, complaining of a shoulder injury.

Clay immediately got up and danced around the ring, his arms in the air. He was the champion - why stop the bravado now? As Clay was lifted up by his trainers, he shouted to anybody who cared to listen: "I am the greatest! I shook up the world!"

The next day, new heavyweight champion Cassius Clay announced he was changing his name to Cassius X. That eventually became Muhammad Ali. The young man who shook up the world in Miami Beach would go on to become the most famous American athlete since Babe Ruth. He would remain the most controversial, photogenic, and important athlete of his generation, dominating heavyweight boxing during its glory era. And it all started one February night in Miami Beach when a 22-year-old man announced, both verbally and physically, that he was the greatest.

The sixth round and the aftermath:

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