60 Years Ago Today: The Ali Vs. Liston Fight – Still So Much To Remember

By James Slater - 02/25/2024 - Comments

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. At the time, the upset win scored by Ali, then still of course known as Cassius Clay, ranked as perhaps the biggest in heavyweight boxing history (maybe the stunner pulled off by Jimmy Braddock over Max Baer still edged it in terms of shock factor).

But the upset result was just the start. Clay, soon to be known as Cassius X, and then as Muhammad Ali, absolutely would shake up the world, again and again. Looking back, this something plenty of us who were not even born at the time of the fight have done plenty of times, it’s clear there is so much to remember from this epic fight – from its promotion, from its build-up, from the fight’s controversial nature, from the political ramifications the fight and its result had.

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And then of course there was Ali’s superb display of boxing, of floating, of sticking and moving, of hitting and not being hit. In short, heavyweight boxing, or boxing period, was never to be the same again after that fateful day at The Miami Beach Convention Center.

Going into the fight, Clay was listed as an 8/1 underdog, and with good reason. Liston, who had ripped the crown from Floyd Patterson and who had crushed Patterson in equally frightening fashion in the return, was a beast of a great fighter. With enormous hands, pulverizing power, a fine left jab, and with Sonny being seemingly unable to be hurt, Liston looked like a champion who would reign for years and years. Liston had shown his ability in wins ahead of his long-awaited title shot; with Liston coming through two short and extremely violent slugfests with a peak Cleveland Williams, and with Sonny also crushing Roy Harris and Zora Folley.

Forgotten (in fact unknown) was Liston’s age. Was the former prison inmate really 31, this in itself somewhat advanced for a boxer 60 years ago, or was Sonny perhaps closer to 40? We still don’t know for sure, and we never will. Clay was just 22, and even though he was looked at as too skinny, as too flawed (leaning back from shots the way Clay did being virtually suicidal against a banger such as Liston) and not at all powerful enough to trouble Liston, some experts did give him a shot due to his speed and reflexes. But would Clay get through the first round?

Clay went into overdrive to hype the fight, his verbal outbursts first proving amusing to Liston, but then serving to both anger and unnerve the champ. Liston, Clay figured (so the legend has it) was “not scared of nuthin’ apart from a nut, ‘cos you never know what a nut’s gonna do.” Clay sure acted like a nut at the official weigh-in, the challenger going berserk and being fined for his undignified behaviour. So many people were convinced Clay was really terrified. Was it an act, or was the fear real? Maybe some place in-between is the answer.

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But Liston never trained like a man on a mission, while Clay did. Liston truly felt he would get a quick and easy win and go home. So too did most fans, and around half the seats at The Convention Center remained empty on fight night as a result.

The fight was almost off as Clay’s move to join the Muslims had got out, this hurtful to ticket sales. After a compromise, Clay said he would make no official announcement regarding his affiliation with The Nation of Islam until after the fight.

The bout went ahead, and Clay boxed beautifully. Fast, hard to hit, and sharp with his own shots, Clay had also surprised many by squaring up the way he had to Liston during the face-to-face. Clay was taller than Liston, and he was bigger than many thought; Liston included (Liston actually tried to look even bulkier than he was by cramming towels under his robe, this to make his shoulders look bigger).

Liston couldn’t catch Clay, while Clay caught him with stinging punches. By round three, Liston was cut under the eye. It was stunning to witness, but then Liston had Clay in trouble. Unable to see, and wanting the fight stopped, this at the end of round four, Clay was shoved out by Angelo Dundee. Clay ran in round five, his eyes clearing up. Had Liston cheated, putting something nasty on his gloves? Or had it merely been Monsel Solution that had gotten on the gloves, this used to treat Sonny’s cut? On this too, we will never know for sure. Surviving the round, one that saw Liston “pour it on” (this strange for a man who had gone in the tank, or would soon do so, as arranged – but more about this later), Clay had come through the biggest crisis of his career.

Liston had shot all his bullets, and he was tired and arm-weary. Liston, to the shock of the entire world, then quit instead of coming out for round seven. All hell broke loose. If Clay was wilder than wild at the weigh-in, he was out of his mind in victory. “I shook up the world!” he bellowed. “If God’s with me, can’t nobody be against me,” Clay ranted. “I know the real God,” the new heavyweight king declared.

Liston claimed his shoulder was too badly hurt for him to carry on. Some believed him, others didn’t. But Liston’s wife, Geraldine, said some time later that her husband “should never have been fighting, as he could barely lift his arm up.”

The result of the fight that took place 60 years ago continues to inspire heated debate. There are people who are absolutely convinced the fix was in. There are others who say Clay was simply too fast for Liston, who had badly underestimated his challenger. And it’s perhaps worth recalling how Sonny, beaten up, his face chopped, stated after the fight how “that wasn’t the guy I was supposed to fight, that guy could punch.” The three judges were not too sure when it came to what they were watching unfold in the ring, with one judge having the fight even after six rounds, and with one having Liston up by a couple of points.

Clay eventually came back down to earth, this after he had appeared with his idol Sugar Ray Robinson at the post-fight presser (where Sugar Ray, smiling, tried to cover up Clay’s mouth!) Then came the official announcement of Clay’s conversion to Islam, and later still his new name. The shocks were still coming thick and fast, with so many people stunned to the core over the new champion’s declaration of devotion to such a mysterious, indeed frighting religious group. While the debate over whether or not Ali was a genuine, legit, and true world champion carried on; as it would be some 15 months before Ali fought again.

Due to a hernia, Ali had to withdraw from his return with Liston, the return fight that many felt would provide answers to so many questions delayed until May of 1965. And, boy, when this fight came, did the controversial waters really break! But that’s another article.

60 years ago today, a young, extra-confident, as it turned out uncommonly gifted kid from Louisville, Kentucky became heavyweight champion, and in time Ali would be loved by fans, and non-fans of boxing, the world over. It took quite a lot of time for Ali’s majesty to be fully recognised and accepted. As is so often the case when it comes to the people of the world being able to appreciate true, once-in-a-lifetime greatness.

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