by John Carter – “ I’m king of the world, I am the greatest. I shook up the world, I’m king of the world, I’m pretty, I’m pretty, I’m a bad man. I’m king of the world. I’m 22 years old and I ain’t got a mark on my face. I’m pretty”
45 years ago today, Cassius Marcellus Clay of Louisville Kentucky shook up the world after being crowned Heavyweight Champion by beating Sonny Liston in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history..
Clay was a heavy underdog leading up to the fight, with odds of 7/1, 8/1 against, offered on Clay to win the fight. Liston had built his fearsome reputation on two first round knockouts of Floyd Patterson and the boxing press thought him invincible. Clay in his previous fight had been decked by Coopers famous left hook, ‘Henry’s Hammer’ and was seen as fodder for Sonny Liston.
Leading up to the fight the brash and cocky Clay had openly challenged Liston and berated him at will:
“Why Chump, I bet you scare yourself to death just starin’ in the mirror. You ugly bear! You ain’t never fought nobody but tramps and has been’s. You call yourself a world champion? Your too old and slow to be world champion”
Liston was a daunting character; muscular build, menacing look and his two periods in jail and alleged connections to the mob added to his aura. Liston had also knocked out Folley, Valdes, Willliams and knocked down Harris three times before the KO win. He was an early Mike Tyson if ever there was one.
In the build up to the fight Clay had taunted Liston relentlessly, even driving to his house late at night to continue his tirade. Many openly thought Clay was scared of Liston and that he was indeed a lunatic, engaging a Champion like Liston in such a way.
The fight was held on the 25th February 1964 in Miami with only half the seats sold due to Liston being the overwhelming favourite. Tension before the fight increased tenfold when Sugar Ray Robinson took Clay’s side while Joe Louis walked with Liston.
In the first round Clay, who had been expected to dance his way through the early part of the fight stood right in front of his opponent and used his superior quickness to frustrate Liston and avoid his famed left hook. Liston who was known as the “dark destroyer” managed to pin his opponent to the ropes during round two but in round three the champion was being forced to retreat by the skill, speed and youth of Clay. By the end of the 4th round Clay was playing with the ponderous Liston and even the Liston corner believed the fight was slipping from them. Then the first controversy occurred. Clay came back to his corner complaining that his eyes were burning. Although never proved, it is thought ointment was applied to Liston’s gloves. Clay was advised by Dundee to ‘dance’ his way through the round.
By the end of the sixth Liston was finished. Before the start of the seventh round, a battered and humiliated Liston told his corner he did not want to continue, citing an injured shoulder. Hysteria took over and Clay in the centre of the ring did his mini shuffle and a legend was born. Not long after Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
After the fight, there were allegations that the fight had been fixed by the mafia who had those close links to Liston. An investigation by Florida state found no evidence of wrongdoing. A rematch took place in the May of 1965 and ended in even greater controversy when Liston was knocked out in the first round by a “phantom punch”.
“ The boxer, using his skills with aplomb and courage and forethought, confounded and defeated the slugger” Sports Illustrated 1964.
Thanks for taking the time to read.