Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay (1st meeting)

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1964-02-25 : Sonny Liston 218 lbs lost to Muhammad Ali 210½ lbs by RTD in round 6 of 15

The Build-Up

Clay and Liston predict the knockout round

Sonny Liston became World Heavyweight Champion in 1962 by knocking out Floyd Patterson at 2:06 of the first round. His first title defense was a rematch with Patterson, who lasted four seconds longer than he did the first time. Many considered Liston to be invincible. With an impressive knockout record, Liston was a fighter whom many other heavyweights were reluctant to meet in the ring. For example, Henry Cooper said he would want a title shot if Clay won, but he was not going to get in the ring with Liston.

Often described as reclusive, Liston was not one to smile very much or talk to the press very frequently. Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was a fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who enjoyed the spotlight. He had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and had great hand and foot speed — not to mention a limitless supply of confidence. However, Clay did not have an impressive 1963: he won a disputed ten-round decision against Doug Jones and was knocked down by Henry Cooper before stopping the Brit on cuts.

On November 5, 1963, Liston and Clay signed to fight. The bout would be held in Miami Beach, Florida—where Clay was residing at the time and where his trainer, Angelo Dundee, operated The 5th Street Gym—on February 25, 1964. Few believed Clay could beat Liston, and he was made a seven to one betting underdog. In a poll of sportswriters before the fight, 43 of 46 pick Liston to win.

Clay continuously taunted Liston leading up to the fight. He bought a bus and had "Sonny Liston Will Go In Eight" painted on the side. He and his entourage once drove it to Liston's home in the middle of the night, laid on the horn and shouted insults. He also took to calling Liston a "big, ugly bear". Liston grew increasingly irritated as Clay continued hurling insults and boasting that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds.

A month before the fight, Clay spoke at a Nation of Islam rally in New York City. The result was a front-page newspaper story. Over the next few weeks, more papers—including the Miami Herald—published reports of Clay's association with the Nation Of Islam. Clay was also spending a lot of time with Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, who was staying at a motel in Miami.

The fight's promoter, Bill McDonald, was furious. Fearing that Clay's association with the Nation of Islam—which referred to white people as "blue-eyed devils"—might hurt ticket sales, McDonald threatened to cancel the fight unless Clay renounced the group. Clay refused.

McDonald decided to go ahead with the fight when Malcolm X was persuaded to leave town and Clay agreed not to make an announcement about his Muslim affiliation until after the fight.

Clay worked himself into a frenzy during the official examination and weigh-in the day of the fight. His antics were so wild that the commission fined him $2,500. Clay's heart rate registered at 120 beats per minute and his blood pressure was 200/100. Dr. Alexander Robbins, The chief physician of the Miami Boxing Commission, determined that he was "emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring." He said if Clay's blood pressure didn't return to normal, the fight would be canceled. A second examination conducted an hour later revealed Clay's blood pressure and pulse had returned to normal. It had all been an act. Clay later said, "Liston's not afraid of me, but he's afraid of a nut."

The Fight

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The fight began with Clay showing a lot of movement, using his fast and effective jab and quick combinations, making it difficult for Liston to score with his slower jab and heavy punches. In the third round, Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston with several combinations that caused a bruise under Liston's right eye and a cut under his left. During the fourth round, Clay coasted, keeping his distance. However, when he returned to his corner, he started blinking wildly and complained that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. Angelo Dundee rinsed Clay's eyes with a sponge and pushed him off his stool to begin the fifth round, telling him to stay away from Liston.

"I didn't know what the heck was going on," Dundee recalled on an NBC special 25 years later. "He said, 'cut the gloves off. I want to prove to the world there's dirty work afoot.' And I said, 'whoa, whoa, back up baby. C'mon now, this is for the title, this is the big apple. What are you doing? Sit down!' So I get him down, I get the sponge and I pour the water into his eyes trying to cleanse whatever's there, but before I did that 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."

The commotion wasn't lost on referee Barney Felix, who was walking toward Clay's corner. The challenger, his arms held high in surrender, was demanding that the fight be stopped and Dundee, fearing the fight might indeed be halted, gave his charge a one-word order: "Run!"

Many theorized that a substance used on Liston's cuts by Joe Pollino, his cutman, may have inadvertently caused the irritation. "Joe Pollino had used Monsel's Solution on that cut," Dundee said. "Now what had happened was that probably the kid put his forehead leaning in on the guy—because Liston was starting to wear in with those body shots—and my kid, sweating profusely, it went into both eyes."

Heavyweight contender Eddie Machen said he believed that Liston's handlers made deliberate use of illegal medication to temporarily blind Clay. "The same thing happened to me when I fought Liston in 1960," Machen said. "I thought my eyes would burn out of my head, and Liston seemed to know it would happen." He theorized that Liston's handlers would rub medication on his shoulders, which would then be transferred to his opponent's forehead during clinches and drip into the eyes. "Clay did the worst thing when he started screaming and let Liston know it had worked," Machen said. "Clay panicked. I didn't do that. I'm more of a seasoned pro, and I hid it from Liston."

Pollino later confessed to reporter Jack McKinney that Liston ordered him to rub an astringent compound on his gloves before the fourth round. Pollino complied, and Liston shoved his gloves into Clay's face in the fourth.

Clay managed to survive the fifth round and by the sixth, his eyes had cleared and he resumed control of the fight. During the sixth, Clay landed several effective combinations, seemingly at will. On his stool following the sixth round, Liston told his cornermen that he couldn't continue, complaining of a shoulder injury. He failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout. Clay sprang to the center of the ring and did a victory dance with his hands held high. He then quickly ran to the ropes and began yelling at the ringside media, saying, "I am the greatest" and "I shook up the world!"

The Ring named the Clay-Liston match "Fight of the Year" and would later name it "Fight of the Decade" and "Upset of the Decade."

After The Fight

Liston's injured shoulder:

Liston was taken to St. Francis Hospital following the fight and emerged hours later with six stitches under his left eye and his left arm in a sling. Eight doctors consulted and came to the conclusion that he had torn a shoulder muscle and the injury was debilitating. Dr. Alexander Robbins said, "There is no doubt in my mind that the fight should have been stopped."

The Miami Beach Boxing Commission ordered Liston's purse withheld after the fight. When asked why, commission chairman Morris Klein said, "We just wanted to make sure everything was all right." After the doctors' report, the commission was satisfied that there was no wrong doing and allowed Liston to collect his purse.

Jack Nilon, Liston's adviser, said Liston hurt his shoulder during training, but they decided against postponing the fight "because we thought we could get away with it."

Years later, author David Remnick spoke to one of Liston's cornermen for his book, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, and was told that the shoulder injury "was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, but if you say your guy just quit, who is gonna get a return bout. We cooked up that shoulder thing on the spot."

Cassius Clay becomes Muhammad Ali:

On February 27, 1964, Clay announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. His membership in the group was first disclosed the previous night at the group's annual national convention in Chicago by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

"I began worshiping this way five years ago when I heard a fellow named Elijah Muhammad on the radio talking about the virtues of the Islam religion," Clay said. "I also listened to his ministers. No one could prove him or them wrong, so I decided to join."

Clay started going by the name Cassius X, as members of the organization adopt the last name X because they no longer want to bear names handed down by former slave-owning families.

On March 6, 1964, Elijah Muhammad announced in a recorded statement played over the radio that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means “worthy of all praises,” while Ali means “most high."

Allegations of a fix:

Because Liston was a prohibitive favorite and had ties to organized crime, many speculated that the fight was fixed.

After a month-long investigation, Florida State Attorney Richard E. Gerstein said there was no evidence to support the claim of a fix.

A United States Senate subcommittee conducted hearings three months later and also found no evidence of a fix.

Documents released to the Washington Times in 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act show the FBI suspected Ash Resnick, a Las Vegas gambler with organized crime connections, of fixing multiple boxing matches, including the first Clay-Liston fight. The documents show no evidence that Ali was in on the scheme or even knew about it. And nothing suggests the bureau ever fully corroborated the suspicions it investigated.

Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, who covered the fight from ringside, said, "Whoever tells you that this was a great gambling coup engineered by the Mafia either needs to change whatever it is they're smoking or needs to find out what they're talking about."

Sportswriter Jack McKinney of the Philadelphia Daily News agreed, calling allegations of a fix "preposterous."

Former sportswriter and HBO commentator Larry Merchant also doesn't buy the story of a fix. "Why would the mob, who controlled Liston, want to give up control to Muhammad Ali, to which it had no ties?" He asked. "Where is the evidence of betting coups? I've never seen it."

Fight Figures

From the bout itself, TV and other rights, the Clay-Liston fight grossed some $4.5 million, one of the two highest takes in history at the time. Here is how the money was divided:

Bill McDonald
He put up $625,000 for the Miami promotion, spent $140,000 on expenses and took in $402,000. He lost $363,000.

Sonny Liston
Collected $1,360,500.

Intercontinental Promotions, Inc.
The promoting outfit made up of Jim and Bob Nilon, Liston and lawyer G.D. Cherry collected $813,000. The Nilons got 72%, Liston 22% (his share is included in total above) and Cherry 5%.

Cassius Clay
Collected $315,000.

Clay's Backers
The 11-man Louisville syndicate collected $315,000.

Theater Network Television, Inc.
Collected $362,000

Closed Circuit Exhibitors
They got half of the TV take. Collected $1,750,000.

Quotes

  • "He should be locked up for impersonating a fighter." - Liston talking about Clay before the fight
  • "He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!" - Clay talking about Liston in a pre-fight interview
  • "Round eight to prove I’m great!" - Clay's prediction before the fight
  • "If Sonny Liston whups me, I'll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he's the greatest and catch the next jet out of the country." - Clay at a pre-fight press conference
  • "Eat your words!" - Clay shouting at reporters after the fight

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