Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay (1st meeting)

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Poster


1964-02-25 : Sonny Liston  lost to Cassius Clay by RTD in round 7 of 15

  • Location: Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Florida, USA
  • Referee: Barney Felix
  • Scoring at time of stoppage: Felix 57-57, Bernie Lovett 58-56 (Liston), Gus Jacobson 58-56 (Clay)
  • Weights: Clay 210½ (95 kg), Liston 218 (98 kg)
  • World Heavyweight Title

Build-Up

At the time of the first fight, in 1964, Liston was the world heavyweight champion, having dethroned Floyd Patterson by a knockout in the first round in 1962. With an impressive knockout record to that point, Liston was a fighter whom many other heavyweights were reluctant to meet in the ring. For example, Henry Cooper said that if Cassius Clay won, he was interested in a title fight, but if Liston won, he was not going to get in the ring with him. 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. Nevertheless, he had been dropped by journeyman Sonny Banks four years previous and by Henry Cooper in the fight leading up to the Liston match. Few observers and fans believed he could beat Liston, and he was made a seven to one betting underdog.

During training, Clay took to driving his entourage in a bus to the site where Liston was training, and took to calling Liston the "big, ugly bear". Liston grew increasingly irritated as Clay continued hurling insults and boasting that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds. Clay worked himself into such a frenzy that during the pre-fight physical the day before the event, Clay's heart rate registered an astonishing 220 beats per minute. Many observers took this to mean that Clay was either terrified or not in the proper shape, but they were proved wrong at the official weigh-in when his heart rate registered as normal.

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The Fight

Their first fight was held on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, where Clay was residing at the time (his trainer, Angelo Dundee, operated a gym nearby). The fight began with Clay showing a lot of movement, using his fast and effective jab and quick flurries of 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 complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see.

It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston's cuts from bleeding (possibly Monsel's Solution) may have inadvertently caused the irritation, but this has never been confirmed. In any case, 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.

Clay managed to survive the fifth round and by the sixth had 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. Sensing that he had made history, Clay sprang to the center of the ring, did a victory jig and then quickly ran to the ropes to remind sportswriters that he had told them so, since many of them had written that Clay had no chance of beating the once-feared Sonny Liston. In a scene that has been rebroadcast countless times over the ensuing four decades, Clay yelled "I'm the greatest" and "I shook up the world!"

Notes

  • Liston was 7-1 favorite to win.
  • Liston refused to come out for Round 7, citing an injured left shoulder.
  • After the fight, Clay changed his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali.
  • Named Ring Magazine Fight of the Year.
  • Proclaimed the "Fight and Upset of the Decade" (1960s) by The Ring magazine.

Quotes

  • "He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!" Ali's comment about Liston in pre-fight interview
  • "Round eight to prove I’m great!" Ali's prediction before the fight
  • "Eat your words! Eat your words! I am the greatest." Ali shouting at reporters after the fight