Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay (1st meeting)
- Location: Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Florida, USA
- Referee: Barney Felix 57-57
- Judge: Bernie Lovett 58-56 (Liston)
- Judge: Gus Jacobson 58-56 (Clay)
- Weights: Clay 210½ lbs (95 kg), Liston 218 lbs (98 kg)
- World Heavyweight Title
Sonny Liston became World Heavyweight Champion in 1962 by knocking out Floyd Patterson at 2:05 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 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 two years earlier and by Henry Cooper in the fight leading up to the Liston match. Few believed he 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. 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. 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 over 100. The doctor who examined him said he was "scared to death," but it was all an act. Clay later said, "Liston's not afraid of me, but he's afraid of a nut."
The fight was held on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, where Clay was residing at the time and where his trainer, Angelo Dundee, operated The 5th Street Gym. There was a crowd of 8,297 at the Convention Center.
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 complaining 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.
Many theorized that a substance used to stop Liston's cuts from bleeding (possibly Monsel's Solution) may have inadvertently caused the irritation. However, one of Liston's cornermen, Joe Pollino, confessed to reporter Jack McKinney years later 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!"
Because Liston was a prohibitive favorite and had ties to organized crime, many speculated that the fight was fixed. However, there was no evidence to support that claim.
- After the fight, Clay announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. He changed his name to Cassius X and later was given the name Muhammad Ali by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad.
- Named The Ring magazine Fight of the Year.
- Proclaimed "Fight of the Decade" and "Upset of the Decade" by The Ring magazine.
- "He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!" - Ali in a pre-fight interview
- "Round eight to prove I’m great!" - Ali'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." - Ali at a pre-fight press conference
- "Eat your words!" - Ali shouting at reporters after the fight