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Fight against the odds that shook the world

- Celebrating 50 years of Clay’s historic victory over Liston
A moment from the historic bout between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, on February 25, 1964. (Getty Images)

Exactly 50 years ago on Tuesday, on February 25, 1964, already declaring himself ‘the greatest’ and predicting in verse the fate of opponents, a 22-year-old regarded as more of a braggart than a genius was crowned the heavyweight champion of the world.

Five decades later, Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, has transcended that simple championship title to become an iconic symbol of change in both sport and society. Yet Clay, unbeaten in 20 fights, came into the ring that night against Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, as a scared, 7-1 underdog.

Clay faced champion Sonny Liston, the heaviest puncher in the world, the son of a sharecropper, who had served two years of a five-year sentence for robbery in 1950. He had taken the title from Floyd Patterson in 1962, in Chicago, knocking him out at 2:06 of the opening round.

Known as ‘Big Bear’, the ex-con with mob ties who wore a perpetual scowl, had a fearsome reputation and had knocked out almost everyone put in front of him in the ring. But Clay brought something altogether new: speed of mouth, feet and hands.

Four years after becoming Olympic light-heavyweight gold medallist in Rome, Clay was seen as something of a chancer, a young boxer whose mouth seemed to be his greatest weapon. Yet ‘The Louisville Lip’, soon to become Cassius X and later Muhammad Ali, was about to shake up the world. February 1964 was a time of change. America was in mourning over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just three months earlier. The country was soon to be rocked by race riots. Civil rights activism was growing among the student population, and the conflict in Vietnam was drawing more attention.

The contracts for Liston-Clay had been signed in Denver, where the champion resided. Clay travelled there in a second-hand airport bus he had decorated with signs like “Sonny Liston Will Go in Eight” and “World’s Most Colourful Fighter”.

Clay was to get 22 per cent of the gross and Liston 40 per cent. Clay showed up to the weigh-in on the day of the fight wearing a jacket embroidered with the words ‘Bear Huntin’, rapping with those famous lines “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”.

The fight itself was a revelation. As was Clay. He bobbed and weaved and ducked and moved in the ring.

Liston had more success in the second round, and then Clay opened up a cut under Liston’s left eye in the third from a short right hand.

The champion lashed out crudely in response, but the challenger grew faster as Liston slowed. Clay came out in the fifth round, blinking and rubbing his eyes.

Cornerman Angelo Dundee was later to suggest carbonated petroleum jelly had rubbed off Liston’s gloves, causing Clay’s eyes to sting. It was reported afterwards that Clay had asked Dundee to cut his gloves off and let him quit, as he could not see. But his corner sent him back out. Clay avoided exchanges, but took some thudding punches to the body, which the challenger absorbed.

Clay began to dance around and dominate Liston in the sixth, the champion becoming slower and looking older. Liston went back to his corner, sat on his stool, and quit.

“I’m still the prettiest, and he is in hospital,” said Clay, still referring to himself as ‘the greatest’. Clay, on his way from the ring, shouted to reporters: “I came, I saw, I conquered. I borrowed that line from Caesar.”

The Florida State Commission had taken the unprecedented step of withholding the former champion’s purse pending further medical opinion on his injured shoulder. Hours later X-rays showed a torn shoulder muscle.

Liston came to speak to the media the next morning in dark glasses with his left arm in a sling. So, too, Clay, who came to speak with reporters. He seemed changed.

“Incredibly this once rude, brash and conceited young man behaved with the dignity, modesty and courtesy of a true champion,” The Daily Telegraph reported then. “I am through with talking. I just want to be a good, clean boy. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I feel sorry for Liston. He is beaten, cut, feels bad and is old.”

Then, his indomitable spirit returning, Clay said he knew his speed could keep him away from Liston but admitted: “My mouth overshadowed my ability.” No one was in a position to dispute that statement.

Two days after the fight, Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that he was changing his name to Cassius X. He would later become Muhammad Ali as he broke away from Malcolm X and aligned himself with the sect’s leader, Elijiah Muhammad.

Bob Arum, who later promoted Muhammad Ali, said on Monday: “People thought Cassius Clay was a joke, a loud-mouth kid who needed a come-uppance. Then he became, right after that fight, a sinister guy when he announced that he was a Muslim and had joined the Nation of Islam. What was disdain for him then turned to hate.

“But Muhammad Ali changed the world, changed how people thought. He made fun of racism, changed perception and for me that was one of his greatest accomplishments. There’s nobody that even remotely compares. I really sensed that from the beginning. He was beautiful as a person, he was one of the most handsome people you could ever see there was an aura about him that transcended any type of normal humanity.”

Ali would go on to be the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times, engaging in epic fights in faraway places that transcended boxing, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila.

The gloves Ali wore when he beat Liston to win his first heavyweight world title were purchased by an anonymous buyer for $836,500 last Saturday at Heritage Auctions’ Sports Platinum Night Auction.

Today, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s Syndrome and his voice quietened, the world reveres, rather than reviles the icon known as Muhammad Ali.