Some great fights, no matter how many times you watch them, still give you something; With only repeat views allowing the fan to fully appreciate a particular battle. And a controversial fight. Which brings us to the battle that took place a year shy of six long decades ago today – Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston. This fight, its outcome and the repercussions that followed, really did what Flapper Clay prophesied: it shook the world.
And then, before the world had a chance to fully absorb what happened in the ring at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 22-year-old Clay dropped another bombshell, by telling everyone that he would now be called Muhammad Ali, that he had joined the Nation of Islam. This was front page news, and almost no one found it interesting to read. Headed by the controversial Elijah Muhammad, The Nation was a fearsome group to most Americans, and now the World Heavyweight Champion is the mouthpiece for the group. Many people had a lot to take.
But back to the fight, Clay boxed with undeniable prowess, even if you, like millions of fight fans and historians, will never be convinced the fight isn’t fixed. Liston, who complained of a left shoulder injury that left his glove “feeling like it was full of water”, quit at the end of the sixth round. Clay then goes into orbit yelling “I told you! I told you!” and “I am the greatest!” Liston, who was probably closer to 50 than he was at 30, was almost finished as a top fighter and his actions led to a downward spiral in the sport’s reputation.
There was also an episode in the fifth round when Clay ran “blindly” from Liston, his eyes burning. We’ll never know if there was “dirty work,” Clay said at the time, wanting to do what Liston would do a few minutes later and be left in his chair. Angelo Dundee’s fine head and great experience saved the day for Clay/Ali, there’s no doubt about that.
At the time of the unsatisfactory end to the fight, the three official judges were unable to agree on the winner of the fight. Amazingly, when we look back on Ali’s imposing performance, we find that only one judge made him win the fight at the time of the bizarre finale. Judge William Bunny Lovett had it 58 to 56 in favor of Liston at the time of the end, while judge/umpire Barney Felix had it all up to 57-57. Judge Joss Jacobson scored it 59-56 in favor of the challenger. So, Liston, even though he got hurt (or wasn’t, depending on your point of view) still has a chance to win on points.
Liston, whether he got into the tank or not, was visibly demoralized and depressed after the fight, with the former champion saying how he felt “just like I did when the boss was hit”. Liston, like the entire world, was devastated when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in November of 1963. Liston told reporters that he didn’t want to concede against Clay. “I never wanted to quit, I wanted to carry on, just like I did in 1954 when Marty Marshall broke my jaw,” he insisted.
In fact, Liston displayed tremendous toughness along with intimidating punching power during his career, which made his submission even more difficult to swallow. Today, no one is left with that day – February 25, 1964 – and the fight has its own unique, dark and fascinating place in the history of the sport. But then of course came the rematch, and things got even more contentious.
Together, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston served as the two most controversial heavyweight fights, debates forever, and the most controversial heavyweight fights of all time.
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