50 years ago Cassius Clay becomes Muhammad Ali and beats Sonny Liston, again

“I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest!” Cassius Clay shouted from the center of the ring. As he yelled, the 22-year-old boxer danced about on his toes and held both arms high in the air. Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world had just refused to answer the bell at the start of Round 7 of their 1964 title bout in Miami. The referee raised Clay’s right fist, and the winner by a TKO continued shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

Clay then pointed at the dozens of ringside reporters, all of whom had belittled his chances against the champ before the fight, and shouted, “Eat your words! Eat your words!”

The boxing press and many knowledgeable fans were familiar with Clay’s bombast and hyperbole, but the new champion introduced another facet of his life to the press the following day.

In Miami’s Convention Hall, Clay began to speak of religion and social values. Moreover, he talked of the media’s expectations of a heavyweight champion, and to make his point, he cited practices followed by Black Muslims, formally the Nation of Islam, which gave him direction. “I know where I’m going … I’m free to be what I want.”

“Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?” a reporter asked.

“Card-carrying, what does that mean?” Clay asked. “I believe in Allah and in peace. I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. … I’m not a Christian anymore.”

Ten days after the Liston fight, Clay told reporters he was changing his name to Cassius X Clay, with the “X” representing his missing African identity. That same day, the head of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, bestowed a wholly new name on Clay — Muhammad Ali.

Suddenly, big-time boxing was thrust into an uncomfortable limelight. From a sports competition standpoint, Clay’s upset of Liston reinforced the presumption that organized crime — “the mob” — controlled professional boxing, and that Sonny had taken a dive. How could an impetuous youngster from Louisville, Ky., have beaten Liston any other way?

On the cultural and racial side, the new heavyweight champion praised the Black Muslims, a group that many, including Martin Luther King, Jr., viewed as a hate group that pursued black supremacy.

These forces buffeted the boxing world during the 14 months that passed before the second Clay/Ali-Liston fight on May 25, 1965, 50 years ago this week. And the rematch would prove to be even more controversial than the first bout.

A MEAN MAN

Jack Dempsey popularized American boxing during the 1920s, and the “sweet science” enjoyed a great run through World War II. The sport then experienced a second surge. “During the late 1940s and 1950s,” sports historian Randy Roberts wrote in 1995, “boxing was television’s darling.”

On at least four nights a week during the period, TV networks broadcast boxing matches. Advertisers such as the Gillette Safety Razor Company targeted the overwhelming male audience to sell double-edge razors, shaving cream and after shave lotion. The sport’s appeal prompted 69 percent of American TV viewers to select the 1953 Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight title fight.

Boxing began to lose its grip on the public in the mid-1950s for several reasons. The television networks had oversaturated the market, and the undefeated Marciano retired in 1956. That left a void according to Roberts: “During the next eight years no heavyweight title holder emerged to replace Rocky in the public’s imagination.”

Also, network television, especially ABC under the guidance of Roone Arledge, broadened the scope of televised sports. For example, pro football began to challenge baseball, Olympic Games coverage increased dramatically, and Arnold Palmer sparked pro golf. And ABC’s weekly Wide World of Sports highlighted 87 different sports during the first half of the 1960s.

The mob’s influence on boxing added to the sport’s decline from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Again, Roberts: “Everyone who investigated boxing, from newspaper and magazine journalists to United States senators and governors, discovered — or confirmed — the close ties between organized crime and boxing’s leading promoters, managers and fighters.”

This environment produced Liston, who at age 22, had been sentenced to five years in prison for a 1950 St. Louis robbery. He began boxing upon his release, but his day job was that of a mob goon, or “head-breaker,” for John Vitale, the St. Louis crime boss.

After another year in prison following a 1956 assault conviction, Liston resumed boxing and soon attracted mob backing. His “management” team was headed by Frankie Carbo, a member of the Lucchese crime family and a triggerman for Murder, Inc. Carbo was known as the “czar of boxing” and the “underworld commissioner.”

In 1960, with Floyd Patterson the champion, Liston became the number one heavyweight contender. Sonny was big and tough, and he tried to enhance his threatening presence with a murderous stare at his opponents during weigh-ins and prefight instructions from the referee.

Many boxing officials and fans, including President John Kennedy, cautioned Patterson against fighting Liston because of Sonny’s ties to the mob. Yet Patterson ultimately agreed to a title bout in September 1962 at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Liston kayoed the champ in the opening round, the first time that had happened to a heavyweight title-holder. In a rematch the following year, Liston again knocked out Patterson in the first round, but it took him four more seconds to do it.

“Sonny Liston was a mean f — r,” journalist and boxing promoter Harold Conrad told author Thomas Hauser in 1990. “I mean he had everybody scared stiff.”

But in this darkness a bright, fresh face arrived, albeit one with a wide open mouth.

‘I AM THE GREATEST’

In Louisville, young Cassius took up boxing at age 12 to avenge the theft of his bicycle by older boys. He blossomed immediately in amateur boxing and by the time he was 18, he had amassed a breathtaking record: Two AAU national championships as a light heavyweight (178 pounds); two national Golden Gloves titles, one as a light heavy and one as a heavyweight; and the light heavy gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Clay fought his first pro bout in October 1960 and then won 18 straight fights by June 1963. That month, then up to 208 pounds, he fought UK heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in London. With his usual hype, Cassius predicted a win in the fifth round. The fight was all Clay until Round 4, when Cooper knocked him through the ropes. Dazed, he barely got back into the ring as the round ended.

Clay recovered and in the fifth thoroughly pounded a bloody Cooper until referee Tommy Little stopped the fight. Just as Clay predicted.

Afterward, while on the rubbing table in his dressing room, Clay announced to the press, “Now for that ugly bear Liston, and he’ll fall in eight.”

Clay immediately began a wildly unconventional campaign to get a fight with Liston. In one instance, between the June 18 Cooper bout and the second Liston-Patterson match on July 22, Clay walked into a casino in Las Vegas to watch Liston at the craps table. When Sonny started losing, Clay shouted in the crowded room, “Look at that big ugly bear; he can’t even shoot craps!”

As Harold Conrad recalled later, Liston walked over to Cassius and said, “Listen, you n— f****t. If you don’t get out of here in ten seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.” Clay later admitted that was a scary moment.

Clay got what he wanted when his sponsors, a group of wealthy and white Louisville men, signed a contract with Liston’s people for a title bout on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami.

At the pre-fight weigh-in, Clay strutted and shouted so loudly that many thought he was crazy. One reporter in the room later recalled the scene: “He behaved like an absolute lunatic.” Cassius had planned the hysterical hype for publicity and he knew that crazy people made Liston anxious.

When the fight ended with Liston’s TKO, the loser claimed a hurt shoulder caused him to quit. The next day, a team of physicians confirmed a torn bicep tendon, but that did little to quiet those who shouted, “Fix!” at the fight’s end. Given that Liston had been favored with 8-1 odds, and the mob’s involvement in boxing then, many assumed the fight had been rigged.

THE REMATCH

On Sept. 14, 1964, Ali and Liston agreed to a 15-round rematch in Boston Garden to be on Nov. 16. The World Boxing Association immediately stripped Ali of his title when it discovered that the contract for the first fight contained a secret rematch clause, a WBA no-no. Regardless, the World Boxing Council and other ranking organizations kept Ali as the champion.

Three days before rematch, Ali became painfully ill and went to Boston City Hospital. Surgeons discovered an incarcerated inguinal hernia — part of his intestine had become entrapped in his abdominal muscles. It was quickly repaired, and Sports Illustrated later quoted one of the doctors: “It was such a marvelously developed stomach, I hated to slice it up.”

Liston gave his take on Ali’s problem to a Life magazine reporter, “If he’d stop all that hollering, he wouldn’t have a hernia.” Regardless, the fight promoter rescheduled the fight for May 25, 1965 in Boston.

In February 1965, internecine conflicts within the African-American Muslim movement reached a deadly crisis. Unknown assailants murdered former Black Muslim activist Malcom X. The previous year, the former mentor to Ali had split acrimoniously from Elijah Muhammad, who Malcom’s supporters believed was behind the assassination. There was a fire in Ali’s apartment immediately after Malcom’s death, and two days later, someone bombed the New York offices of the Nation of Islam. Insiders believed the acts were in retaliation for Malcom X’s murder. The ensuing tensions prompted increased security for Ali, who had sided with Elijah Muhammad.

As the May 25 rematch approached, the Massachusetts Boxing Commission pulled its sanction of the fight, citing possible links between Inter-Continental Promotions, Liston’s management group, and the mob. Authorities in Lewiston, Maine, a small town near Portland, offered to host the bout in a youth hockey center, St. Dominic’s Arena. Both fighters agreed to the new location.

The Lewiston police department called for reinforcements when reports surfaced that Malcom X disciples were en route Maine to kill Ali. The Nation of Islam reacted by sending a contingent of bodyguards for the boxer.

Liston had been in great condition for the originally scheduled November rematch, but the postponement reduced his willingness to start training all over again. Reporters noted that Liston looked sluggish, and, worse, the Liston team was uncertain about a fight strategy. Sonny’s veteran corner man, Milt Bailey, later explained the situation to Hauser. “Ali had Sonny somewhat confused. We weren’t sure what he’d do next. … Ali had a style that Sonny couldn’t cope with … the moving and the running, and he hit pretty hard too.”

On the other hand, Ali talked a confident game three days before the fight. “He’s afraid of my speed and he knows he can’t beat me,” the champ said to the press of Liston. “The Big Bear has gone to Maine to be in pain.”

On the evening of the second Clay/Ali-Liston fight on May 25, the announced attendance was 4,280, but observers estimated that the real crowd was about half of that. Luckily, promoter Sam Silverman wasn’t basing his cash flow on the arena gate. He counted on the pay-per-view showing of the bout in 256 theaters and arenas across the country. Also, 80 million people were anticipated to listen on radio.

Each boxer expected to earn $690,000, and Liston was favored, but only by 13-10 odds. Professional gamblers stayed away because of the possibility of a fix.

Popular singer Robert Goulet mangled the Star Spangled Banner, and then a few celebrities settled into their seats — Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Elizabeth Taylor and others. Soon Liston, in black trunks and shoes and tipping the scales at 215, entered the ring. Ali, wearing white trunks and shoes and weighing 206 pounds slipped through the ropes to a mild chorus of boos.

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