On this day in 1964, at the Miami Beach Convention Hall in Florida, the start of a new boxing chapter was about to be written. A young and eccentric 22-year-old fighter sprung up to answer the 7th round bell, bouncing up and down with the grace of a featherweight. Seconds later he raised both fists into the air, and made his way to the center of the ring, dancing his famous Ali shuffle.
Muhammad Ali, then known by his birth name Cassius Clay, against all odds, had become the world’s youngest heavyweight champion in history. Ali ran towards the sports journalists on ringside, shouting repeatedly, “I shook up the world!” That is exactly what he did.
Ali had served out 6 rounds of electrifying punishment on the ex-gangster, Sonny Liston, who threw in the towel and his title belt at the 7th after refusing to answer the bell and face the evidently too quick Ali.
The fight against Liston personified much of the way boxing is promoted and looked at today. The pre-fight trash talk, the conspiracy theories, and an underdog coming out victorious defeating a seemingly unstoppable force of nature.
Pre-fight and fight day
As the saying goes, before Mike Tyson, there was Sonny Liston, a man who held the title of the ‘baddest man on the planet’. Someone who understandably wasn’t seen as a poster boy for the sport, Liston oozed ruthlessness from a single stare and was known to be connected with underground criminal networks.
He learned the trade of boxing while being incarcerated for armed robbery. After dismantling the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in 1962, Liston stood atop the weight division with no threats to his title. As a result, before his fight with Ali, Liston had only accumulated a mere six minutes of ring time in a 35-month stretch.
That was until a young, and what many reporters saw as foolish, challenger battled his way into a title fight with the most feared man in the sporting world.
Ali’s legacy started in Rome by winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He was equipped with lightning-fast reflexes, dazzling footwork, and an atomic punch to top it off. Ali seemingly invented an entirely new unorthodox fighting technique, floating like a butterfly around opponent’s punches with unparalleled footwork before delivering the sting to end the bout.
However, what really grabbed people’s attention was his limitless braggadocio, articulation, and gift of the gab that earned him his nickname the Louisville Lip, which he used in spades against Liston before the fight.
The night before the fight, Ali was a guest at a talk show where he read out a poem on what he would do to the “bear” tomorrow.
“Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring. Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown, But he can’t start counting until Sonny comes down.”- Ali
On fight day during the weigh-in before the event, Ali turned up his act and went wild with his taunts to Liston for which he was fined $2,500 by the commission. The title bout had all the right ingredients to be a classic. Ali was dismissed as a threat with 43 of the 46 sportswriters ringside predicting a Liston victory via knockout.
However, when Ali stepped onto the canvas he proved he was just as articulate boxing-wise, circulating his opponent in a dangerous dance displaying his dominance and brilliance.
Liston, fuelled with rage, started the early rounds charging directly at Ali, but he didn’t have the speed nor agility to cause him any panic. True to his motto, Ali weaved around his attacks, waited for his opponent to tire before delivering vicious combinations to Liston.
Liston had a brief moment of respite in the 5th round where Ali was having great difficulty opening his eyes.
Conspiracy theories rose that Liston coated his gloves with an ointment designed to disorientate and blind Ali. However, by the 6th round, he was fully recovered and went on the offensive circulating his opponent in a dance of death.
In the end, Liston’s corner threw in the towel stating that their fighter was too injured to continue.
The fortunes of both men differed vastly after the fight.
A rematch was scheduled for the following year, where Ali again controversially knocked out Liston with the universally known ‘Phantom Punch’ in the first round, a jab so quick it was met by cries of “It’s a fix!” from the bewildered onlookers.
Liston never fully recovered from the two humiliating losses he suffered at Ali’s legendary fists. He continued to box until he was found dead in his home from what was to be believed as a drug overdose in 1970.
After the rematch Ali’s career would evolve to extents in which no boxer in history has or will ever hope to meet. Ali outgrew his respective sport and began fighting for social justice while also breaking records in the ring. He went on to dominate the world of boxing winning the heavyweight title two more times in dramatic fashion and become an ambassador and a beacon of hope for millions worldwide.
He certainly did shake up the world.