Muhammad Ali, a 22-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky – then still known by his given name Cassius Clay – caused one of the greatest upsets in the history of boxing on this day when he defeated the reigning champion Sonny Liston to take the world heavyweight title.
Despite winning light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Olympics and coming to the contest with an unblemished record in 20 fights, Ali was not considered to be in the champion’s league. An unconvincing win over Henry Cooper in his previous bout had served to increase doubt in his chances.
Liston, who had learned to box in prison and had only lost once in a 36-bout career when his jaw was broken early in a fight, was widely considered one of the most aggressive and dangerous heavyweights ever to step into a ring. He was a 7-1 on favourite with bookmakers.
He had demolished the previous champion Floyd Patterson in one round to take the title, then repeated the feat in their return match. 43 out of 46 pundits polled before the fight with Ali predicted Liston would win by knockout – the New York Times didn’t even bother to send its reporter to the bout, so sure were they that it would be a one-sided mismatch.
But the heavy-punching champion had only had three one-round fights since March 1961 – just over six competitive minutes in nearly three years – and when the bout began in Miami, Florida it was soon apparent that Ali’s nimble feet and quick, accurate hands were more than a match for the lumbering Liston.
In the third round, the champion was cut and had his knees buckled by a combination as Ali took control. Only in the fifth, in which Ali’s eyes were stinging – something he always claimed was down to foul play by his opponent’s cornermen – did Liston look like he had the challenger rattled.
In the sixth round Ali’s sight had cleared and he began landing punches on the champion almost at will. Then, remarkably, Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh, spitting out his mouth guard and slumping on his stool.
He would later claim to have been suffering with bursitis in his shoulder, forcing him to quit against his will. In any event, Ali was now world champion. He ran to the centre of the ring and danced a victory jig, before rushing over to the ropes to confront journalists, crying out again and again: “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”