In February 1964, world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston was a boxer with a reputation roughly congruent to Mike Tyson’s … after Tyson had been imprisoned and stripped of his title.
A huge man with a conviction for armed robbery, Liston had won two world title fights against Floyd Patterson with first round knockouts. His only defeat had come nearly a decade earlier, in a bout during which he had his jaw broken yet still fought to a split decision.
When former champion Joe Louis said “nobody’s gonna beat Liston ’cept old age”, there was no reason to doubt him. So when 22-year-old Cassius Clay – yet to become Muhammad Ali – stepped into the ring with the champion, he was a seven-to-one underdog.
Like Liston, Ali was widely disliked by the establishment and sportswriters. He was considered a brash, boastful young man who had done nothing to enhance the sport since winning Olympic gold in 1960.
At a time when fighters were largely expected to be monosyllabic idiots, he broke the mould by being loud and combative with the press in the run-up to his fights. He called Doug Jones and Henry Cooper “bums”, he said that Archie Moore was “an old man”, and repeatedly called Liston a “big ugly bear”.
Immediately after Liston’s one-round rematch demolition of Patterson, Ali called the fight “a disgrace to boxing”, and that he would “whup” Liston, adding (to the boos of the crowd): “I’m too fast, I’m too pretty – I’ve got too much class for that bum!”
None of this endeared him to the press – reporters would often refer to his “big mouth” to his face, and many wrote that he deserved a beating. Indeed, a poll found that 43 out of 46 sports writers predicted an easy victory for the champion.
On the morning of the fight on February 25, Ali’s manic behaviour, wide-eyed stare and constant haranguing of Liston was considered (by Liston himself among others) to be a manifestation of his fear.
It was the first time such antics had been employed at a weigh-in, this being before mind-games were widely used (in public at least) by sportsmen.
Some present thought Ali was having a seizure -his pulse was recorded at over double its normal rate – and he was later fined $2,500 for his behaviour.
The fact of the matter was that the frightening, moody, vicious Liston was not only favoured by ‘White America’ for his abilities, but because of their need for Ali – who had recently converted to Islam – to be put in his place.
Murray Kempton, editor of liberal magazine The New Republic and a respected commentator on social issues, wrote bitterly: "Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he is the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line."
That night, at the Miami Beach Conference Centre in Florida, it didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Ali had the speed and skills to back up his talk. On his toes, he danced away from the onrushing champion, making him look awkward and cumbersome.
Liston threw between 30 and 40 punches in the first round, and maybe three connected. Ali was epitomising his famous mantra: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.”
Ali visibly grew in confidence as the bout went on, throwing fewer shots than Liston but connecting more cleanly and effectively when he did – though he had to survive a scare when ointment got into his eyes, causing his vision to become blurred.
Whether this was from an accidental clash of heads or – as has been suggested – by the champion’s cornermen deliberately ‘juicing’ his gloves, has never been proved. In either case, he survived a Liston rally, and by the start of the sixth, his vision had cleared enough for him to regain control of the fight.
Such was Liston’s flat-footedness that even the TV commentator cried: “Easy target – easy!”
Carrying a damaged shoulder, Liston returned to his stool and spat out his gum shield – either in resignation, or at disgust at his cornermen’s decision to pull him from the fight.
Ali leapt into the centre of the ring, performed a delighted jig with arms aloft, and then began to shout to reporters: “Eat your words!”
More than just a new heavyweight champion, Ali had ushered in a new era of showmanship, professionalism and articulacy to the sport.
Boxing would never be the same again.