Muhammad Ali, by most estimations, was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. His brutal campaign to earn that title began 57 years ago today. That’s when he beat Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight title.
Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, wasn’t supposed to win the fight. Las Vegas oddsmakers had him as a 7-1 underdog. Liston’s vicious right hand would win out, they said. Ali’s constant trash talk would only serve to wake the “big, ugly bear,” what he called Sonny Liston. Ali was already an Olympic gold medal winner, but he’d struggled in his previous two fights.
Ali didn’t see it that way. He laid into Liston at every turn ahead of the fight. “After I beat him, I’m going to donate him to the zoo,” he said. During the pre-fight weigh-in, Ali told Liston, “Someone is going to die at ringside tonight.”
He even wrote a poem that one of the guests read on the CBS show I’ve Got a Secret the night before the fight.
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, Just look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room, It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom. 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. Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic. But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic. Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight, that they would witness the launching of a human satellite. Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.
Muhammad Ali Shakes Up The World
The match was back and forth. Early on, Muhammad Ali used his speed to stay ahead of the champ. Liston lurched and lumbered after him, hurting his shoulder trying to hit the elusive Ali, reports said. But that couldn’t last. By the second round, Liston had found his footing.
Ali took back control in the third and fourth, but that changed when Ali started to go blind late in the fourth. It’s unclear exactly what happened. But experts theorized that Liston’s trainers used Monsel’s Solution, an illegal substance, on his cuts. When the boxers tangled up, the caustic substance bled into Ali’s eyes. Ali said he was chasing Liston’s shadow for the next two rounds because he couldn’t see. And it showed. Liston landed heavy blows against Ali.
But by the sixth round, he’d regained his sight and came at Liston furiously. He bullied the champ that round. Ali said he could sense he had the fight in hand now and so could everyone else.
“I got back to my stool at the end of the sixth round, and under me, I could hear the press like they had gone wild,” Clay later said, according to David Remnick’s book King of the World. “I twisted round and hollered down at the reporters, ‘I’m gonna upset the world.'”
Liston threw in the towel before the seventh round began. He later claimed his shoulder injury kept him from proceeding. Though, unsubstantiated rumors that he threw the fight have persisted to this day.
Cassius Clay celebrated his victory in Miami that night in a private meeting with Malcolm X, then spokesman of the Nation of Islam. Two days later, Clay announced he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
The 2020 movie One Night In Miami dramatized that dinner, as little is known about what they discussed.
Ali and Liston fought again a year later with Ali knocking him out in the second round. Many consider the fight one of the most controversial in history because few people actually saw the punch that leveled Liston.
Liston would fight on until his suspicious death in 1970, but he never regained the fame or notoriety from before the Ali fight. Ali’s legend, and his ego, would only grow from that point with the first Liston fight serving as an origin story of sorts for the Muhammad Ali myth.