A second look: Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay
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A second look: Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing (Feb 26, 2014)

Tale of the Tape - Colored by Doghouse Boxing
Tale of The Tape
Fifty years ago (yesterday), Cassius Clay, who would come to be known as Muhammad Ali, fought seemingly unbeatable Charles “Sonny” Liston at the Convention Center, in Miami Beach, Florida.

The buildup to the fight was intense, with Clay insulting Liston on a regular basis.

"He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ,” said the cocky challenger.” The world’s champ should be pretty like me."

Liston won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1962 by demolishing Floyd Patterson within minutes of the first round. He defended his title against Patterson again ten months later. It took him four seconds longer to win. Many experts at the time considered Liston to be invincible. Even British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper said he’d fight Clay if he won, but not Liston.

Clay, 22, performed at mach speed. He talked fast and moved faster. He had extraordinary hand and foot speed. He was the perpetual, “man in a hurry," with a bravado that had no limits.

In 1960, Clay captured the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in the light-heavyweight division. Two years later, he turned professional. Before he fought Liston, his record was 19-0 with 15 knockouts. His two previous fights had been anything but stellar. He eked out a decision over tough Doug Jones, and was floored heavily by Cooper before stopping the British champion in round five.

It’s no surprise that hours before the opening bell, Liston was a seven-to-one betting favorite. Clay talked the talk. Now the question was could he walk the walk?

Forty-six experts had been asked who would win the fight.

Forty-three picked Liston.

Clay’s style was underrated at the time. Oh, he was fast they said, but he didn’t hit very hard, or take a punch. Legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon said this about Clay a few days before the match.

"Clay doesn't fight like the valid heavyweight he is. He seldom sets and misses a lot. In a way, Clay is a freak. He is a bantamweight who weighs more than 200 pounds."

Critics were of the mind that what we don’t understand – we criticize. Years later Clay's skill and ability to anticipate and lean away from blows, his fleet moves would, garner praise.

In 1964 they were considered flaws.

Liston's record was 35-1 with 24 knockouts. But, the defender brought some baggage into the fight as well. His age was a mystery. Liston stated that he was 31, but he was probably three years older. He suffered from bursitis in both shoulders and reportedly re-injured his left shoulder in training. Still, he expected to knockout the blabbermouth from Louisville in two rounds.

Many, like Lester Bromberg of the New York World-Telegram, thought Liston was being generous, "It will last longer than the Patterson fight - almost the entire first round," wrote Bromberg.

Clay ignored the pundits, quipping, “Liston even smells like a bear. After I beat him I'm going to donate him to the zoo."

In the ring, Clay was an adept trash talker, Liston was a master of intimidation. His baneful stare had caused many opponents to shrink away like a scared kid. As referee Barney Felix gave the fighters their final instructions before the opening bell, he employed his deadeye look on the taller Clay. The challenger glared back and showed Liston his mouthpiece.

Clay admitted after the fight that his bravado was an act.

“I won't lie, I was scared. It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn't have no choice but to go out and fight.”

Liston came out fast in the opening stanza. His powerful jab, usually so reliable, only grazed the fleet-footed challenger. Clay, with his hands at his sides, moved side to side. He ducked, feinted and stayed on his toes. Liston glared, but he wasn’t cutting off the ring. The champion landed the first punch of the bout - a thudding right to the body. Clay absorbed the blow, commentating after the fight, "I felt good because I knew I could survive."

At the two minute mark, Clay found Liston with a double jab. He was fighting smart staying just out of the range of Liston’s powerful salvos. He leaned back and watched two mighty hooks whisk by his chin. Clay's jabs intensified as the round continued. With twenty ticks left on the clock, Clay opened up, strafing Liston's face with a combination.

Clay kept sticking out his jab in round two. The defending champion stalked, but still couldn't connect with the slippery challenger. At the weigh-in he had held up two fingers, indicating what round he would knock out Clay. His heavy shots were directed at the body - hoping that Clay would lower his guard. Liston pushed Clay into the ropes and forced his way inside. Here was a chance for Liston to do some damage, but Clay tied him up and skipped away.

In round three, it was Clay who came out firing. As Liston pressed forward, he let go with a combination landing a sharp right. A few seconds later, another right followed by a left hook staggered the unbeatable bear. Liston fell into the ropes, but quickly recovered. The crowd roared as Clay turned aggressor. His slashing combination had cut Liston’s left eye and bruised his right. Liston rallied in the last minute of the round. A right uppercut snapped Clay’s head back, but the challenger was blessed with one of the sturdiest chins in the game.

Clay was back to moving laterally and jabbing in round four. Liston jabbed as well, but his pattern of missing more punches than landing continued. The bruising under his right eye worsened. Clay had his own eye problems before round five commenced. He blinked maniacally and screamed at his trainer Angelo Dundee to, “Cut off my gloves.”

Dundee calmly grabbed his trusty sponge and washed out Clay’s burning eyes, while urging his fighter to get back in the ring. “This is the big one, Daddy," said Dundee."Get out there and run.”

Later, some accused Liston’s corner of hanky panky, but it is likely Clay's eye troubles were caused by a substance used to close Liston's cut that got on Clay's gloves and blinded him. Despite his eye troubles, Clay re-entered the ring. In round five, he held and ran. Liston pummeled his midsection with shots. A left hook stood Clay up, but his greatest assets, his legs, served him well. He finally threw two soft punches with a minute to go in the round.

Clay was back in charge in round six. A sharp right hand stung Liston. A double hook made him grimace. His jab bounced off the champions face. Liston landed a lunging hook that had no effect.

Liston hesitated before sitting on his stool after the sixth round ended. One of his cornermen rubbed his left shoulder –the same shoulder he had reinjured in training camp. Liston muttered, "That's it," and spit out his mouthpiece.

Full Video: Sonny Liston vs Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) (1st meeting). Feb. 25, 1964. Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Florida, USA.
How badly his shoulder was injured was a matter of debate.

Clay quickly comprehended what was happening in Liston’s corner. He moved to the center of the ring with his arms raised– all the while doing what would come to be called “The Ali shuffle.”

It was later revealed that at the time of the stoppage the fight was even.

Liston said of Clay, “That's not the guy I was supposed to fight. That guy could hit."

Minutes after the fight ended, there was talk of a re-match.

Fifteen months later, the pair met again in a little city in Maine, called Lewiston.

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