Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

The two Ali versus Liston fights for boxing's world heavyweight championship were among the most anticipated, watched and controversial fights in the sport's history.



At the time of the first Liston-Ali fight on February 25, 1964, Sonny Liston was the world heavyweight champion, having beaten Floyd Patterson by a first round knockout in September 1962. With an impressive knockout record to that point, Liston was a fighter many other heavyweights were reluctant to meet in the ring. Henry Cooper said that if Cassius Clay (Ali's name at the time) won, he was interested in a title fight, but if Liston won, he was not going to get in the ring with him. Cooper's manager Jim Wicks said, "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street." Liston was an ex-con with ties to organized crime whose ominous, glowering demeanor was so central to his image that Esquire Magazine caused a controversy by posing him in a Santa Claus hat for its December 1963 cover.

Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was a glib, fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who enjoyed the spotlight. Known as "The Louisville Lip", he had won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and had great hand and foot speed—not to mention a limitless supply of braggadocio and confidence. Nevertheless, Clay had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career and—more seriously—was almost knocked out by the cut-prone converted southpaw Henry Cooper. Although Clay rallied to win, it seemed to show he would be vulnerable to Liston's formidable left hook.

The brash Clay was not liked by most reporters. Lester Bromberg's forecast in the New York World-Telegram was typical, predicting "It will last almost the entire first round." The Los Angeles Times' Jim Murray observed, "The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary," adding that the faceoff between the two unlikeable athletes would be "the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin—180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout."[1] The New York Times' regular boxing writer Joe Nichols declined to cover the fight, assuming it would be a mismatch. By fight time, Clay was a seven to one betting underdog.

Pre-Fight Publicity

The television series I've Got a Secret did multiple segments about the title fight. Panelists Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Betsy Palmer predicted that Liston would win in the third, second, and first rounds, respectively. Host Garry Moore was even more pessimistic about Clay's chances, estimating a Liston Knockout "in the very early moments of round one," adding, "if I were Cassius, I would catch a cab and leave town". Actor Hal March went a step further: "I think the fight will end in the dressing room. I think [Clay] is going to faint before he comes out."

The night before the first fight, on February 24, 1964, the show featured Clay and Liston's sparring partners as guests. [2] Harvey Jones brought with him a lengthy rhyming boast from Cassius Clay:

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.

Jesse Bowdry brought a much terser written message from Sonny Liston:

Cassius, you're my million dollar baby, so please don't let anything happen to you before tomorrow night.

Sonny Liston, As read on CBS' I've Got a Secret[2]

The following week, I've Got a Secret brought on two sportswriters, whose secret was that they had been the only writers to correctly predict Clay's victory.

Baiting the Bear

During training, Clay took to driving his entourage in a bus over to the site in Surfside, Florida where Liston (nicknamed the 'Big Bear') was training, and repeatedly called Liston the "big, ugly bear".[1] Liston grew increasingly irritated as the motor-mouthed Clay continued hurling insults ("After the fight I'm gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him... if Sonny Liston whups me, I'll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he's the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country."). Clay insisted to a skeptical press that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds.

Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres, in his 1971 biography of Ali Sting Like a Bee, said that as of 1963, Ali's prophetic poems had correctly predicted the exact round he would stop an opponent 12 times.

Clay's brashness did not endear him to White America, and in fact, made Liston a more sympathetic character. In The New Republic, the magazine's editor Murray Kempton (a future Pulitzer Prize-winner for distinguished commentary), wrote, "Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line."[3]

There were rumors that Clay even left the country the day of the fight, fleeing to Mexico, but they proved untrue.

Clay's outbursts continued at the pre-fight physical the day before the event. Clay worked himself into such a frenzy that his heart rate registered a surprising 120 beats per minute. Many observers took this to mean that Clay was either terrified or not in the proper shape. However, Clay's heartrate was back to normal by the official weigh-in.

Ali/Liston I

Liston vs Clay
Date February 25, 1964
Title(s) on the line WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion

Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay
The Big Bear The Louisville Lip
Tale of the tape
Sand Slough, Arkansas From Louisville, Kentucky
35-1 (24 KO's) Pre-fight record 19-0 (15 KO's)
WBA/WBC Heavyweight Champion Recognition none

The 32 year old Liston defended his title against the 22 year old Clay on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, Clay weighed in at 206lbs while Liston was 218 lb (at age 22 Liston had weighed 206 lbs while at 32 Ali weighed 217lbs).[4][5] Many of those watching were surprised during the referee's instructions to see that Clay was considerably taller than Liston, the so called 'Big Bear'.

The Fight

When the fight began it became apparent that Liston was out of condition[6]. Right from the first round, Clay's superior speed was evident, as he slipped most of Liston's punches with seeming ease. He was constantly moving, using a fast, effective jab and quick flurries of combinations which made it difficult for Liston to score with his slower arm-speed and heavy punches.

In the third round, Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston with several combinations, causing a bruise under Liston's right eye and a cut under his left. At one point in the round, Liston's knees buckled under Clay's attack and he almost went down. During the fourth round, Clay coasted, keeping his distance. However, when he returned to his corner Clay started complaining that there was something burning in his eyes and that he could not see. Clay shouted: "cut off my gloves," but trainer Angelo Dundee responded, "this is the big one, daddy . . . we're not quitting now!". He rinsed Clay's eyes with a sponge and pushed him off his stool to begin the fifth round, telling him to "get out there and run."[7]

It has been theorized that a substance used to stop Liston's cuts from bleeding (possibly Monsel's solution) may have caused the irritation, either through accidental contact with Clay or by being purposely applied to Liston's gloves by his corner, possibly at Liston's request. Neither explanation has ever been proven.[8].

Clay managed to survive the fifth round. By the sixth his sight had cleared, and he resumed control of the fight, landing combinations of punches seemingly at will. On his stool following the sixth round, Liston told his corner-men that he couldn't continue, complaining of a shoulder injury. He failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout.

Sensing that he had made history, Clay sprang to the center of the ring, did a victory jig and then quickly ran to the ropes to remind sportswriters that he had told them so all along. In a scene that has been rebroadcast countless times over the ensuing decades, Clay repeatedly yelled "I'm the greatest!" and "I shook up the world!" The day after the fight, Clay announced that he was changing his name to Cassius X, but then he adopted the name Muhammad Ali the following week.


There has been speculation about whether Liston's shoulder injury was severe enough to actually prevent him from continuing the fight. Alexander Robbins, physican for the Miami Beach Boxing Commission, diagnosed Liston with a torn tendon in his left shoulder. However, author David Remnick states that he spoke with one of Liston's corner men years after the fight, who told him Liston could have continued: "[The shoulder] was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, and if you say your guy just quit, who is gonna get a return bout. We cooked up that shoulder thing on the spot."[9]

Ali/Liston II

Ali vs. Liston
Date May 25, 1965
Title(s) on the line WBC Heavyweight Champion

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
The Louisville Lip The Big Bear
Tale of the tape
Louisville, Kentucky From Sand Slough, Arkansas
20-0 KO 16 Pre-fight record 35-2
WBC Heavyweight Champion Recognition

Because of the unexpected ending of the first bout, the World Boxing Council ordered a rematch, this time with Liston as challenger. The World Boxing Association disagreed, as immediate rematches were against its rules, and stripped Ali of his title. Originally scheduled for the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1964, the fight was postponed six months when Ali needed emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia.

Lewiston, Maine

Massachusetts boxing authorities balked over allowing the rescheduled fight to go on, as a Bay State prosecutor claimed that it wasn't properly licensed. Allegedly, the prosecutor privately claimed that he was reacting to rumors of a fix. The promoters, Intercontinental Promotions, Inc. and Sports Vision, Inc., had $3.5 million (approximately $25 million in 2011 dollars, when factored for inflation) in closed-circuit TV contracts to preserve. If the fight didn't go off in Boston, it was feared that there would be no rematch between Clay and Liston and a lucrative payday would be lost.

The promoters contacted small-time promoter Sam Michael, who scheduled the bout in the Central Maine Civic Center, a junior hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, a milltown with 40,000 residents located 35 miles north from Portland on the Maine Turnpike. Lewiston is the smallest place to host a heavyweight title bout since Jack Dempsey fought Tom Gibbons in Shelby, Montana (population 3,000) in 1923. To many observers, the fact the fight was scheduled for such an obscure location is indicative that there was a fix.

Despite such forebodings, the second Ali-Liston fight was embraced by The Pine Tree State. Maine Governor John H. Reed announced to the press, "This fight is one of the greatest things to happen in Maine."[10] The fight would go down in history as a debacle, and many believed the fight was fixed.

Due to the remote location (140 miles north of Boston), only 2,434 fans were present, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. It remains the only heavyweight title fight held in the state of Maine.

Phantom Punch

The ending of the second fight remains one of the most controversial in boxing history. Midway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas, in what many have argued was not a legitimate knockdown. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former world heavyweight champion himself, appeared confused after Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner. Instead, Ali stood over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling at him, "Get up and fight, sucker!" The moment was captured by ringside photographer Neil Leifer, and has become one of the most iconic images in sports. The photograph of the knockdown of this fight is one of the most heavily promoted photos in the history of the media, and was even chosen as the cover of the Sports Illustrated special issue, "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos".

Ali then posed over him, with his fists in the air celebrating the knockdown.

While Walcott tried to sort out the situation, 20 seconds passed, and by then Liston had gotten to his feet and resumed boxing. Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, took it upon himself to climb into the ring and tell Walcott that as Liston had spent over 10 seconds on the canvas he had been KOed. Walcott stopped the fight — awarding Ali a first-round knockout (see Muhammad Ali). However Fleischer was quite wrong in his interpretation of how the rules applied: since Clay had deliberately not gone to a neutral corner, Walcott had been correct in not counting Liston out; the actual time Liston had been down was beside the point.[11] Against Oscar Bonavena Ali would again fail to go to a neutral corner after a knockdown but in circumstances that led some to suspect a more nefarious motive.

The blow that ended the match became known as "the phantom punch," so named because most people at ringside did not see it. Even Ali was unsure as to whether or not the punch connected, as footage from the event shows Ali asking his entourage "Did I hit him?" after the match. Slow motion replays show Ali connecting with a quick, chopping right to Liston's head (known as the "Anchor Punch" according to Ali) as Liston was moving toward him, and show that Liston was unsteady when he finally got to his feet. (Ali appeared to connect with four additional unanswered punches before Walcott belatedly declared the knockout, ending the contest.) However, whether the blow was a genuine knockout punch remains inconclusive.[12]


There were claims that Liston had bet against himself and "took a dive" because he owed money to the Mafia. Others believe that he feared for his safety from Nation of Islam terrorists who supported Ali. The latter theory was supported by Mark Kram's book Ghosts of Manila, which included an interview with Liston conducted years after the fight. Liston claimed to have intentionally lost because of his fear of retaliation from the Black Muslims. No independent substantiation of this claim has come to light.

Universal Champ

Ali would reclaim the WBA Heavyweight Championship from Ernie Terrell in 1967. After one successful defense as the universal World Heavyweight Champion, Ali would be stripped of his titles for refusing to enlist when drafted later that year, being a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War.


  1. ^ a b Random House for High School Teachers | Catalog | King of the World by David Remnick
  2. ^ a b Harvey Jones and Jesse Bowdry appearance on CBS' I've Got a Secret, February 24, 1964. Rebroadcast on Game Show Network on March 24, 2008.
  3. ^ Kalb, Eliot (2007). The 25 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All-Time: Ranking Sports' Most Notorious Fixes, Cover-Ups and Scandals. Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 978-1602390898. 
  4. ^ BoxRec
  5. ^ BocRec
  6. ^ Reputations: Sonny Liston: The Champion Nobody Wanted,(2001) 50 min, BBC Documentary
  7. ^ David Remnick, King of the Word, pg. 198
  8. ^ Remnick, David. King of the World, pg. 195
  9. ^ David Remnick, King of the World, pg. 202
  10. ^ Allen, Mel. "The Night Lewiston, Maine, Can Never Forget". Yankee Magazine. Yankee Publishing. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  11. ^ The 12 Greatest Rounds Of Boxing: The Untold Stories.,‎Ferdie Pacheco (2004)
  12. ^ Andrew Vachss, Only Child, p.89, Vintage, 2003. Vachss further explains the way such a fix would have been engineered in Two Trains Running, pp.160-165, 233, Pantheon, 2005.

Further reading

  • Black is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay, by Jack Olsen (1967).

External links

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