World Heavyweight Champion: 1964-1970
Cassius Marcellus Clay broke the mould for heavyweight boxers. It wasn’t simply his cocksure manner; many before him had displayed the arrogance of untested youth. But the poems, the predictions, and, in particular, the fighting style: this was all new. Old stagers must have been scratching their heads at the way he dropped his hands and presented his chin to his opponents. Some even managed to catch him with a solid punch. But the outcome was always the same. Clay danced and punched and put his man away, invariably in the prescribed round. He was a phenomenon.The phenomenon had taken up boxing in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, at the age of 12. The young Clay had had his bicycle stolen and vowed to catch up with the perpetrator and ‘whup him’, even though he had never had a boxing lesson in his life. He duly headed off to the gym^ where he soon found that he could indeed ‘whup’ all-comers. At 17 he became Golden Gloves champion. A year later, in 1960, he won the light-heavyweight title at the Rome Olympics. His first professional fight came in October that year, against Tunney Hunsaker. Clay gave a dazzling display in a unanimous points decision. Over the next two-and-a-half years he took a string of scalps and started to earn himself a big reputation. He was getting ever closer to being the number one challenger to Sonny Liston.
Clay faces Cooper in eliminator
On 18 June 1963 he took another step towards the top when he faced Britain’s top heavyweight, Henry Cooper. This title eliminator has gone down in boxing folklore. Cooper was a rugged, experienced pro and landed some good punches early on. Clay went up a gear in the third and picked off his man with some sparkling combination punching. Cooper was cut badly; it looked all over. A momentary lapse by Clay towards the end of the fourth very nearly turned the fight on its head. Cooper saw his chance and connected perfectly with a bludgeoning left hook. Clay went down, his eyes rolling. It wasn’t a knockout punch, but Cooper must have fancied his chances of finishing the job when Clay scrambled groggily to his feet. The bell intervened to deny him the chance, and this has remained in the realms of speculation ever since.
Cooper’s chance disappears
What did happen next is that Clay recovered in a break that was extended because of a split glove. Cooper’s chance had gone. Clay came out all guns blazing in the fifth, beating Cooper’s face to a pulp until the referee stepped in. As usual, it was the round Clay had predicted. Many observers noted what had happened to Clay in the fourth round. If Cooper could do that, what would Liston do to the flashy upstart? If it wasn’t quite a minority of one who gave Clay a prayer against the champion, then you certainly wouldn’t have needed many hands to count them. Liston was his usual intimidating self. The stare was as icy as ever, and when they stepped into the ring he did his usual trick of putting towels under his robe to make himself look even more gargantuan than he was. ‘Too ugly to be champion’
The challenger was unperturbed. ‘He’s too ugly to be world champion,’ Clay had said. Most people still thought that once the bell rang, Clay would suffer for the ‘big ugly bear’ jibes he had dispensed so liberally in the run-up to the fight.Unknown to the fans, however, the balance of power had already shifted in Clay’s favour, for a number of reasons. Liston was confused and concerned by Clay’s near-hysterical ranting before the fight. He could cope with hard men, but madmen were a different proposition. The champion also found himself cast in an unfamiliar role. Even as champion he was still regarded as the ‘bad-ass nigger’, the bogeyman of the white middle classes. Everything changed when Clay joined the Nation of Islam. Liston accepted his lot in a white man’s world; Clay didn’t. He rejected the values of a society which had subjugated the black population. He was articulate in espousing the ‘black is beautiful’ mantra. He associated with the likes of Malcolm X. All this was far more worrying to the white population than anything Liston had done. The latter thus found himself championing the cause of those who wanted to preserve the status quo. That simply added to the confusion for the illiterate titleholder. If all this weren’t enough to seal Liston’s fate, he also underestimated Clay as a fighter. He had trained as though it would all be over in double-quick time. When the two faced each other in Miami on 25 February 1964, it was Liston who looked overawed. He found himself staring up at a magnificent physical specimen who exuded the confidence of a man destined to succeed.
In the early stages, Clay took a few good shots, but he gave better than he got. A volley of punches at the start of the third opened a cut under Liston’s left eye. At the end of the round, his corner men staunched the wound with some kind of ointment. No problem there, but the champion’s gloves also became smeared with the substance, sparking a controversy which would exercise commentators and pundits for years. By the end of round four, Clay’s eyes were smarting, his vision badly impaired. Liston had been accused of putting a caustic substance on his gloves before, against Zora Folley and Eddie Machen. Whether it was deliberate or not, this time it did him no good. Clay used his brilliant footwork to good effect in the fifth, dancing clear of trouble while his eyes watered and cleared. In the sixth round he came back with a vengeance. By now Liston was sluggish and tiring visibly. The fact that he had fought only two rounds in three years began to tell. He sat down at the end of the sixth and didn’t come out for the next. The reason given was that he had sustained a shoulder injury.
Liston quits in his chair
Many have cast doubt on this claim. Liston was clearly shattered, while the younger, fitter man was champing at the bit to get at him. Did Liston simply see the writing on the wall? It was only the second time that a heavyweight champion had quit in his chair. Clay wasn’t bothered about that. His post-fight comment was short and to the point: ‘I shook up the world!’ The following day, the champion renounced Cassius Clay as a slave name. He was no longer a slave, and would henceforth be known as Muhammad Ali. The two men met again in Lewiston, Maine, in May 1965. If the first fight had had its controversial moments, they were as nothing compared with the rematch. A minute into the opening round, Ali caught Liston with a short right to the jaw. It was just about the first decent punch he had connected with, but it was no knockout blow. That’s exactly what it turned out to be, though. There was total chaos as the referee – ex-champion Jersey Joe Walcott -struggled to get Ali to a neutral corner before he could start the count. An incensed Ali exhorted Liston to get up. Liston did eventually struggle to his feet, and Ali moved in while Walcott checked with the timekeeper to see how long Liston had been down. It was well beyond 10 seconds, and he declared Ali the winner.
Cries of ‘Fix!’ accompanied the men on their way back to the dressing-room. It was all very unsatisfactory. Ali could shrug his shoulders, his title intact. Liston had to live with the fact that an innocuous punch had put him into the record books as the fastest recorded knockout victim in the championship’s history. Floyd Patterson was next up for Ali. He had been overawed and overpowered by Liston. Against a boxer rather than a slugger, he quietly fancied his chances. Indeed, some say that Patterson had even quicker hands than Ali. They couldn’t save him, however. Patterson injured his back early on and the champion exploited it mercilessly. The referee called a halt to the annihilation in the 12th. The Patterson fight took place on 22 November 1965. By 14 November 1966, Ali had fought and beaten five more men: a total of six fights in 51 weeks. Canada’s rugged and durable heavyweight George Chuvalo took him the distance, though the result was never in doubt. Ali then went on a European tour. Back in 1963 he had promised Henry Cooper a shot at the title when he became world champion. He was as good as his word. This time Ali steered well clear of ‘Henry’s Hammer’. He cut Cooper badly in the sixth and the referee stopped it a round later. Less than three months later Brian London proved to be less worthy opposition. A punch of similar magnitude to the one that floored Liston accounted for him in round three. It was a poor show. Germany’s Karl Mildenberger was much more resilient and gave Ali a stiffer test. But the champion soon got the measure of his man and the fight was stopped in the 12th. Ali completed a whirlwind year of defences back on home soil.
His opponent, Cleveland Williams, was a difficult customer, someone Floyd Patterson had been accused of ducking during his reign. Although he was now past his best, nothing should detract from Ali’s mesmerising performance that November night. His movement was sheer poetry, his artistry sublime, his punches devastating. Williams was finished in the third. In February 1967, Ali had what amounted to a unification fight against WBA champion Ernie Terrell. The WBA had stripped Ali of the crown for agreeing to a rematch with Liston in 1964. That organisation conducted its own tournament and Terrell emerged the victor. He had successfully retained the title against George Chuvalo and Doug Jones, and had beaten all the top men of the day – Ali excepted.Terrell made the mistake of deliberately calling the champion ‘Clay’.
Cassius Marcellus Clay.
Born: Louisville, Kentucky, USA. January 17 1942
Height: 6’3’ Weight: 210lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1964-1967 1974-1978 1978-1979
Olympic gold medal 1960
Record: Won 56 (37K0s) Lost 5 ‘What’s my name?’
As had happened with Patterson, Ali wasn’t just content to beat his man; he wanted ritual humiliation. He spun the fight out for the full 15 rounds, toying with Terrell like a cat with a mouse. ‘What’s my name?’ Ali yelled as the blows pummelled his opponent. Six weeks later, Ali’s ninth defence pitted him against veteran Zora Folley. Folley was a boxing stylist, but he was no match for Ali’s new breed of artistry. Ali knocked him out in the seventh. Shortly afterwards, Ali’s world came crashing round his ears when he was drafted into the US Army. The Vietnam war was raging and Ali’s number came up. The champion was having none of it. ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,’ he said as he refused to be inducted.The boxing authorities summarily stripped him of his title. He was sentenced to five years in prison and handed a $10,000 fine, but on appeal the Supreme Court decided that locking up a sporting legend was not a sensible course of action.
Ali rejects compromise
A compromise was sought, but Ali wouldn’t play ball. He steadfastly refused to go along with any suggestion of a stage-managed solution. He wouldn’t even allow himself to be photographed in uniform. He could have got himself off the hook quite painlessly, but he stuck to his principles. It was to cost him three-and-a-half years out of the profession he graced and loved. No American boxing commission would sanction any fight, and his passport was taken away, precluding the possibility of an overseas contest. This placed a severe financial burden on Ali, and he eked out a living by lecturing on the college circuit. More important as far as boxing fans were concerned, this shameful hiatus robbed them of seeing Ali at the absolute peak of his powers.
Were Liston’s gloves smeared deliberately?
A grimacing Sonny Liston ducks to try and avoid the pummelling fists of Cassius Clay in the fifth round of their title fight in Miami. This was the round in which Clay complained that his vision was considerably impaired, the result of a caustic subtance smeared on Liston’s gloves getting into his eyes. If it was a deliberate ploy, it failed miserably.
Having already opened up a cut under Liston’s left eye, Clay goes to work on the right during the third round. Liston recovered well to keep the score fairly level going into the fourth.
Below: Liston takes more punishment before deciding to stay in his chair at the end of the sixth round. Some commentators felt that Liston’s defeat was partly due to his frame of mind when he entered the ring. He was said to be dispirited and disillusioned by the way he had been treated as champion.
Clay taunts the doubters ‘Eat your words!’ Clay shouts defiantly at the ringside critics who insisted that Liston was unbeatable. Clay is embraced by one of his corner men as referee Barney Felix declares that Liston is unable to continue. There would be many more victory embraces, but not by members of his entourage wearing shirts bearing the legend ‘Cassius Clay’. The day after the fight, Clay renounced his ‘slave name’ and said that henceforward he would be known as Muhammad Ali. Top of the world. Clay realised his boyhood dream at the age of 22 years 1 month, three months older than Floyd Patterson had been when he won the title.