There are certain events that definitively and profoundly reconstruct what had previously been postulated and believed. Despite the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras being one of the first people to claim that the earth was round in the 6th century, B.C., the vast majority of folks believed otherwise, and scoffed at the notion that it was anything other than flat.
There was a similar postulate in the world of sports that was shattered on this day in 1964, when the man who would become Ali stepped between the ropes to fight the fearsome heavyweight champ, Sonny Liston.
Upstart Cassius Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) was just 22 when he challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Liston, a brooding, savage fighter with a killing left, was the easy favourite.
Through the hourglass of time, Muhammad Ali is widely considered, along with Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer ever. He was the first man to win the heavyweight championship on three separate occasions, re-formulated the ideas of strategic planning and execution in the division while seemingly defying the laws of physics with his speed, athleticism, and he brought a sense of charisma, consciousness and a devotion to truth that endeared him to a global audience.
But on this day, 51 years ago, on the last day that he would be known as Cassius Clay, the man was seen by a few as merely amusing, and by the masses as an arrogant loudmouth, a 7-1 underdog who, it was widely assumed, would get knocked out. At the tender age of 22, there were many who perceived him to actually be mentally unstable.
Walking into the fight, after having destroyed former champ Floyd Patterson in two consecutive fights, both horrifying first round knockouts, Liston was not only one of the most menacing punchers in boxing history, he was also seen as one of the best heavyweights of all time. As hard as it is to fathom now, Liston was viewed as indestructible, like a young, ferocious Mike Tyson before Buster Douglas shattered that myth. Liston’s crushing jab had actually knocked out – I repeat, KNOCKED OUT!!! – numerous sparring partners and his signature punch was a perilous left hook.
When Ali was floored and knocked momentarily senseless a few months earlier by a left hook from Henry Cooper, that was all the evidence that people needed to giddily assume that Liston would obliterate him. Alis style was so unorthodox at the time, he was dismissed a fundamentally unsound fighter. He danced, he talked, he recited poetry, he kept his hands low, he punched from awkward angles that had not been seen before. He didn’t come from the heavyweight textbook. He seemed to be rewriting the manual, incorporating a style and flair that had previously been the sole province of the small, slick pugilist.
58 sportswriters were asked, prior to the fight, to predict the outcome, and 95 % said that Liston would easily win by an early knockout. The bout was seen as such a mismatch, that slightly more than 8,000 fans paid to watch it.
Despite the fact that he would later become known as one of the most courageous fighters ever, most fight fans at the time hoped he would simply disappear. But as we all know, after that fight, when he won the heavyweight title, he went on to become so much more than perhaps the best fighter ever.
(Photo Credit: The Ring)
At the post-fight press conference, he scolded the media, yelling, Never make me no underdog, and never talk about who’s gonna stop me. Ain’t nobody gonna stop me. Not a heavyweight in the world fast enough to stop me. Liston’s one of the most powerfull in the world, and he looked like a baby. I held my hands down. I just played with him. I shook all of you up.
When he opposed the Vietnam War, he was vilified, but history ultimately absolved him. When he was stripped of his title and unable to fight for four years, at the very prime of his athletic apex because he refused induction into the army as a conscientious objector, his principled stand later made him a global icon who stood up for racial equality and religious freedom in the face Americas despicable history of violence and oppression.
On this day in 1964, Muhammad Ali did, indeed, shake up the world. He let us know that a man could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee at the same time. The world, both within and outside of the sports landscape, was forever altered for the better when he did.