The following article is a dedicated contribution from Jeff Burns.
Very few gave Clay any chance of beating 'Old Stone Face'.
Cassius Clay was now approaching his 22nd birthday, he stood 6ft 3in tall and weighted 210lbs, 18lbs heavier than what he had weighed for his first professional contest. He had won all of his 19 contests, 15 of those victories inside the scheduled distance and he had emerged as the number one contender for the World heavyweight title held by the awesome Charles Sonny Liston. He had won the title by knocking out the defending champion Floyd Patterson in two minutes and six seconds of the first round and in a return fight Patterson was knocked out in two minutes and ten seconds of round one.
Very few boxing experts gave Clay any chance of beating "old stone face" but this did not deter him from taunting Liston and challenging him to fight anywhere and anytime. Liston was allegedly born in the Johnstown Township in Arkansas on 8th May 1932. He was 32-years old, some 10 years older than Clay and although no one had actually seen his birth certificate it had been estimated in some quarters that he may be have been two or three years older. Regardless of his age Sonny Liston was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the World and many believed his reign as champion would continue for quite a few years. He had been a professional fighter since making his debut in September 1953 and won all but one of his 36 contests, 25 wins inside the scheduled distance. His last four fights had aggregated less than six rounds with three first round knockouts and it had been three and a half years since he’d boxed beyond three rounds.
The bookmakers offered 7/1 about a Clay victory
The date and venue were arranged, contracts were signed and the stage was set for Cassius Marcellus Clay to challenge Charles Sonny Liston for his World heavyweight crown in Miami Beach Florida on 25th February 1964. Had this opportunity come too soon for the young pretender? Had he talked himself into his own demise? Surely he would succumb to the mighty fists of an angry champion who had suffered ridicule from the taunts of his challenger with very few boxing pundits giving Cassius any chance of dethroning the champion. The bookmakers were giving odds of seven to one against a Clay victory.
I told you I was the greatest - Cassius Clay
"I’ve shocked the world! You all thought the big ugly bear (Liston) would defeat me, I told you I was the greatest, now you must believe me!" a jubilant new champion bawled into the television and radio microphones as the dejected and demoralised ex champion Sonny Liston sat on his stool bewildered and bemused. He had retired with a shoulder injury at the end of the sixth round but he looked a lot older than his 32 years. Had his age or his relative inactivity caught up with him? Had the taunts and the jibes of the new champion got into his head or was Clay just too fast, too clever and too young for Liston? The day following his championship triumph Cassius Clay announced to the world that he had become a Muslim under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad and would be discarding his ‘slave name’ and would in future be known by his Muslim title Muhammad Ali. The change of name caused considerable disquiet among many of his supporters and it took quite some time for some of his fans to accept his new name. Many refused to acknowledge his new title and continued to call him Cassius Clay.
Felt by many that the postponement had a more detrimental effect on the ageing Liston's preparations!
A return fight was arranged for November of that year but had to be postponed as Muhammad Ali had suffered a hernia in training and it was rearranged for 25th May 1965 at the unlikely venue of Lewiston Maine. It was felt by many that the postponement had a more detrimental effect on the ageing Liston’s preparations than those of the young champion.
Cassius Clay v Sonny Liston (second fight)
The outcome of the return contest was embroiled in controversy. As the challenger was floored by a short fast but seemingly light right hand punch, Liston had risen and referee former world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott was about to signal a resumption of hostilities when he was called from ringside by the editor of the Ring Magazine Nat Fleischer. He was not an official at the fight and advised that Liston had been on the canvas for more than ten seconds. The referee turned to face the two combatants where Ali was continuing with his assault on Liston who was crouching under a barrage of punches when Walcott signalled the fight was over and declared Ali the winner by knockout. After this debacle Liston boxed on until his untimely and mysterious death on 30th December 1970. He boxed 16 times winning 15 with 14 inside the distance and suffered one knockout defeat against Leotis Martin.