It is hard to believe but May 25 sees the fortieth anniversary of one of the most controversial fights in heavyweight history. Much had happened since Cassius Clay, as he was then known, won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964. Born in 1942, Clay’s only reason for boxing came when, as a twelve-year-old, he had his bicycle stolen and he wanted to, “Whup the boy who stole it.” After reporting it to policeman Joe Martin he began boxing and established an outstanding amateur career culminating in Olympic Gold in 1960 in Rome. After turning professional and winning his first nineteen fights he earned his shot at Liston. That night, Clay, a 7-1 underdog forced Liston to retire on his stool at the start of round seven. The fight that night too was not without incident as Clay cut Liston with a left-right combination in round three, fought three minutes entirely blind in round five after some liniment from Liston’s cut entered Clay’s eye and then finally forced Liston to retire at the end of Round six. Many people did not believe Liston’s claim of a shoulder injury, believing more that Liston the bully had simply quit on his stool, realizing he could not beat the younger man.
A day after the bout, Clay changed his name briefly to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali, claiming Clay was a slave name given to him and he now seemed to have the presence and assurance of a world heavyweight champion. He embarked on a month long tour of Africa whilst waiting for the arrangement of further heavyweight defenses. In fact, his next defense was to be against the man he had taken the title from” Charles “Sonny” Liston.
Sonny Liston was born in 1932 but to be perfectly honest, did not know his correct date of birth. Legend has it that when he was born, a mark upon a tree was made in recognition. In fact, he did not even have a birth certificate until he was fighting. After serving time in prison, Liston received parole in 1952. Whilst in prison he realized he could use his size and strength in a positive way. In 1953, he won the National Golden Gloves heavyweight championship and turned professional later that year. After building a respectable record, he was again behind bars, this time for assaulting a police officer. He received parole again in 1957.
His only defeat in the run up to his fight against Floyd Patterson in 1962 was against Marty Marshall and he had since avenged it. He was the obvious number one contender and in September 1962, he knocked out the champion in one round. He repeated this feat in 1963 although Patterson lasted slightly longer. In his second defense, he lost to Cassius Clay.
The Ali vs. Liston rematch, originally scheduled for Boston on November 21 1964 was full of rumors that Liston was in the best shape of his career. Indeed had the fight taken place on schedule, many believed that Liston would have regained the title. Disaster struck though when Ali, a week before the proposed bout, ended up in hospital with a hernia. When Ali regained his fitness, a venue for the fight was hard to find. Ali now seemed to be in the prime of his career and the delay harmed only Liston who seemed only to get older. Finally, the site arrived in the small town of Lewiston, Maine. The rematch was back on.
The bout, rearranged for May 25 1965 held an atmosphere on the day of the fight that was one of the strangest ever. Ali as we know was a strong supporter of Malcolm X and his beliefs. On February 21, Malcolm X’s assassination sparked fears that Ali would be next. Officials undertook a weapons search on everyone entering the building. They even searched women’s handbags for guns.
Ali seemed unperturbed by this and looked in excellent condition. He weighed 206-pounds while the challenger Liston weighed 215-pounds. The referee for the bout was former world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott. At the introductions, Ali got a decidedly frosty reception from the Lewiston crowd but again seemed totally unfazed. Strangely enough, Liston, forever the unwanted fighter was the crowd favorite.
The bell rang for the start of the first and only round of the fight, Ali came out quickly and caught Liston with a lead right. Liston continued to pursue Ali round the ring as the champion circled with graceful speed. In fact, at times it seemed like Liston was in a different time zone. This pattern continued with Liston not landing anything of note. Liston then threw a lead right and Ali countered with an overhand right, a punch Ali would later call the anchor punch.
The controversy then began with Liston falling to the canvas. Ali failed to go to a neutral corner and the champion was running round the ring with his arms above his head. Walcott the referee missed the count trying to get Ali to a neutral corner. When Liston rose, the referee rubbed his gloves and then consulted with the timekeeper. With both fighters unattended, Ali then rained punches on Liston. Walcott advised by the timekeeper that Liston has been down for longer than ten seconds ran in and stopped the fight. Ali was still champion. Immediately after the fight, the crowd started chanting, “Fix, fix, Fix.”
It was certainly a fight that asked more questions than providing any answers. Was Liston offered a bribe to fix the fight? Was Ali’s overhand right hard enough to KO Liston? Would the outcome be any different had Liston been given an eight count? Certainly if Liston was paid money to fix the fight, he took the secret to his grave.
When asked two years later about what happened, Liston stated that he was caught by a punch while he was off balance. The first thing he looked for was a count and the referee did not give him one. He then added that people said he sat down. He closed by saying that he was on his feet when the referee stepped in. Look at the movies.
Ali’s championship career was just beginning although events outside the ring two years later dictated otherwise for a while. Liston’s championship career was effectively finished although he racked a series of wins before losing to Leotis Martin by knockout in 1969. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1970. Like Jack Johnson’s alleged intentional dive against Jess Willard in 1915 and “The Battle of the Long Count” between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1927, Ali vs. Liston was a fight that will be forever debated and probably never agreed on.