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The night Cassius Clay shook up the world

Publish Date: 02/25/2023
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The night Cassius Clay shook up the world

It went down fifty-nine years ago.

Unbeaten Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, met powerhouse Charles “Sonny” Liston at the Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida.

Clay said Liston, “Was too ugly to be world champ.”

Ugly or not, Liston was a heavy favorite to knock the cocky challenger out.

Quickly.

Video: Highlights Muhammad Ali - Sonny Liston I

Highlights Muhammad Ali – Sonny Liston I

Liston had held the world heavyweight title for two years – winning it by demolishing Floyd Patterson in a few minutes.

The rematch lasted four seconds longer.

Clay had won gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960 in the light heavyweight division. When he faced Liston four years later, he was 19-0 with 15 knockouts. His two most recent outings were hardly impressive. Clay squeaked past Doug Jones and stopped Henry Cooper after being floured by a Cooper left hook.

His style was odd.

Heavyweights don’t stick and move.

A few hours before the opening bell, Liston was a seven-to-one favorite.

Forty-three of forty-six experts picked Liston to win.

Clay was fast, several said, but he doesn’t hit hard enough.

Liston entered his fight with Clay, the winner of 35 of 36 bouts.

He had flattened 24 opponents.

His age was a mystery.

Was he 31, as he stated, or 34?

Or older?

Seconds before the opening bell, Liston glared at Clay. His eyes were vacant and deadly. Clay stared back but admitted after the bout that Liston’s look had unnerved him.

Liston started fast. He fired his telephone like jab, but the fleet-footed challenger moved his head to avoid it.

He ducked, feinted, and danced. Liston connected with a powerful right to Clay’s body.

Two Clay jabs found Liston with a minute left in the round. The undefeated youngster dodged two powerful left hooks and kept jabbing – clipping Liston with a nifty combination.

Clay continued to stick and move in round two. Liston stalked, but catching the speedy challenger was a problem.

He directed shots at the body, forcing Clay to the ropes. Clay skipped away before Liston could land anything damaging.

Clay was the aggressor in round three – landing a sharp right and seconds later, staggered Liston with a combination. Liston was buzzed, but recovered quickly. Clay’s sharp combination had opened up a cut near Liston’s left eye and a bruise on his right.

Liston fired back near the end of the heat, clipping Clay with an uppercut. Clay continued to move laterally and jab in round four. Liston fired his own left, but was missing often. His right eye was closing.

Clay had his own eye problems. He couldn’t see. Clay yelled at trainer Angelo Dundee, “Cut off my gloves.”

Dundee washed out Clay’s burning eyes with a sponge. He reminded Clay that this fight was a “big one” and said, “Get out there and run.”

Though some accused Liston’s corner of mischief, Clay’s eye issues were more likely caused by a substance applied to close Liston’s cut that got on Clay’s gloves and blinded him.

Though still blinking madly, Clay did what Dundee told him.

He ran and held in round five.

Video: Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston | How Ali SHOOK UP the World | Highlights - HD ElTerribleProduction

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston | How Ali SHOOK UP the World | Highlights – HD ElTerribleProduction

Liston worked over Clay’s midsection with heavy shots, ultimately connecting with a left hook, but Clay’s iron chin absorbed it. He used his greatest assets, his legs, to move away.

In round six, Clay was back in control. A sharp right and double left hook bothered Liston.

Clay’s jab tattooed Liston’s mug.

Liston connected with a left hook that had no effect.

The champion paused before sitting on his stool after the round ended.  He looked weary. His left shoulder, reinjured in training camp, was bothering him.

Liston said, “That’s it,” and spit out his mouthpiece.

How badly his shoulder was bothering him was a matter of debate.

Clay quickly comprehended what was happening.

He moved to the center of the ring with his arms raised–all the while doing what would come to be called “The Ali shuffle” and later screaming, “I’m the king of the world! I’m pretty.! I’m a bad man! I shook up the world.!

The fight was even at the time of the stoppage.

A rematch had to happen.

It did on May 25, 1965, in a little city named Lewistown.

Video: Ali's Controversial

Ali’s Controversial “Phantom Punch” Explained – Brilliant Exchanges

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