On February 25th 1964, undisputed heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston boasted a 35-1 (28) record. Liston was 218 pounds of tempered steel packaged into a large boned frame that stood a little over 6’1″. For the previous five years, three of those before he knocked out former champ Floyd Patterson in September of 1962 to win the title, Liston was a human wrecking machine. Yes, he was the baddest man on the planet.
In the early sixties it wasn’t uncommon to hear it said by many boxing aficionados that Sonny was the most formidable heavyweight champion in history and perhaps even greater than Joe Louis. From 1958-1963 Liston won 20 consecutive fights and only two fighters, Bert Whitehurst (who was out on his feet and saved by the final bell) and Eddie Machen went the distance with him. Both fighters received ovations for lasting the limit with Sonny, but that’s about the best that can be said on their behalf because they never really were in the fight nor did they present much of a threat to Liston over the course of the 22 rounds they spent in the ring with him.
It was understood at the time that Liston was taking apart all of the top contenders that Cus D’Amato, heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson’s manager/trainer, refused to let Floyd defend the title against. Contenders such as Mike DeJohn, Cleveland Williams (who Liston stopped twice) Zora Folley and Eddie Machen.
Liston, 31, was seen as the future of the heavyweight division. He was a fundamentally sound boxer who possessed the best left jab in heavyweight history at the time, something that probably still holds true today with only the likes of Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis having a case to be made for theirs in the post Liston era. Sonny was a natural at boxing and carried dynamite in both hands. He was strong as an ox and had a great chin. One doesn’t need more than a few fingers to count the times Liston was hurt or shook over his 54 fight professional career.
Enter Cassius Clay 19-0 (15), who would challenge Liston for the title on the night of February 25th 1964 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
At the time Clay, who would change his name to Cassius X three days later and then to Muhammad Ali shortly after that, was not thought to be the greatest by anyone other than himself. He was an Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist with hand and food speed never seen before in a heavyweight. That aside, he was still between a 7 or 8 to 1 underdog against Liston. In his previous bout before challenging Liston, he was dropped and almost stopped by Henry Cooper in London, England. This was the same Henry Cooper whose managerial team wouldn’t even let him campaign for a fight with Liston because they knew it would end quickly and painfully, and not because Sonny would be hurting himself.
As history would see it, Clay was too fast and swift of foot for Liston that night. Everyone knew Sonny didn’t think much of Clay as a fighter prior to their fight and was certain that because of his foot speed, Clay might last a round longer than Patterson managed to do in two fights with him. In other words, Liston was planning on working about five minutes versus Clay at the most, something he figured he could do in his sleep, and often joked about during his training leading up to the fight. When they met in the ring Clay didn’t back down from Liston and by the middle of the first round his confidence was escalating. Sonny and Cassius traded rounds and after four rounds, despite Liston being cut and a little swollen around the eyes, the fight was even.
In between the fourth and fifth rounds, Liston’s corner-man Joe Pollino tended to Sonny’s eyes. The solution used on Liston’s cuts somehow got into Clay’s eyes during the fifth round. By the middle of the round Liston was knocking Clay all over the ring without much resistance from Cassius, who was blinking and squinting profusely. Sonny used a lot of himself up trying to get Clay out during the fifth round, but due to Clay’s good legs and unknown at the time physical strength and durability, Clay survived the round.
However, Clay must not have felt that he was out of danger and was imploring his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves before the start of the sixth round so he could show the world that Liston was cheating. Remember, years later as Muhammad Ali he would admit that Liston was the only fighter he ever faced who really scared him. So it’s not out of the question with Liston having his best round of the fight that the young Clay’s confidence was waning. In the corner Clay and Dundee were going back and forth as Dundee was imploring Clay that with the title being on the line, nobody was cutting the boxing gloves off of him. Luckily for Clay, Dundee kept the ref occupied and Barney Felix never got to ask Clay if he wanted to continue or not.
Dundee managed to push Clay out for the sixth round and it changed the course of both boxing and heavyweight history. Clay’s eyes cleared during the round and he began peppering a tired Liston, whose confidence and will were slowly being sapped from him. As fate would have it, Liston wouldn’t come out for the seventh round, claiming he dislocated his left shoulder while throwing his vaunted left hook at Clay as he was moving away from him. With Liston sitting on his stool, Cassius Clay became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world at age 22.
As Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay would win the title two more times. In the interim, Ali was drafted to by the army to fight in the Vietnam war and was exiled from boxing for nearly three and a half years due to his refusal to do so. As a contender and champion Muhammad Ali fought a who’s-who list of outstanding/hall of fame heavyweights and also stopped two all-time greats, in George Foreman and Joe Frazier, to win and retain the undisputed heavyweight title in 1974 and 1975.
Ali was much more than an athlete or fight, he also stimulated talk and debate on segregation, race, religion, politics, human rights and a plethora of other topics. He was a true pioneer and paved the way for the Sugar Ray Leonards, Mike Tysons, Oscar De La Hoyas and Michael Jordans of the world. Without Muhammad Ali before them, they wouldn’t have become superstars who accumulated fortunes as both sports and cultural icons.
Yet if the result of the Liston-Clay fight ended with Liston as the winner, the legend and legacy of Muhammad Ali would’ve died before it ever was born in the Miami Beach Convention Center 50 years ago today.
What if referee Barney Felix sees the confusion in Clay’s corner before the bell rings for the sixth round and asks Cassius if he wants to continue, and Clay, blinded and panicking, indicates that he can’t? The fight is stopped and as expected Liston retains the title. The fact that Clay wanted the gloves cut off to show that Liston was cheating and that the mob/establishment was against him because he was a known member of the Nation of Islam, wouldn’t have held a drop of water or changed the public’s perception of him a bit. With Liston being seen as such a prohibitive favorite and Clay as a quitter, it’s unlikely there would’ve been a rematch. Most would’ve would figured that Sonny would get in shape the next time and massacre the loudmouth and heartless Clay. Of course Clay/Ali would’ve wound up becoming champion–he was clearly the best heavyweight of the emerging era– but his aura would be gone. Liston probably would’ve kept the title for a few more years and Ali would probably beat the guy who eventually beat the declining Liston. But he’d have represented something completely different: he would have just been another fighter. But the magic wouldn’t be there since he would have suffered an early kayo where he quit. To have been undefeated and seemingly untouchable before his exile is what in the first stage of his career defined him. And he would have always had that stigma of having quit when trying for the heavyweight title.
In real life, Ali had to take some beatings and come back to gain mainstream respect as a fighter. If he’d quit in the Liston fight, it would have been just the opposite. To regain his respect, he would’ve had to have been pretty much untouchable for the rest of his career. Yes, when it comes to Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight division could be riddled with a ton of what ifs if Muhammad didn’t answer the bell every time he fought.
What if Ali had his way and his first fight with Sonny Liston ended with him sitting on his stool instead of the opposite? The twists and turns that heavyweight history may have taken are endless. Who knows, maybe Joe Frazier never wins the title because Liston is the defending champion and Sonny would be a terrible matchup for Joe. Maybe the once beaten Ali and Frazier meet around 1967/68 in an elimination bout and their historic rivalry never comes to fruition. It’s great to venture into the ‘what if’ possibilities and they’re endless if you change a result here or there regarding Ali’s fighting career.
So let’s finish with what we know. Ali did fight the sixth round with Liston and resumed command of the fight. He captured the title and beat Liston in a rematch via a controversial first round knockout, in a fight that saw Liston on his feet fighting Ali when referee “Jersey” Joe Walcott stopped the fight. Thus Ali eliminated Liston for Joe Frazier and then himself was exiled from boxing three years later and paved the way for Frazier to flower and emerge as the best heavyweight in the world by the late sixties and early seventies.
Interesting if you think about it – if Ali loses the first fight against Liston, his legacy dies and boxing is cheated out of a generation of great heavyweight fights and Muhammad Ali may not be, as he is today, regarded as the greatest overall heavyweight champion in boxing history. In real life, Ali defeats Liston and his legacy is hatched. And as a result of Ali ridding Liston from Frazier’s path along with his exile, the seed of Frazier’s legacy is planted.
Is it really possible that had Cassius Clay refused to come out for the sixth round against Sonny Liston 50 years ago today, the Ali-Frazier rivalry and both of their legacies also would’ve been buried alive before they were even born?
Yes, it’s very plausible that’s how things may have unfolded.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com