Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

The Greatest

When Ali earned his nickname

‘Even before Liston had become world heavyweight champion,” Muhammad Ali recounted in The Greatest: My Own Story, “I knew he was the fighter I would have to beat if I were ever to be recognized as what I declared I was: The Greatest.”

In the early 1960s, Charles “Sonny” Liston was the scariest man in America. Six feet, 218 pounds, ebony-dark and mustachioed, broad torso and arms powerfully sculpted, hands like bricks, Liston had done time for armed robbery. His true age was unknown. Reputed to have broken legs for a St. Louis union, Sonny learnt to box in prison and absolutely annihilated his opponents. One was carried away with seven teeth in his mouthpiece and blood trickling from his ear. Liston’s chief weapons were a stiff left jab, crushing hooks, and patience in the ring that belied quickness to anger outside of it. The hooded robes he favored evoked the Grim Reaper. No one had ever seen anything like him.

Liston captured the heavyweight belt in September 1962, and retained it in July 1963, with a pair of first-round knockouts — swift obliterations — of the righteous, pitiable Floyd Patterson. “His menace was intimate,” wrote Norman Mailer of the new champion. “One held one’s breath when near him.” It wasn’t just the ham-fists and underworld aura; it was Liston’s dead, expressionless eyes, his ill-concealed soullessness. In the racial morality play that had attended the heavyweight division since 1908, when Jack Johnson’s triumph over Jim Jeffries sparked deadly riots, poet LeRoi Jones saw “Liston the unreformed, Liston the vulgar, Liston the violent.”

Liston is the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict. . . . Sonny Liston is “the huge Negro,” “the bad nigger” . . . finally here to collect his pound of flesh.

“Big bad niggers weren’t supposed to be that big and that bad,” wrote Nick Tosches in The Devil and Sonny Liston. Tosches, who was sympathetic, nonetheless reckoned him “a beast . . . not only something that was inhuman, but also something in which humanity was not even vestigial.”

Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was beautiful: six-foot-three, lithe and light-colored, handsome and charming at 22. He loved his parents, won Olympic gold, and enjoyed kibitzing with sportswriters. In sophomoric verse, Clay cheerfully predicted the rounds in which his opponents would fall. This he accomplished with a speed and sharpness unprecedented amongst heavyweights, and ring savvy beyond his years. Clay pranced backwards in circles, edging out of danger’s way, graceful and poetic, hands held invitingly low, before darting back in to deliver blinding combinations — one-two-three-four-five! — like a cobra aroused. He was also, as the press had recently sniffed out, a convert to the Nation of Islam. No one had ever seen anything like him.

Campaigning for a title shot, Clay stalked Sonny at ringside, at casinos, at his home, even, staging wild scenes where handlers pretended to restrain him. “You big ugly bear! . . . The world’s champ should be pretty like me! . . . You gonna fall in eight!” Younger sportswriters ate it up, but the Elders resented Cassius’s antics, thought them an elaborate tonic for mortal fear, hoped Liston would shut the Louisville Lip for good. Once, Liston responded to the provocations by slapping Clay’s face; another time he whipped out a pistol and shot blanks; but mostly the champ just kept up The Stare. “He’s a fag, I’m a man,” he growled to the New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte. Mailer, covering the fight for Esquire, saw another side: “Liston was secretly fond of Clay. He would chuckle when he talked about him.”

The showdown finally came in Miami’s Convention Hall on February 25, 1964. Oddsmakers favored Liston eight-to-one. Though the champion enjoyed a two-inch advantage in reach, Clay was three inches taller, a fact that dawned on many sportswriters only when the two stood at ring center for referee Barney Felix’s instructions.

Clang! “Cassius Clay on the move,” began Theatre Network Television announcer Steve Ellis (né Armand Yusem), as Liston missed his first nine punches. Clay danced and ducked, feinted here and there, coolly took the measure of the only man who’d ever frightened him (“He was one of the most scientific boxers who ever lived; he hit hard; and he was fixing to kill me”). Sonny landed a few placebic shots to Clay’s midsection, then missed a roundhouse left. A minute in, measure taken, Clay planted his feet and unloaded two lightning combinations. He landed several jabs and — in the seven seconds where they continued fighting past the closing bell — a sharp left hook to the champ’s face. The universe was upended: Sonny Liston’s Aura of Invincibility was gone. “One of the greatest rounds of any fight we’ve seen in a long time,” marveled former champ Joe Louis.

#page#From his corner, Clay made clowning faces, and Round 2 witnessed the birth of the rope-a-dope: Clay leaning on the ropes, patiently absorbing the heavier man’s hooks to midsection. By Round 3, Clay was all business, pounding Liston into the ropes — unthinkable! — and the crowd, electrified, was on its feet. “Cassius has him hurt!” cried Ellis. “He is getting hit with all the punches in the book!” Liston recovered, and the tempo slowed, but the champ’s face looked puffy. Then came Clay’s crucible.

His eyes burned. Seated on his stool between Rounds 4 and 5, Clay blinked maniacally, demanded manager Angelo Dundee stop the fight. Gripped by paranoia that had seeped into his training camp, the result of tension between his white handlers and the Black Muslims, Clay wondered if the Italian-American Dundee, who adored his fighter, had taken mob money to poison his water bucket. In fact, salve applied to Liston’s battered face had simply migrated, in clinches, to the challenger’s. Forget the bullshit! Dundee screamed. This is the championship! “Angelo now is telling him off a little bit,” observed Ellis from ringside.

With Barney Felix about to terminate the bout, Joe Louis shouted, “Somethin’ wrong with Clay’s eyes!” Dundee shoved his man into the ring. Clay ran; the champ sensed weakness. “Sonny’s gonna try to pour it on!” yelled Ellis. Liston flailed madly, throwing 24 consecutive punches. Here Clay’s ringmanship, his innate gifts for spatial relations and evasion, took over. But it was no cakewalk: “Sonny fired his best left hook so far!” By round’s end, sight restored, Clay reassumed control, dabbing his glove at Sonny’s balding head like a boy taunting his kid brother.

Round 6 — three minutes that unfolded three months after JFK’s assassination, three weeks after the Beatles invaded America — marked the third clarion call of the Sixties revolution. Clay was now hitting Liston at will with stinging left jabs. “Easy target,” winced Ellis. “Cassius throws it from all angles!” Forty seconds in, the challenger snapped Liston’s head back with a vicious right cross that opened a cut on the champ’s face. Across 36 professional bouts, this had never happened to Liston before. “Well, that proves one thing,” exclaimed Jimmy Brown, the football star, at ringside. “Liston’s got blood.” “I was one of the many who subscribed to the Liston mystique,” recalled Howard Cosell, calling the fight for the 75.3 million listeners tuned in to ABC Radio. But here, Cosell would recall in Cosell, “Liston was slow and ponderous, and suddenly I was in the process of seeing the Big Black Bear exposed.”

Liston’s face was just slit from the eye down to the lip. It was like a zipper, and out gushed the blood, which he tasted. [Former champ] Rocky Marciano, who was doing the fight with me, leaned over and said, “Jesus Christ, Howie, he’s become an old man.”

Liston collapsed on his stool. “[Corner man] Joe Pollino trying to keep that cut closed,” reported Ellis. Soon the official physician was leaning in for a look, and Liston spit out his mouthpiece. Clay saw that. Arms aloft, legs shuffling in a willowy victory dance, he was the first person in Convention Hall to realize Liston wasn’t coming out for the seventh. Amidst the ensuing bedlam in the ring, now mobbed with newsmen, handlers, leeches, and Black Muslims, the new champion recalibrated his target: “I wasn’t even thinking about Liston — I was thinking about nothing but that hypocrite press.”

Clay bulled his way over to the sportswriters. I am the king! Eat your words! he shouted over the ropes at the Elders. Eat your words! Few did. Dick Young, the crotchety New York Daily News columnist, wrote: “I never saw Joe Louis run away and win, or Rocky Marciano, and I’m sure my father never saw Jack Dempsey run away and win, and my grandfather never saw John L. Sullivan run away and win.”

Unintentionally, Young was paying tribute to the stunning singularity of the new champion, his radical newness in a decade where change was profound and inescapable, radicalism already chic. The next day, Clay spoke at a news conference so softly the press strained to hear him. Now he openly embraced the Nation of Islam, and his mentor, Malcolm X. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth,” he said, “and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News.

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