• Steve Bunce

The feat of Clay that launched Muhammad Ali

Steve Bunce February 26, 2013
Portrait of the artist as a young man: Cassius Clay turned professional after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics © PA Photos

You have to be careful when using the word legend - it is used too often. Muhammad Ali was a legend, a fighter whose impact transcends boxing, perhaps even all sport, and made him part of human history.

There is a point, as history gets rewritten, when legend starts to become a myth. There's a generation now who know that Muhammad Ali was 'the greatest' but have no idea why, beyond the fact he was that boxer who predicted rounds, wrote poems, floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee when fighting the odds in the ring.

Of course I'm not talking about my regular readers here in this column, but every so often it's worth retelling the stories of great boxers of the past to get a sense of where the fight game has come from and why as a result we get to do what we do.

February 25 marked 49 years to the day since Ali, known at the time as Cassius Clay, knocked out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Looking back it was an early step on Ali's path to greatness, but at the time it was simply a monumental upset that ought never to have happened.

Clay, who would change his name to Cassius X the following morning before being renamed Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam, was matched against Liston for the world title in the time-honoured tradition, and to be honest nobody gave him a chance. Even the Beatles, who had visited his gym in the build-up to the fight, were incredibly dismissive both of Clay's talent and his chances - John Lennon went so far as to say: "He won't last a round". The Fab Four had been thrown out of Liston's gym and were reluctant to visit the underdog Clay, thinking having pictures with the loser would not look good.

The fight, which took place in Miami, was close to being called off. At the weigh-in there was a very real chance that Clay would be ruled out by the doctor, who was convinced that his high blood pressure was life-threatening. Angelo Dundee, the wise sage who had been Clay's trainer for a couple of years by then, somehow managed to talk the doctor and the local commissioner around and the fight went ahead.

That first fight was bizarre. Liston, who had fought a dangerous list of ignored fighters in his struggle to get his own crack at the heavyweight world title, was considered ferocious; against Clay he fought like a cuddly toy. And after five rounds, he sat on his stool, chin on his chest: Liston, the great ugly bear as Clay called him, had quit, and the Louisville Lip was the champion of the world.

Anyone who doubts just how big an upset Clay's victory was would be wise to look what Liston had done in the years before he became world champion. Take the men he met, men that the heavyweight champions Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson would not touch - Liston fought them all, and for the most part knocked them out. After that, he produced back-to-back first-round knockouts to take and then keep the world title from Patterson.

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With a record like that, young Clay, at the time 22 and unbeaten in 19 fights, had realistically no chance. However, everybody got it wrong and Clay and Dundee got it right.

That 1964 victory was more than just a shock result. It was a fight that changed the way we look at and remember boxing. Since that evening in Miami nearly half a century ago, Muhammad Ali has in many ways become bigger than the sport. His exploits are known by people who know nothing about his…well, exploits.

Fifteen months after the first fight there was a rematch, when Ali landed what became known as the phantom punch to send Liston down and out in the first round, and the resulting photo of Ali scowling down on Liston, arms aloft. People remember that fight for the punch but most people tend to forget the fact that Ali was actually at his very best against Liston in their first bout in 1964.

My memories of Ali, like almost everyone's, are shaped by watching him on TV. I'm a massive fan of the fights at the end of his first reign - those in the last months before he was banished from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam war. He was sensational in the last three fights of the first part of his career. That was the greatest Ali, forget the more famous Seventies version.

But my overriding memory of Ali will always be the last round of the Fight of the Century in 1971, when he was dropped by a left hook from Joe Frazier in the final round of a fight that defines the brutality and bravery of boxing at its very best. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can still see it, such was the impact of that moment. It was a fight that Ali lost - his first defeat as a professional - but it was also in many ways his greatest performance. How did he beat the count? That is true grit.

Now here's the thing. When it comes to ranking boxers throughout the ages, a lot of people are desperate to put Ali at the top of their list, not least the man himself - you don't go around telling everyone you're the greatest otherwise! In pure boxing terms, I think that you need to look at one or two other fighters - the likes of the Sugar Rays, Leonard and Robinson, Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. I know they had more defeats, but I think their careers are better.

I have Ali among my top five fighters of all time, but he happened to be involved in the biggest and arguably some of the very best fights. Overall, if you were to do an assessment of the rankings you end up with him at No. 1, but in terms of what he could do in the ring he's top 10.

That said, he is the most important boxer in history - and that's a valid part of that No. 1 ranking debate. No disrespect, but Duran did very little but keep his 100 closest personal friends drunk as sacks and high as kites for 10 years - that was his main contribution. The Sugar Rays didn't achieve anything like the status that Ali attained. They just didn't have the impact of the brilliant kid in Miami with the high blood pressure.

On this week's episode of Buncey's Boxing Podcast, the finest weekly UK boxing chat online, Tyson Fury joins us for a fair, balanced and in no way controversial assessment of David Price's shock defeat by Tony Thompson at the weekend...it has to be heard to be believed. Until next week - Adios.

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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.