• Steve Bunce

The night the legend of Muhammad Ali began

Steve Bunce February 25, 2014
Cassius Clay ducks a left hook from Sonny Liston during their famous fight of 1964 © Getty Images

The Miami Convention Centre on February 25, 1964, was where Cassius Clay became world heavyweight champion, where he started to become Muhammad Ali and it was also where so many of modern boxing's great conspiracy theories started.

In the opposite corner was the untouchable, unbeatable and vicious Sonny Liston. He was the world champion and had needed 2:06 to win the title, 2:10 to retain the title and Clay was his next victim. He had lost just once in 37 fights and that defeat was avenged in style; he had also met and beaten a series of men that world champions Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson had not wanted to fight. The legendary British commentator and writer Reg Gutteridge called Liston "a muscular mass of menace".

Liston was the heavy betting favourite and many predicted a fatality in the ring. Some journalists and fight people, and I'm not joking here, thought that there was a very real chance that Liston would kill Clay in the fight. Liston was, according to one leading American writer, "a sinister creature, full of hatred for the world". He had talked about murdering Patterson before knocking him out in back-to-back world title fights. Liston had served time in prison, was associated with known criminals and had a real and invented history of hurting people in his day job as an enforcer.

Buncey's Vault

Herbie Hide lays into Michael Bentt © Getty Images
  • Thirty years after Clay v Liston it was Herbie Hide against Michael Bentt for the WBO heavyweight title at Millwall's new football stadium.
  • The pair had scuffled at a press conference, both had then been fined and on the night there was a genuine thrill in the air. In round three Bentt, who was based in America but had been born a few miles away in East Dulwich, was dropped but he survived the round.
  • There was a sudden panic in Bentt's relaxed corner and they 'worked frantically to breathe life into their charge'. Hide continued to dominate and Bentt was a massive disappointment. In round seven, Hide dropped Bentt again and this time after 'his pathetic attempt to climb up' the ref called it off. Hide at 22 was the champion.
  • I wrote: 'The story of the fight was Bentt's amnesia attack; he simply forgot how to fight.' There was a scare in the aftermath when Bentt collapsed in his dressing room and was rushed to hospital for observation. He was released without surgery but never fought again. Hide lost the title in his first defence a year later when Riddick Bowe stopped him in the sixth round.
  • As reported in The Sunday Telegraph, March 20, 1994

Clay had been goading the champion for a couple of years with a series of stunts and some outrageous comments. However, the truth is that he was not yet good enough to take on and beat Liston if the champion was at his best. Liston was too ugly, too stupid and too slow to be world champion, so Clay claimed. Liston, in all fairness, ignored most of the insults, but gently put Clay down with considered comments, not outrageous claims. On one occasion, shortly after they had signed for the fight and talked to the press, they were in the same room at a casino in Las Vegas. Clay started to eat a plate of fried chicken and Liston, who had no formal education and was one of 25 children, just watched in amazement as the younger man devoured the food. Clay, at one point, looked up, chicken juice slopping down his chin. Liston smiled and said: "You eat like you headed to the electric chair." Liston knew what he was talking about.

The fight ended after six rounds with Liston sitting in his corner. He had injured his left shoulder, his left jab had been crucially absent during the six completed rounds, and he was pulled out by his people. The injury was, so Liston's people claimed, an old one and there had been talk about withdrawing from the fight. In the aftermath, when many of the shocked experts evaluated their miscalculation, Liston's association with criminals was repeatedly mentioned as a reason for his submission. The fight was not a fix, so forget that fantasy but it was a convenient theory for the men that had predicted Clay's painful exit. In Britain, nine boxing journalists, including guest columnist Rocky Marciano, were paraded on the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline 'The Men with Red Faces'. It was a big fight.

The fight is rightly remembered as the night Clay set off down the road to becoming a great fighter. However, there are a lot of things that are forgotten or ignored about the fight. It was Liston and not Clay that insisted that cinemas across America, which were showing the fight, not be segregated. It is a little fact that gets missed in the mayhem of Clay's act of lunacy at the fight's weigh-in, when the medical diagnosis of his hysteria was that he was "scared to death", and the extraordinary ending to the fight.

It is also often overlooked that Liston had fought just four minutes and 16 seconds in 27 months and Clay had fought nine times in the same period, going 46 rounds. It is just one extra reason why it looked like Liston was missing with so many punches and at the same time Clay seemed to be able to do whatever he liked. It is far easier to turn to tales of the 'mob' influencing the result as a reason for the shocking loss, rather than Liston simply being rusty and Clay being brilliant.

It will never be forgotten.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
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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.