Is it really fifty years since Cassius Clay stopped Sonny Liston, shocking the boxing world and inaugurating a new era in sports? The fight's anniversary has attracted lots of attention, and you could argue that it probably has not attracted enough.
As a boxing phenomenon, Clay-Liston ranks as one of the great upsets in history. The challenger was a 7-1 underdog, coming off a string of less than impressive wins over less than impressive opponents—remember he'd barely survived Henry Cooper; indeed many still argue that Angelo Dundee did indeed slice Clay's glove open, buying him extra time to recover.I worked with Angelo a few times, and never got a straight answer to that one.
Remember too that Sonny Liston was regarded as the baddest man alive, and merely finding someone willing to get in the ring and endure the punishment his fists provided was close to impossible. He'd beaten the former champ, Floyd Patterson, twice, in the first round both times. Since 1961, he'd spent barely six rounds in the ring. Yet Clay would taunt him, insult him, and brashly proclaim victory—even having a poem read on the TV show I've Got A Secret in which he promised 'a total eclipse of Sonny'. It was the beginning of a new era in sports in the same way the Kennedy triumph over Nixon in the televised debates began a new era in politics.
Even during the fight itself, there was a moment after the fourth when Ali, blinded, didn't want to continue, and Dundee had to push him back into the ring. Some say he'd got liniment from Liston's shoulder in his eyes, others that Liston's corner had put whatever coagulant they were putting on Sonny's cuts onto his gloves.
Ali exploded out after his eyes cleared in the fifth, and after taking punishment in the sixth Liston simply sat in his corner, refusing to come out. He seemed at the time like a confused wounded animal, resigned to his ultimate fate. Now we wonder if the fix was in. Seven to one is pretty long odds for a heavyweight championship (Jim Braddock won his title at 10-1) and that's hard for the wise guys to resist. There is a problem, though, and if we jump forward to the rematch in Lewiston, Maine, and the so-called 'phantom punch' it becomes clear. If that were indeed a dive, as so many have claimed, it was done the way dives are supposed to be done, literally by diving. You don't sit on your stool in your corner saying 'No Mas'. Doctors after the fight confirmed Liston had a torn tendon, and Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule said Liston had been unable to lift his arm.
But Clay had done the unthinkable. He'd humbled the baddest man in the world. More importantly, he'd said before the match that he would. He ran to the edge of the ring, pointed at the reporters, and yelled 'eat your words!'
This was something unprecedented in the ethos of sport. Sportsmen didn't brag, they didn't call untoward attention to themselves, and they never challenged authority, at least not with impunity. Like soccer players well into the late part of the past century, American sportsmen were supposed to be loyal, quiet servants (note that NFL players and coaches still call the owners 'Mr.' and the league gives the Super Bowl trophy to the guy who signs the checks). Clay changed all that. Joe Namath would soon follow in his footsteps, unafraid to state brag as fact, as would Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, promoting himself relentlessly (only to be knocked cold by Donnie Anderson in the first Super Bowl).
It went beyond the undeniable flair Ali brought, the heavyweight who moved quick as a middleweight, the handsome fighter whose face stayed unmarked. Looking at footage of Joe Louis being interviewed after the first Liston fight, you think they're not just from different generations, they're from different planets. So too when Clay went crazy at the weigh-in, taunting the scariest man in the world. All those stare-downs you see before fights nowadays are a direct response to the first Clay-Liston fight.
You'll often read about Ali modelling his public persona after Gorgeous George; the young Ali was a big wrestling fan, and the adoption of wrestling promotion was a conscious choice by Clay. But if you watch his style, if you consider where he grew up and when, and who he was most likely to see, you would find it easy to conclude that much of his bombast and braggadoccio actually came not from George but from 'Classy' Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed 'King of Men'. I never thought it was coincidence that when Ali 'fought' the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, it was Blassie whom he chose to be his 'manager', and Blassie did much of the talking in what people assumed was an imitation of Ali's style.
This meant Clay had a huge appeal to kids around my age, who'd probably just gone through their own 'golden age' of wrestling, and recognised and enjoyed Ali's public bombast. I still have my 45rpm record Cassius Clay recorded, 'this is the story of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal and brags indeedy, of a powerful punch that's incredibly speedy....This kid has power, speed and endurance; if you sign to fight him, INCREASE YOUR INSURANCE!...If Cassius says a cow can lay an egg, don't ask how...GREASE THAT SKILLET!' I was mesmerised.
The adult (white) world was torn. Sonny Liston had destroyed Floyd Patterson, a 'credit to his race', and was a scowling ex-con you would run across the street to avoid if you saw him coming. But Clay was 'uppity'; an odd way to describe someone so clever, articulate, handsome, energetic, and so much fun. Who could they root for? For me, and many of my peers, the choice was easy. We may not have been convinced that the cow could lay eggs, or that the big ugly bear would indeed be beaten, but it was an idea that spoke to us.
It's no coincidence that the Beatles visited Clay's training camp in Miami. Or that Clay and Liston were both in the audience in Miami when the Beatles played there on the Ed Sullivan Show. You could look at them the same way you looked at Clay. It wasn't just that they were different; the Beatles were quite as scrubbed clean as the Bobby Rydells and Paul Ankas of the white pop world, but like Clay they were livelier, a breath of fresh air in a stale business. And like Clay, they didn't seem in thrall to the business itself. I still remember a Time magazine profile of the Beatles, marveling that they weren't slaves to the profits of the music industry—that they spent their money on simple things, like beer and fags, or something like that. I remember how it struck me as just as odd as Time intended it to sound, as if there were something wrong with not chasing the lifestyle of showbiz. Of course all that would change pretty quickly, but I think you can also argue that both the Beatles and Clay saw the sudden celebrity they received as something less important than they were supposed to.
And you can argue that Clay used that celebrity in a way that made the most of it, something unmatched even by the most famous pop group in the world (George's Bangladesh and Lennon's sleep ins for peace notwithstanding).
After the fight, Ali was with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke. You can watch him pull Cooke over to an interviewer at ringside, and say, 'talk to him he's a famous pop star'. This was a veritable black Mount Rushmore gathered just at the time Clay would make probably the most momentous off-field decision made by any sportsman of the century.
The next day Clay announced he was a Moslem, a member of the Nation of Islam (aka the Black Muslims) and that he was renouncing his 'slave name' and had taken the name Cassius X. A week later, Elijah Muhammad would rename him Muhammad Ali.
Asked about his conversion, sometimes with respect but more often with at best an assumption he had been somehow led astray, and at worst outright hostility, Ali's personality changed from pro wrestler to someone thoughtful and sincere. He argued with authority the positive tenants of his new religion, echoing Malcom X's refusal to accept debate on someone else's terms. He demonstrated some of Jim Brown's massive inner strength and drive to self-determination. What this said to the black community has been explained by people better qualified than me to do that, but it had a wider resonance too. It came at just the right time, after Kennedy's assassination, when many verities seemed to be challenged. Lyndon Johnson was pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress, and it cleared its first hurdle at the same time as the fight.
I'd been lured in by Ali's showmanship, now I was convinced by his seriousness and his sincerity. The same attitudes my own minister had instilled in me by riding freedom buses in the south, the same consistency of religious belief with moral action, was being demonstrated in front of me by a trash-talking (the phrase hadn't been invented yet) 22 year old. Within a few years Ali would refuse induction into the Army, be stripped of his heavyweight title, spend years in exile speaking to college audiences of kids just like me, and eventually win in the courts, and embark on his second career, with all its epic moments, the true stuff of classic heroism and tragedy.
When I applied for my conscientious objector status, I don't think I used Muhammad Ali as an example, or a reference, though Lord knows I used about every other public thinker I could find. I wasn't anywhere near as glib then as I am now, and there was more at stake too. But I'm sure I wished I could find the articulateness of Ali as I wrote my statement, the articulateness that belied the persona who could trump Joe Frazier or Howard Cosell with equal ease and precision.