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The Night 'The Greatest' Was Born

The legend of the world’s best known athlete was established in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, when a boy entered the ring against Sonny Liston and emerged from it a man. A young Muhammad Ali was not yet a great fighter, but he managed to beat one. And it shook up the world.

On paper, the bout appeared to be a mismatch of epic proportions. Liston, the heavyweight champion and a 7-1 favorite, was thought to be unbeatable. Cassius Clay, as he was then known, had yet to fight a top-flight contender and had looked bad in winning his previous two fights against blown-up light heavyweights. 

Not one of the 11 living former heavyweight champs gave Clay a chance of winning. Many boxing people sincerely feared for his life. Moreover, Clay’s entire Louisville Sponsoring Group, including his trainer Angelo Dundee, was opposed to him fighting Liston at this time. 

As it turned out, the ‘Louisville Lip’ had everybody right where he wanted them. 

After much thought, Clay realized that what he did to Liston outside of the ring might be even more important than what he did to him inside of it. Getting the champ to underestimate him was the most important thing. 

“I wanted him thinking that all I was some clown, and that he would never have to give a second thought to me being able to put up any real fight when we got to the ring,” Ali admitted later. “The more out-of-shape and overconfident I could get him to be, the better.”

Equally important was Clay’s plan to needle, harass, and humiliate Liston so badly that he’d fight angry. “Any time you lose your head, you’re fighting the other guy’s fight, and you’re in trouble,” said former featherweight champ, Willie Pep. “You know what I call an angry boxer?” echoed Jack Dempsey, “I call him a lost-head. He’s lost his head and now he’s going to lose the match.”

Clay relentlessly demeaned Liston whenever he could, attacking his intellect and questioning his blackness. By fight time, Liston’s anger had all but consumed him.

Clay’s campaign of psychological warfare might be the biggest sting operation in the history of sports. Remarkably, it was devised by a kid who had graduated 376th in a high school class of 391. So much for book smarts.

“Nobody ever could have conned me the way I did him,” Ali said. “I’d sit down and give his actions careful examination. Liston didn’t never even think about doing that. Neither did nobody around him.” 

The fight became a primer on how not to prepare for a title defense. Liston truly believed Clay’s best weapon was his mouth. He told boxing historian Jimmy Jacobs to bet his life that Cassius wouldn’t last three rounds against him, and he trained accordingly. 

Sonny wiled away many evenings eating hot dogs, drinking beer and dealing blackjack, and a couple of people claimed he was being supplied with prostitutes by members of his entourage. Judging by the activity at Liston’s Miami residence, his victory party began about three weeks before the fight.

But Liston was an old fighter, perhaps twice as old as Ali at the time of their first bout. And a severely injured left shoulder found him secretly spending almost as much time at his physical therapist’s office as he did in the gym.

Between March 9, 1961, and Feb. 24, 1964, Liston fought only three times, each of which ended in one-round knockouts. The sum of his ring time was 6 minutes and 14 seconds, which meant that for all practical purposes Sonny was in the midst of a three-year layoff. 

“A fighter has to fight regularly to be at his best,” said Joe Louis. “Jack Dempsey found that out the hard way and so did I.” And so would Sonny. As Ali would later say, Liston was the perfect set-up.

In contrast, Clay trained diligently and led such a chaste life that Angelo Dundee said a lot of people thought his fighter must be gay. The challenger also made sure that nobody but his own people saw his serious workouts. He worried that the press would figure out his strategy, but it never happened. 

“Them newspaper people couldn’t have been working no better for me if I had been paying them,” he said later.

A lot of sportswriters intensely disliked both fighters partly because they thought one had no ability and the other had way too much. They derided Clay’s boxing skill because they were too blind to see it and they slandered Liston’s character because they wouldn’t allow themselves to believe that he had any.

The backdrop for this fight was essentially one of David versus Goliath. It pitted a talented, engaging and good looking kid who thought he was ready to fight the toughest, strongest, and most menacing man that boxing had ever seen. But that story line was about to change in a big way.

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Paul Gallender is the author of "Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights."

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