This Week in Sports History: Ali takes first heavyweight belt from Sonny Liston

Muhammed Ali’s achievements in boxing are nearly impossible to replicate and are always interesting to go back to — this will be the second time I’ve covered an Ali fight this year. Something about Ali’s legacy, between his inventive fighting style, laundry list of title wins and personal achievements outside the ring, is alluring, even against other boxing greats like Pacquiao or Mayweather. On Feb. 25, 1964, Ali would make his mark on boxing history by defeating Sonny Liston for the first heavyweight title of his career. 

The fight’s lead-up was a sports’ reporter’s dream — both Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (this was before Ali’s name change) were heavily disliked by fans and reporters alike. Liston’s image was tarnished based on his actions and associates; his boxing career got its start as Liston practiced in prison for armed robbery. Between his criminal pursuits and the fact that his manager was a Lucchese crime family capo in Frankie Carbo, Sonny Liston’s entire career was shrouded in scandal, and he took regular beatings from sports media. Clay’s reputation was far less violent but, nonetheless, still despised. He was beyond confident in his abilities, and, as a 22 year-old fighter with a reputation to uphold, his arrogance was unmatched. Nicknamed “The Louisville Lip,” he was easy for writers and reporters to talk down to, and the up-and-coming Clay was seen as nothing but fodder for Liston, who had never lost a professional boxing match. One of the regular boxing writers for the “New York Times” denied the gig of covering the fight, claiming that the fight wasn’t even worth covering. Bettors agreed — Clay was a 7-1 betting underdog, and only three ringside reporters of the 46 at the match had Clay picked to win.  

Clay’s demeanor remained unshaken, and he spent much of the time leading up to the fight finding ways to torment Liston. Between reading a poem about Liston’s pending destruction and driving a bus emblazoned with “Sonny Must Go in Eight” outside of his house, tensions were rising high, and they boiled over at the prefight weigh-in. Upon seeing Liston at the weigh-in, Ali hurled insults and threats at him, having to be physically held back by his entourage. After a blood pressure test that determined Clay’s was twice the level it should’ve been, the chief physician determined that Ali was “emotionally unstable” and that the fight would be cancelled if it did not return to normal levels. Luckily, Clay’s fury didn’t cost him the fight, and he entered the ring that night. 

The fight itself immediately turned against expectations — Liston threw himself at Clay with the intent to end the fight with an immediate knockout, but Clay’s trademark speed became the star of the first round, and he dodged the volley with ease. Along with a furious combination, the round was almost entirely Clay’s, except for a very strong body punch from Liston. The second round saw Liston regain his composure, and it was much to his benefit; cornering Clay against the ropes, Liston struck him with a powerful left hook that hurt Clay badly (though Liston didn’t know Clay was so staggered, odds are he could’ve won the bout had he kept attacking).  

Round three was brutal for Liston’s image as unstoppable. Prior to this fight, boxing commissioners were afraid that Liston may have ruined the sport, as they believed he could not be beaten. Clay’s start was massive, as he hit Liston with repeated combos that cut him under his left eye and pinned him to the ropes. This was the first time Liston had ever been cut in his entire career. Before the round ended, Liston was able to strike Clay with repeated heavy body hits, but the mental game was clearly becoming Clay’s. This would lead into rounds four, five and six — despite the fact that something had gotten into Clay’s eyes and he could not see, he avoided Liston deftly; when his sight had returned fully in the sixth, Clay pummeled him viciously, landing whatever combinations he threw.  

Though the crowd waited intently for round seven, the match did not continue. Liston either voluntarily quit or was injured so that continued fighting would be impossible. Either way, Liston never returned from his corner, and Cassius Clay was the new heavyweight champion. Always true to the flashy obnoxiousness he was known for, he chided reporters immediately after the fight’s end. In fact, Clay initially refused to hold the post-fight presser, as he didn’t want to answer questions from a group of people who vehemently despised him, and had to be persuaded by his entourage to do so. He spent the entire conference insulting them and boasting his win: “Look at me. Not a mark on me. I could never be an underdog. I am too great. Hail the champion!” As such an underdog, many would agree that it was only his right to do so.