Enhancing Your Urban Experience
I shook up the world!”
In the waning moments of Black History Month, it is important to remember a night 30 years ago when the Kid from Louisville, Kentucky stepped into a boxing ring in sweltering Miami, Florida and defeated The Bear, Sonny Liston. For it was in that percise moment that a generation began to thrill to the antics of its "greatest" son. He arrived that night as Cassius Clay, a 22 year-old braggart with razor blade boxing skills, and left as Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, an American legend.
“When my generation needed pride, he was it. When we needed victories, he supplied them. He was bigger than life.”
-Bryant Gumbel/TV Personality
Four years earlier, The Kid stood on the Jefferson County Bridge in his home town and tossed his Olympic Gold Medal, won in the 178-pound division of the 1960 Games, into the Ohio River. The story goes; earlier that week a transient tried to wrest it from his neck, and the subsequent fight left a disturbing mark on his memory. This act, The Kid said, gave him a new strength and sense of purpose. A metaphoric baptism for a man of peace in the barbaric life of a future prizefighter.
“Years later after Martin Luther King was murdered there was no one to cling to except Ali.”
-Reggie Jackson/Baseball Hall of Famer
With less than 20 professional bouts to his credit, The Kid started one of the most relentless campaigns to fight for the heavyweight championship ever attempted. By talking to anyone with a microphone, acting for every camera, and showing up at ringside for every title fight, The Bear was forced to face him. The sheer pomp and will of his personality, as much as his extraordinary talent, put young Cassius at the doorstep of a dream.
“In private, Muhammed was a quiet person. He was always contemplating something. But in front of people he was a magician. He was the most accessible athlete of his era.”
The Bear was the most feared boxer of his era. Boxing writers of the time compare his intimidating ringside manner to that of Mike Tyson’s early years. “Sonny Liston was a frightening man,” said journalist Harold Conrad. “He was arrested 16 times, and once beat up an armed cop; even many black fight fans hated his demonic image.” He had a dark image, and an even darker side that put fear into the sport he stalked. Before he agreed to meet The Kid in the ring, he was the one feared by white middle-class America. Only the pomp and will of The Kid would change all that.
“Jackie Robinson is the white man’s hero, but Cassius Clay is the hero of his people.”
Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”
Boxing authorities threatened to cancel the fight when word leaked through the Miami Herald that Cassius Clay had intended to change his name to Muhammed Ali. He would denounce Christianity and strip his slave name to become a member of the Nation of Islam. The religious sect had caused quite a stir with its growing anti-white, anti-American rhetoric. The promoters were worried about the gate. But despite the controversial socio-political overtones and being an 8-to-1 underdog, interest was swirling around this charismatic young fighter from Kentucky. In the first spiritual decision of many to come, The Kid would not renounce his faith for a taste of boxing glory. Instead, he plowed ahead against the storm, creating a solitary voice in an angry sea of negative press. He said he harbored no hatred toward anyone. His will and pomp won out, the fight was on.
“Ali reinvented the rituals of boxing”
-Thomas Hauser/Ali’s Biographer
Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” he screamed the day of the weigh-in. In front of the Miami Boxing Commission, former champions, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and hundreds of reporters, he concluded the frantic show with a prediction of an eight-round knockout. After the near riot in the crowded room, the writers gave The Kid little chance. The Bear did not agree. “Only a crazy man wouldn’t be afraid of Liston,” said writer, Robert Lipsyte. “Ali convinced the champ he was entering the ring with one of the craziest.”
“I remember thinking that a dark cloud would fall over young Cassius Clay the night he fought the brutal Sonny Liston.”
The first three rounds were everything The Kid said they would be. The Bear was having trouble sizing up his quickness; dodging the snapping jabs and the crossing right hand. Cassius Clay had the champion of the world looking like a rank amateur. Between rounds the champ’s cornermen surrounded him. They had decided that the fourth round would be an entirely different story. When it was finished The Kid’s eyes were burning. Someone apparently rubbed an illegal substance on The Bear’s gloves.
Before the bell for the fifth round, The Kid was blind. With stinging tears streaming down his face, he pleaded with his corner to do anything. Angelo Dundee assured the young challenger that if he could ride out the round, the fight was his.
Valiantly, The Kid ducked and weaved his way through it. “Everyone in the place thought Liston would destroy him, even with everything being equal,” said fight doctor Verde Pacheco. “After he survived the fifth, with his sight restored, the sixth round could be no worse.”
The sixth round was all The Kid needed.
“Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out! The winner and new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay.”
-Howard Cosell/Broadcaster at ringside
Bloody, battered and beaten: The Bear did not answer the bell for round seven. The legend of Muhammed Ali was born. The Kid became a man before he became a champion, and when the boxing world stripped him of his title three years later for refusing to fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs, they could never take that away.
He would win the title back. It seemed the great Ali would always win in spite of popular opinion. He would be the model of champion, gold medal or not, championship belt or not.
“If you need to know history, the real story of those before you, then you should go to the library and read newspaper clippings of someone like Muhammad Ali every day, then it might giver you some understanding of the man.”
Thirty years have passed since that night of February 25, 1964, the day that the most influential athlete of the 20th century made his mark on history.
Shook up the world, indeed.