Float Like a Butterfly and Sting like a Bee

On this day in 1964, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) wins the first of two heavyweight championship bouts against Sonny Liston, cementing his arrival and indisputable status as “The Greatest.” Ali won when the lumbering Liston gave up at the opening of the seventh round, failing to answer the bell and causing both a TKO and pandemonium.

Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion at the time of the first Liston–Clay fight in Miami Beach, having demolished former champion Floyd Patterson by a first-round knockout in September 1962. Ten months later, Liston and Patterson met again with the same result—Patterson was knocked out in the first round.

Having learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery, Liston was the most intimidating fighter of his day, and considered by many at the time of the Ali fight to be among the best heavyweights of all time. Most challengers were reluctant to meet him in the ring; Henry Cooper, the British champion, said he would be interested in a title fight if Ali won, but he was not going to get in the ring with Liston. Cooper’s manager, Jim Wicks, said, “We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.”

Conversely, Ali was a glib, fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who enjoyed the spotlight. Known as “The Louisville Lip,” he had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. He had great hand and foot speed and lightning fast reflexes, not to mention a limitless supply of braggadocio. However, Ali had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career, and, in his previous two fights, had eked out a controversial decision against Doug Jones and—more seriously—was knocked down by a left hook at the end of round four against the cut-prone converted southpaw Brit, Cooper.

Liston, however, brought weaknesses into the Ali fight that were not fully apparent at the time. He claimed to be 32 years old at the time of the bout, but many believed that his true age was closer to 40, perhaps even older. Liston had been suffering from bursitis in his shoulders for close to a year and had been receiving cortisone shots. In training for the Ali fight, he re-injured his left shoulder and was supposedly in pain striking the heavy bag. Worse still, Between March 1961 and the Ali fight, Liston had fought three times and won each bout with first-round knockouts—meaning that he had fought a total of just over six minutes during a 35-month stretch.

Thus, Liston trained minimally for the bout, convinced that he would dispose of Ali within the first two rounds. He typically ran just one mile a day instead of his usual five, reportedly ate hot dogs and drank beer, and was rumored to have been furnished with prostitutes in training camp.

Ali ran his mouth mercilessly before the fight, in a deliberate form of psychological warfare designed to unsettle Liston, stoking his anger, encouraging his overconfidence and even fueling uncertainty about Ali’s sanity. Meanwhile, Ali prepared very hard, studying films of Liston’s prior bouts and even detecting that Liston telegraphed his punches with eye movement.

At the weigh-in, Ali tipped at 210 lb while Liston was several pounds over his prime fighting weight at 218 lb. Many of those watching were surprised during the referee’s instructions to see that Ali was considerably taller than Liston. While receiving instructions, Liston glowered at Ali, while Ali stared back and stood on his toes to appear even taller. Ali later said of the moment: “I won’t lie, I was scared… It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight.”

Though Ali landed over 40 percent of his punches thrown, referees had the scoring at 57-57, 58-56 and 56-58 through six rounds. As the bell sounded for the seventh round, Ali was the first to notice that Liston had spat out his mouth guard. Ali moved to the middle of the ring with his arms raised, dancing the jig that would become known as the “Ali Shuffle” while Howard Cosell, broadcasting at ringside, shouted “wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out!” Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, and Ali was declared the winner by technical knockout. It was the first time since 1919 that a World Heavyweight Champion had quit sitting on his stool.

And as our pugilistic tale endeth, that’s the way it was, 55 years ago today.

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