Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 27, 2014

Fifty Years Later, Still The Greatest

Time, that implacable foe of all mortals, moves on. In the blink of an eye a year passes. One turns one’s head, and a decade is gone. Awakening from but a brief night’s sleep, the first story on the radio marks the fiftieth anniversary of the event. Half a century! It seems impossible, for the image of the moment remains crystal clear. But that is the little parlor trick that memory so gleefully plays on us all. Recalling where one left the car keys just last night requires a herculean effort; while an instant from the distant past is still vibrant and vivid. Some events make such an impact, on an impressionable young boy, on an entire sport, and once in a while even on the whole world of sports, that they become indelible; thus alone defeating time.

February 25, 1964. The young boy stood transfixed next to an old radio, listening to the broadcast of the fight for the heavyweight title. The ABC Radio Network had the national broadcast rights to the bout, so the radio was surely tuned to WMAL, 630 on the AM dial; then as now the ABC affiliate in our nation’s capital. He was pulling for the challenger, hoping against hope for an improbable upset.

Weighing heavily on the boy’s hope was the truth that in the days leading up to the title fight in Miami Beach expert opinion moved past consensus to unanimity; the battle to come was a hopeless mismatch. Sonny Liston had won the heavyweight crown a year and a half earlier by battering Floyd Patterson into submission in just over two minutes of the first round. In the rematch the previous July Liston reprised the brutal punishment, flooring Patterson three times in a fight that lasted just four seconds longer than their first encounter. Looking forward to Liston’s defense against the young challenger, the Herald Tribune’s Red Smith wrote that “barring the unexpected, Clay will be the first man floored in Helsinki from a punch thrown in Miami Beach.” While Smith remained a loud critic of the challenger long after that February night in Florida, he was merely expressing the common pre-fight opinion of sportswriters all across the land.

It was a different time of course; an age when boxing was less of a marginal sport. Many families, the boy’s included, regularly gathered in front of black and white television sets at the end of each work week, drawn by an announcer’s eager proclamation that “the Friday night fights are on the air!” The boy had rather liked Floyd Patterson, and was saddened by Liston’s twin beatings. That naturally drew him to the challenger, as did a family connection to the state of Kentucky, home of the boxer nicknamed The Louisville Lip. Then there was the unmistakable charisma of the brash young fighter, rhyming his way through press conferences and boldly predicting the round in which he would knock out an opponent. It was a style in sharp contrast to the surly champion, and one bound to appeal to a child. Or perhaps the boy was simply growing up with a passion for underdogs. After all, his first love was baseball, and he spent his summers rooting for that woebegone local franchise, the Washington Senators.

Whatever the reason, there was no doubt about the outcome he desired, as unlikely as it seemed. So his heart leapt when veteran fight announcer Les Keiter described a first round in which the challenger danced around the ring, making the champion look clumsy and slow, before opening a fierce attack of effective jabs that stung Liston shortly before the bell. Hope blossomed in round three, as the radio’s speaker brought Keiter’s voice and that of color commentator Howard Cosell up the east coast from Miami, excitedly recounting a series of combinations that staggered Liston. That was followed by the news that a stinging blow had opened a cut under the champion’s left eye, which led Keiter to utter the magic phrase that had so recently seemed impossible, “This could be the upset of the century!”

What the boy couldn’t know from listening to the radio was that, whether by accident or design, some of the solution Liston’s corner used to close the cut after the round was smeared on the champion’s gloves. From there the astringent got into the challenger’s eyes during an even round four, by the end of which the boy’s hero could barely see. It was left to trainer Angelo Dundee to force his charge back into the ring for round five, his stinging eyes blinking fiercely. But thanks to sponges of water in the corner and sweat in the ring, the danger passed as the fighter who was about to become champion danced and dodged his way through the fifth round. His vision cleared, the boxer who had been given no chance dominated the sixth round. By its end Liston was cut under both eyes, his face a puffy mess.

Then came the moment. The seventh round was due to start, but where there should have been Keiter’s call there was only the sound of the crowd. The boy’s eyes went wide as the thought came to him with an unshakeable certainty, “It’s over! He’s won!” Some psychic phenomena? Well perhaps, though the boy had no mental image of what was happening in Miami; namely his hero standing in the ring, arms upraised and starting to dance, the first person in the arena to realize that Liston was done. More likely it was a bit of intuition drawn from the way the fight was going and the sudden delay; or just the unbridled hope that only the young can possess, running wild and free, forcing its way into reality.

But the moment was real, confirmed at last by Cosell’s rising shout, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out! Liston’s not coming out! He’s out! The winner and the new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay!”

Very soon thereafter the new champion would be reborn as Muhammad Ali. It was a move that did not sit well with many fans, though that controversy was mild compared to the firestorm that erupted when, after three years of successful title defenses Ali refused to take one step forward at a military induction center. Yet in time his willingness to sacrifice prime years in the ring for his beliefs, his commitment to racial justice and religious freedom, and his unparalleled ability changed public opinion. By the time a Parkinson’s afflicted Ali emerged from the shadows to serve as the final torch-bearer, lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, no athlete in the world was more famous or exalted.

There were the successful title defenses after Miami, when Ali bestrode the heavyweight division like a goliath. Later there would be the reclaiming of the crown against George Foreman in Africa, an outcome deemed as unlikely beforehand as was that first night in Miami Beach. Surrounding that bout was the epic trilogy with Joe Frazier, climaxing with the Thrilla in Manila that the champ described as “next to death.” Then against all odds, a third turn with the title three years later.

But before all of that there was the night in Miami. Fifty years later, the young boy’s moment of certitude remains crystal clear. The moment when a hero triumphed, and the fighter about to become Ali would declare himself to Cosell and all the other doubters that he was “the king of the world!”  The first moment of glory for a boxer with a still unmatched ability to marry ballet to battery, producing in equally effective measures both butterfly and bee.


  1. Another great post.
    What’s weird for me about this, though, is for no apparent reason, I showed the famous First Round, First Minute TKO of Sonny Liston by Ali in 1965 (I think it was their rematch?) In fact, I just put the poster of that moment on my wall in this room only two days ago. Then I saw your post was about Ali, and I did a double-take. Gotta love the Karma.

    • Thanks Bill, and thanks for publicizing the post on Twitter. I am quite certain I know the famous photo that you are referring to; yes it was from their rematch up in lovely Lewiston, Maine! The timing does make for a pretty remarkable coincidence!

      Thanks again, Mike

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