Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2016

The Birth Of A Legend, As Clear As Yesterday

First the years, then the decades fly by, until the days add up to more than half a century. Moments magnificent and mundane from all of those days compete for a place within the finite limits of one’s memory, that personal treasure trove of a lifetime’s keepsakes. Events that once seemed profoundly important have faded away, crowded out by more recent arrivals. Then there are others that remain clear and vibrant, undimmed by the passage of time. It’s the evening of February 25th, and the memory of that same date fifty-two years ago falls into the latter category. It was the night a new heavyweight champion was crowned, the beginning of a career that transcended not just boxing but sports entirely. February 25, 1964.  The night a young 22-year old then known as Cassius Clay floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee; exactly as he had foretold.

Far more was made of the date two years ago; understandable given the significance we attach to certain milestones like a fiftieth anniversary. Yet so clear is the memory that it cries out for annual commemoration. The old radio resting on a table was tuned to the local ABC affiliate, carrying the national broadcast of an expected mismatch of a title fight between challenger Clay and champion Sonny Liston. Less than two years earlier Liston had taken the champion’s belt in record fashion, sending Floyd Patterson to the canvas scarcely two minutes into round one; the first time that a defending champion had been KO’d in the first round. Their rematch the following summer lasted just four seconds longer, with Liston knocking Patterson down three times.

So it was no surprise that Liston was the prohibitive 7-1 favorite against the young Clay. The challenger had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics and compiled a 19-0 record as a professional. But in his two previous matches Clay had been staggered by Doug Jones on the way to an unpopular unanimous decision; and then sent to the canvas by Henry Cooper only to be saved by the bell ending the fourth round, before scoring a technical knockout one round later. At the weigh-in Clay acted like a man possessed, which along with his recorded pulse of 120, more than double his normal rate, caused many scribes to assert that he was terrified of Liston. In a survey of sportswriters 43 out of 46 predicted a victory by knockout for the champion.

Yet more than five decades later there is Les Keiter’s voice coming through the radio’s lone speaker, describing Clay dancing around the ring in the opening round, taunting the ponderous Liston. As the bell nears the challenger moves in close and unleashes a flurry of jabs, and the crowd can be heard roaring in the background. In Miami the noise is loud enough that referee Barney Felix can’t hear the bell, and the round runs twenty seconds long. Liston rallies in the second, but in the third round Clay begins to take control of the bout. Keiter reports a bruise under Liston’s right eye and then a cut under his left. When the champion’s knees buckle and he nearly goes down Keiter shouts, “This could be the upset of the century!”

Clay dances through the next two rounds, mostly keeping clear of Liston. Because even at ringside they don’t know, Keiter can’t report and analyst Howard Cosell can’t comment on the fact that Clay has been nearly blinded. It may have been an astringent used to close Liston’s cut that somehow inadvertently got into the challenger’s eyes, or it may have been a substance rubbed on the champion’s gloves for expressly that purpose, but for much of round four and almost all of round five Clay sees his opponent as little more than a shadow.

His corner flushes his eyes with water at the end of both rounds, and by the sixth Clay’s vision clears. Now Keiter tells the tale as the underdog stalks the favorite, pummeling Liston with a series of combinations against which the champion is defenseless. The radio broadcast cuts to a commercial between rounds six and seven; but while waiting for Keiter and Cosell to return this listener is suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that the hoped for outcome, the result that had seemed impossible, was going to come true.

The commercial ends, the sounds of the arena again come through the radio, and the bell for round seven cuts through the noise. In Miami it is Clay who is the first to notice. Liston has spat out his mouth piece and is sitting on his stool. The new champion raises his arms above his head and begins to dance even as Cosell tells the world. Through the old radio’s speaker comes the shouted announcement that premonition has become reality. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out! He’s out! The winner and the new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay!”

Already a controversial figure, within days the new titleholder would become exponentially more so by announcing his membership in the Nation of Islam. Soon thereafter he was renamed Muhammad Ali. After nine successful title defenses over the next three years, Ali was stripped of his title, convicted of a felony and widely reviled for refusing to enter the armed forces. His prime years as a fighter were lost to the protracted legal battle that followed.

But by the time the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ali’s favor on June 28, 1971, public opinion about the war had turned; and so had popular sentiment about Ali’s stance. He became an inspiration to millions of Americans of all colors. When he returned to the ring he did so as a profoundly popular fighter. If in the end he stayed too long, as many athletes do, his post-exile career gave us the epic trilogy of bouts with Joe Frazier and the improbable victory against George Foreman in Zaire; a win in many ways even more unlikely than the one scored fifty-one Februarys ago.

Even now, years since being virtually silenced by the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Ali’s name remains instantly recognizable and revered around the globe. Beyond the bounds of sport, he is an eternal symbol of the unending fight for racial justice, religious freedom and adherence to principle. Who could have imagined it on that February night all those years ago? The night that remains etched in memory. The night that ended with the young fighter who would soon be known as Muhammad Ali loudly proclaiming himself “the king of the world!” The night a boxer first married ballet to battery, and dispensed in equally effective measures both the butterfly and the bee.

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