Esquire Weekly (Issue 24)

The Fight That Changed America


Cassius Clay’s world title victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964 represents far more than the opening of the Muhammad Ali story. Fifty years on, we recall a climate and a contest that changed America.


On the afternoon of 25 February 1964, America’s media fixed its weary, wary, bloodshot eyes on the Miami Beach Conference Centre, where a depleted, nervy crowd of boxing fans gathered to watch a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. 

In a fug of stale cigarette smoke and trigger-tilt tension, rumours spread. Malcolm X—the radical Muslim iconoclast who advocated violent black struggle against white oppression—had reportedly ducked self-imposed exile in order to return to Florida to support his man, the challenger, Cassius Clay.

In a show of spectacular force, the Mafiosi who owned the contract of reigning champion Charles “Sonny” Liston seated themselves ringside—while Irving “Ash” Resnick, who promoted the Patriarcha clan’s interests in Las Vegas, lurked near his fighter’s dressing room backstage.

The radio static buzzed with fables. One station described how the Muslim Brotherhood had brainwashed Clay to hate whites; another mentioned spotting him attempting to flee the country. Many stayed quiet. In the balmy, trash-strewn everglades and congested streets of Florida’s biggest city, a sense of impending doom reigned.

“There was all sorts of things transpiring before this bout—everything from Cassius Clay being killed in the ring by Sonny Liston’s fists, to lack of interest from both the boxing community and public,” Barney Felix, the fight’s referee, recalled in a rare interview with The Newark Evening Postin 1968. “There was a lot of baggage surrounding the champion—his past, his connections, his demeanour.”

Sonny Liston was synonymous with crime. His career began when the Mafia fronted him the money to go professional after he’d been released from prison. After allegedly committing rape in Boston, the mob helped Liston escape the charge but he fell permanently under Resnick’s power. By the end of his career, Liston record read: 39 knockouts, 19 arrests.  

“[Liston] scared the shit out of Floyd Patterson,” Harold Conrad, a member of Liston’s team, told boxing writer Dan Hirschberg. Conrad was referring to his fighter’s brutal one-round destruction of the reigning world champion in 1962. It had been billed as a contest pitching Patterson’s speed and guile against Liston’s size and strength.

Exactly 18,894 fans in Chicago witnessed what was then the third fastest knockout in boxing history.

“And here comes this big-mouth kid,” said Conrad of Clay. “I’d tell [Liston], ‘This kid is big and strong, he’s fast, he can hit.’ Sonny would just answer, ‘Ah, you’re kidding me. I’ll scare the shit out of him at the weigh-in. I’ll put the eye on him.’” 

Instead, Clay beat Liston in six completed rounds to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. The circumstances were contested because Liston was perceived to retreat to his corner following an injury, and failed to come out for the seventh. Shortly afterward, Clay joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name and the Muhammad Ali legend was born.

Clay vs Liston was a David and Goliath story (of sorts). The bookies had placed Clay as the 7/1 underdog; of 46 sports journalists interviewed on the day before the fight, 43 believed Liston would beat Clay to a pulp.

But the fight didn’t simply play out over six rounds in Florida; instead it was the culmination of a carefully, and brilliantly orchestrated campaign of publicity and psychological trickery which Clay began long before Liston even entered the ring. Ultimately, one boxer became a celebrity, while the other was reduced to obscurity; it was a bitter-sweet moment, rather than a face-off between light and dark.

The road to Miami Beach began for both men in Denver, Colorado. Just days after the fight was announced, Charles L “Sonny” Liston trained as normal, running around five miles a day, eating hotdogs and drinking beer.

As Nick Tosches explains in Night Train, his brilliant biography of Liston, here was a figure born in thrall to the Mafia, and one whose life felt like a journey to hell. The 25th child of an Arkansas share-cropper, and the direct descendent of a freed slave, Liston’s birth date was lost to history. He never learned to read or write.  

That night in Denver, Liston woke at three o’clock in the morning to frenzied screaming outside. Clay was on the driveway, along with a bus that he’d bought. “Liston Must Go In 8” was written on the side of the vehicle. A crowd of journalists had been alerted and stood by watching as the bizarre spectacle unfolded.

The ensuing ruckus woke up Liston’s white neighbours. In 2014, this would make you unpopular. In 1963, de jure segregation on the basis of race was still legal in some states, while de facto separation was commonplace.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, had called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” during his inaugural speech the previous year. What Clay had done was enough (in some states) to get a non-famous black guy lynched.

Quickly, and eloquently, the eccentric, jumpy figure of Cassius Clay came into focus, while Liston’s world-weary figure receded into the mould of thuggish, sluggish brute, too slow to see what was really happening (which the media of the time was delighted to describe).

Clay posed for photographs, spoke freely with journalists and engaged with those who Liston confronted.  He was affable and idealistic, not tired and grizzled, like Liston, who one scribe described as “32 going on 50.”

But when Clay followed Liston to Florida to goad him during his training camp, some were forced to re-evaluate their prejudices. As the writer Bob Mee explains in Liston and Ali: The Ugly Bear and The Boy Who Would Be King, his association with the radical black power group, The Nation of Islam, meant Clay was was “no longer the brash, funny, irritating boy with God-given speed in his fists and feet, but the misguided champion of a shadowy, subversive cult that seemed to counter racism with racism.”

Clay was now dangerous; a radical African-American boxer with strong religious and political convictions. He didn’t fit the racial stereotype of the amenable black man, either; instead he screamed, bawled and did everything in his power to infuriate Liston. Against all odds, some even began to sympathise with the champion.

“Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he’s our cop,” The New Republic’s Editor Murray Kempton observed, satirically. “He’s the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.” But Clay was a master of spin – and America’s hatred was exactly what he wanted. It made for publicity and mystery. Combined with his undisputed talent, it would allow him to win.

Clay created a speaking style, unlike any I’ve experienced before,” explains Matt Eventoff, whose company, Princeton Public Speaking, works with professional athletes to help them improve their verbal impact and style. “It was created within what I would describe as a vacuum. This had never been done before.”

The Civil Rights movement, which was foregrounded in gestures and talk – from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to Martin Luther King’s soaring, open-air speeches—was slowly empowering African-Americans. What Clay did was to repurpose and re-brand the oratory.      

“Clay credited meeting a guy called ‘Gorgeous’ George Young, at the age of 19, for firming up his speaking style,” says Eventoff. “Young was a Sixties wrestler and crowd favourite—but the sort of guy you really loved to root against. After going to see him fight, Clay commented, ‘I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!’”

This was true “trash talk”, Eventoff adds; relentless jokes, dogged jibes, quips and threats, which could blossom within a climate where lynchings had taken place within living memory. Violence was cheap, and disposable, but words meant power.

Unfortunately, it’s also been suggested that Clay’s attacks on Liston set the Civil Rights movement back by cementing racial stereotypes. He described Liston as a “stinking bear”—once he had stunned him, he promised to donate his beaten adversary to the zoo. More than a decade later, the same man described Joe Frazier as having “fingers like bananas”, and remarked that he resembled a “gorilla”. By also calling him an “Uncle Tom”, Ali would light a bitter feud that burned well into old age.

Liston, who was in poor health, kept quiet. He led a sedentary existence, barricaded in his training camp, while rumours about Clay’s omnipotence and impotence ran wild. One one hand, he described himself as the world champion in waiting; on the other, stories circulated that he’d been spotted at railway stations or airports because he was scared and wanted to skip town.

When fight day arrived, and the weigh-in took place, Liston retained a peculiar sense of cool, while Clay exploded. Weigh-ins tended to be relatively austere affairs, but Clay seemed like a man possessed—death threats, and more brutal trash talk were fired in Liston’s direction.

“I’m the champ!” he screamed, as he charged into the room, twirling an ivory cane, and wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words ‘Bear Huntin’. “Tell Sonny, I’m here,” he yelled. “Bring that big ugly bear on.”

This was only a pre-cursor to Clay’s entrance for the fight itself, prancing into an arena that simmered with equal measures of admiration and enmity, famously hollering, “Somebody’s gonna die in the ring tonight!”

“Miami was on the cusp of tremendous social change,” explains Dr Daniel Rosenberg, a Professor of Sports Ethics and Sociology at Barry University, Miami. “The first waves of Castro-era Cubans were just beginning to change the ethnic and cultural landscape of South Florida, so in addition to the plea for civil liberties, whites were nervous for a lot of reasons.”

Many African-Americans in the crowd felt conflicted about Clay: some were uneasy about his ideology, particularly in relation to the Nation of Islam, but still found themselves endeared to a man who fought their corner in a way which had never been done before.

“There was a strong sub-culture of boxing within the African-American community in Miami, centred around the 5th Street gym in Miami Beach where Ali trained,” Dr Rosenberg says. “Clay would have been considered the home-town favourite within Miami’s African-American community, generating buzz and excitement. Liston was champion, but not overly popular.”

Clay was also the fresh young face. Rosenberg  likens it to Kennedy vs Nixon and the atmosphere that permeated the political landscape of the same period. Nixon embodied the political establishment, with its back-room handshakes and bourbon. Kennedy was a risky bet—but a statesman offering something controversial and new.

When the fight began, Liston flew at Clay. He’d endured months of bullying, and wanted to settle things quickly, but Clay took charge. By the third round, Liston—who was more likely closer to 40 than 32, and marked with whip-lash scars from where he’d been flogged by his father—looked like a broken old man. He was carrying a shoulder injury, and began to lose pace.

 During the fifth round, Liston sustained a gash which required stitches. As his corner-men worked, he pleaded with his trainer to allow him to continue.

In the sixth, Clay came out blinking furiously, his eyes streaming. “Liston ploughed forward, chasing, missing mostly, but landing sometimes, and Clay kept wheeling around the ring, buying recovery time,” Mee writes. By the time the younger man’s vision cleared and his jab started working again, Liston was beaten.

Conspiracy theories abound over the shoulder injury which eventually saw his trainer pull him out—that he’d been forced to throw the fight by the Nation of Islam due to death threats; that he’d actually bet against himself; or that the rights to a rematch were simply too lucrative for the Mafia to pass up—but it was a contest which actually looked more like a bloody brawl than a moment in sporting history.

A year later, in Maine, Muhammed Ali, as he was then known, chopped Liston down in the first round of the rematch with what has been described as the “phantom punch”.

For the week of the 50th anniversary of Clay vs Liston, the Miami Beach Conference Centre has nothing special planned. On Saturday 22 February, it will host the South Florida National Cheerleading Competition. Then, once the cheerleaders have left, the great and good of the sports shoe business will arrive for a convention called Solefest.

And in a true snapshot of Americana, victory and loss will be served liberally and ruthlessly at both, under the strip lights of the conference centre’s cavernous rooms.

While squads whose dance routines aren’t on the money will drive home defeated, with failure clouding their college prospects, and the high-rollers of the sports shoe world will cut deals which—inevitably—leave others for schmucks, neither will represent an outright loss or an absolute triumph. America doesn’t seem to understand complexity when it comes to such things.

On Tuesday 25 February—the anniversary of the fight—nothing is scheduled. Outside, Florida’s very real problems of poverty and racial segregation will continue to bubble quietly beneath the surface. Although now diminished by Parkinson’s Disease, Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest”, has made enough money to successfully license his name. Sonny Liston fell swiftly following their second fight. He was found dead in his apartment on 30 December 1970 after what is thought to have been a heroin overdose. He is buried beside McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. His first arrest warrant read, “No. 1 Negro”; his epitaph was simple: “A man”. 

William Carlos Williams wrote that “Only the pure products of America go crazy.” It may sound like anathema – given Clay’s membership of the Nation of Islam – but in his own way, he is a product of a system of values which purported to condemn violence in favour of diplomacy.

Liston, who lived a shadowy, broken existence bedevilled by racism and haunted by bad debts he could never pay, was the true realisation of Williams’ phrase.

The back story to Clay vs Liston is a troubling, acid-etched snapshot of a culture unable to atone for its role in slavery, or set right the injustice of segregation.

For two men, and a helpless, hapless nation, the fight in Florida was both a realisation and desecration of the American Dream. Clay understood that victory is a complex thing, won using words more than words. Liston, and America, never did.

Mr. Nicoll is a British writer and journalist, who has been short-listed twice for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.