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Fight #31: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

Fight #31: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston 1, February 25, 1964, Convention Hall, Miami Beach, FL

For its impact on popular culture, this fight ranks with Jack Johnson-Jim Jefferies as the most important in boxing history. As an actual fight, it was anything but spectacular. Sonny Liston was, at the time, the most feared champion in heavyweight history, but the Liston who showed up on this night would get beaten by just about any champion in history, including the current one, Tyson Fury. Liston looked slow and out of shape, and his punches appeared to be ineffective for most of the fight.

It is a wonder to me that Ali (then named Cassius Clay) was a 7-to-1 underdog. Ali was an Olympic champion, and a far superior athlete and boxer. It is amazing to me how often boxing observers get fights like these wrong. It's not always about who can punch the hardest, but who can command the ring the best, who is tactically superior. And Ali fought a virtually flawless tactical fight. Moving in a clockwise motion around Liston, always shifting away from Liston's right hand, Ali controlled the match entirely with his left jab, which he threw with accuracy and snap, occasionally using it to set up a straight right hand that staggered Liston multiple times. I have no doubt that if the fight had continued, Ali would have gotten his knockout eventually. In fact, as the rounds progressed, Ali relied less and less on foot movement and more and more on head movement, which he used to make Liston miss badly countless times.

The only round where this was not the case was the fifth. At the end of the fourth round, Ali suddenly complained to his corner that he could not see, and in fact it has been credibly alleged that someone in Liston's corner put a foreign substance on the champion's gloves to blind Ali. It worked for a moment, as at the start of the fifth round, Ali repeatedly shouted that he could not see. Yet Liston took no advantage of this, even though Ali did not land a single significant punch in the round. Instead he just followed Ali around the ring, and the challenger maintained his safety by putting his glove directly on Liston's face, until his vision gradually restored itself. Ali won the sixth round convincingly, and that was it. Liston quit on his stool before the seventh round could start.

I can definitely understand why many observers wondered if this fight was fixed. Liston appeared dispirited the whole fight, slow and stupid, wandering around the ring like the "big ugly bear" Ali said he was. In fact, I would argue that this fight would have no business being on this list if not for the aftermath, when the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali stood in front of the cameras announcing to the world that he was the greatest of all time, that he had shook up the world, that he was a bad man. That interview is pretty much the birth of modern trash talking. In the immediate aftermath of the fight, Ali announced his conversion to Islam, and his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.

Since Joe Louis's rise to prominence in the 1930s, the heavyweight division had largely been controlled by Black fighters (Louis, Charles, Walcott, Moore, Patterson and Liston), but each of those champions had managed not to repeat the transgressions of Jack Johnson, who had flaunted his wealth, beauty, strength, and skill in front of white America, prompting a fierce and violent racist backlash. Not only did Ali end that parade with his brilliant arrogance, he doubled down on his new prominence with his politics and faith. Suddenly, white America had to wake up to the fact that the heavyweight champion of the world was a Black Muslim who knew he was the greatest and who was a loyal member of an organization that unapologetically called white people devils. For this reason, it is this fight, and its aftermath, that marked a new beginning for the Revolutionary Sixties.

It is astonishing to watch this fight and then consider the subsequent trajectory of Ali's life, especially his autumnal American sainthood. But that aged Ali, the Ali of the Olympic torch, had largely lost his powers of speech. The Ali of February 1964 was hated by white America then, and would be hated by white America today. Ali's life is thus particularly instructive because it underscores not the myth of racial progress in American life, but rather "the changing same" of white reaction to Black genius and defiance.

Here is a video (in color!) of the fight:




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