"Clay comes out to meet Liston, and Liston starts to retreat.
If Liston goes back an inch farther, he'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right.
Look at young Cassius carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing, but there's not enough room.
It's a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising, and the ref wears a frown
For he can't start counting till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view, the crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up, somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they'd witness the launching of a human satellite?
Yes the crowd did not dream when they put up the money
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."
Cassius Clay (1963)
Sonny Liston was the most fearsome fighter of his day.
Heck, he would be fearsome in any era. <Sports Illustrated ranked him third among all the heavyweights – behind only Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis.
Fifty years ago, Liston was the heavyweight champion about to defend his title in Miami Beach against an up-and-comer named Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), and most observers believed the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Modern boxing fans who grew up knowing Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield as the fiercest fighters around would be astonished by Sonny Liston. Many of his contemporaries were hesitant to fight him. There were boxing writers who believed he could not be beaten.
How tough was Liston? His nickname was "The Big Bear."
Liston was a brawler who learned to fight while serving time for armed robbery. He was sent back to prison for beating up a policeman. Through most of his professional career, Liston's majority owner was a former Mafia hit man; because of that association, Liston had a reputation for being everything that was bad about the sport even though his criminal record was a thing of the past, a relic of his reckless youth.
Clay was known to be loquacious, young and arrogant. He had won a gold medal as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Olympics, but he had struggled as a professional. Most boxing writers believed Liston would win easily.
Liston may have thought so, too. The 31-year-old Liston was a 7-to-1 favorite over the 22-year-old Clay.
Clay did everything he could to capitalize on that. He cultivated the image of a naive youngster in an attempt to lull Liston into a false sense of security.
Any thoughts that Liston might have had about knocking Clay out in the first round the way he had disposed of the previous heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, disappeared quickly as Clay proved to be too slippery. He constantly frustrated Liston by backing just out of range of the champion's punches.
Then, in the third round, Clay staggered the champ. Liston didn't go down, but he was bleeding from his nose and a cut just below his left eye when the round ended.
By the fifth round, Liston's right eye was beginning to swell, but Clay was having his own vision problems. Something appeared to be in one of his eyes, and he was blinking rapidly as the round began. Sensing a vulnerability, Liston tried to move in for the kill, but Clay bounced away every time Liston tried to connect, and Liston seemed to be tired by the end of the round.
When the fighters came out for the sixth round, Liston was dragging. The fight was stopped before the start of the seventh round.
And Clay jumped around the ring, repeatedly shouting, "I shook up the world!"
Clay leaned over the ropes of the boxing ring and told the working press to "eat your words." Sports writer Red Smith wrote that "nobody ever had a better right" to demand that.
"He might have been nailed if the bout had continued," Smith wrote, "but, on the evidence of 18 frenzied minutes, Cassius was entitled to crow, 'I'm the greatest. I'm gonna upset the world.' "
Smith's words were a glimpse into the mindset of many who had been skeptical of Clay before the fight. Perhaps they felt he had been lucky. He was still a brash youngster, and upsets do happen. Clay "might have been nailed if the bout had continued," Smith had written, but he won "on the evidence of 18 frenzied minutes."
Evidence, of course, is what it is, whatever it is, not what someone might wish that it is. The fight did not continue. It was the end of the Liston championship.
Within a few days, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
It was the start of a new era in boxing. Liston got a rematch with Ali in Lewiston, Maine, in May of 1965, which he lost, and he was never to be a contender again. Less than six years later, he was found dead of what was originally ruled to be a heroin overdose. Police could find no paraphernalia that would have been necessary to inject the fatal dose, however, so his death remains officially unresolved.
For Ali, it was the beginning of a remarkable professional career.