It’s a long way back to 1964, though some of that year’s sports story lines are about what you would expect. Richard Petty, for instance, won the Daytona 500, Johnny Unitas was the NFL’s most valuable player and UCLA beat Duke for college basketball’s national title.
Then, however, we bump abruptly into Cassius Clay, an utterly surprising figure so committed to the concept of change that he soon tossed that name aside along with every other conventional expectation for his life and his sport.
Fifty years ago, nobody knew what to make of the 22-year-old kid who soon would become Muhammad Ali, other than to agree that he talked louder and longer than other top athletes and he did a lot of it in rhymes, like some streetwise Dr. Seuss.
It would be silly for anyone to pretend now that they felt something historic coming on Feb. 25, 1964, the night Clay climbed into the ring at Miami Beach Convention Center with Sonny Liston, a crusher of men and of promotional pretense.
Liston, who did time for armed robbery as a young man and never learned to read, could drop most opponents with a stare. If that failed, either of his jackhammer hands could finish the job in short order. With Sonny, it was nothing fancy, but standing up to him was like trying to catch a cannonball.
Good luck talking your way out of that. Good luck even making it interesting.
Consequently, the Miami Beach hall where Liston put his world heavyweight title on the line 50 years ago was only half full at 9:59 p.m., when Clay came bopping down the aisle in a white robe with “The Lip” stitched across the back.
Two days earlier a sellout crowd of 16,000 witnessed a Van Cliburn piano concert in the same room. On the night of the fight, however, a Tuesday, most everyone believed that Liston could name Clay’s tune in one booming note and that kept ticket sales down.
Looking back, it seems that must have been some different planet. Ask anyone under 40, for instance, if they know much about Liston and the response may well be a blank stare. In contrast, everyone knows Ali, on every continent, and boxing is only one reason for that. His last fight, after all, was in 1981.
All the cultural touchstones are there, however, to sustain his legend at age 72.
Malcolm X and the Black Muslims. Vietnam, and Ali’s refusal to serve.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Ali’s draft-evasion conviction three years later.
Fighting George Foreman in Zaire at 4:30 a.m. local time, an enormous international promotion, and winning, a worldwide wonder.
The charisma, the playfulness and the intelligence to manipulate the media on his own terms.
The persistence and the power to advance from scaring the white establishment to being admired by it, highlighted by multiple trips to the White House to be photographed with U.S. presidents.
The courage to light the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Games despite the rising limitations of Parkinson’s disease, and the strength in recent years to communicate and inspire through the enveloping fog.
Back to the beginning, though, when the whole noisy Cassius Clay act was being passed off by boxing experts as a fad, and a fairly annoying one at that.
The Beatles, in Miami Beach as part of their first U.S. tour, stopped by the dusty Fifth Street Gym before the Liston fight for a comical photo shoot with Clay. That got some headlines.
Then, at the weigh-in the morning of the fight, Clay screamed and jumped and tried to get at Liston, which drew a $2,500 fine from the Miami Beach Athletic Commission for causing a disturbance.
According to a contemporary Associated Press report, “Clay’s wild-eyed, frenzied demonstrations took on the complexion of not just a loud-mouthed youngster on a publicity binge but of a possibly deeply disturbed athlete on the verge of a breakdown.”
Locally, the only place to hear the fight was on a top-40 AM station in Riviera Beach, the old WHEW, though it was broadcast on ABC radio and shown on closed-circuit television at 271 theaters and arenas across the U.S. and Canada.
Liston’s cut reportedly was $1.3 million, which prompted him to call Clay “my million-dollar baby.” Clay, a 7-1 underdog, got about $600,000 for the fight, which was scheduled for 15 rounds.
When it ended, with Liston refusing to leave his stool at the start of the seventh round and complaining of an injured left shoulder, a row of distinguished fight writers looked up to see the new champion shouting at them, “Eat your words. I beat Sonny Liston and I just turned 22. I must be the greatest.”
All but three of the 46 writers covering the fight had predicted a Liston victory.
What’s often missed is that Clay almost threw in the towel before Liston did. Trainer Angelo Dundee had to talk him into going back out for the fifth round. Clay, temporarily blinded by liniment or some other substance on Liston’s gloves or face, wasn’t sure he could continue but danced away from punches long enough to regain his vision and his confidence.
There was a rematch in 1965 at a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine. Liston hit the canvas in the first round and did not get up until he had been counted out. That one never smelled quite right, triggering a debate over the “phantom punch” that decked him, and about the possibility that Liston took a dive because of death threats against him.
Doesn’t matter now. Ali matters now, and he always will.
Miami Beach made it so, half a century ago, on a night when the poetry of an uncommonly agile mind was shockingly, instantly launched into full motion.