- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

THE WAY IT WAS

Most people felt sorry for the kid from Louisville. Cassius Clay was considered a loudmouthed, poetry-spouting punk a crazy one at that and here he was about to fight Sonny Liston, the b-a-a-d bruiser who reigned as heavyweight champion of the world after twice destroying Floyd Patterson in one round. When Clay called himself "the Greatest," people were laughing instead of listening.
On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, Liston was a 7-1 favorite to defeat, if not maim, the 22-year-old Louisville Lip. Forty-three of 46 boxing writers had picked Liston, and the other three were thought to be as nuts as Clay.
Editors at the New York Times told reporter Robert Lipsyte to familiarize himself with the route from Miami Beach Convention Hall to the nearest hospital. Comedian Jackie Gleason, writing in the New York Post, predicted Liston would beat "Blabber Mouth" in 18 seconds. Wrote Milton Gross in the same newspaper: "Clay is a charmer when it comes to popping off, but he doesn't know what trouble he'll see when Sonny starts working him over."
What the alleged experts didn't know was that Clay had a double-barreled plan to intimidate Liston, a simple soul who could neither read nor write, by convincing him that he would be fighting a madman. It worked almost to perfection as Clay "floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee" so effectively that Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. Revealed to the world as a wimp, Sonny lost his title while sitting on a stool in his corner.
The following year, Clay, by now an avowed member of the Black Muslims and renamed Muhammad Ali, retained the title by dispatching Liston in one round with a mysterious knockout punch nobody saw. Liston promptly disappeared from sight he would live only six more years and Ali was on his way toward gaining recognition as the most controversial and possibly the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
Ali, who had won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, began his psychological war against Liston two full years before their first fight, saying things like "I want that big, ugly bear as soon as I can get him. I'm tired of talking (Fat chance). If I can't whup him, I'll leave the country."
After notifying the media, Ali drove his personalized bus up to the front door of Liston's home in Denver, horn blaring, in the wee hours. When Liston appeared at the front door, armed with a fireplace poker, Ali shouted, "You're no champ you're a chump. The police and their dogs [summoned to the scene by neighbors] saved you."
During the weigh-in the morning of the fight, Ali's campaign reached its zenith. He turned the meaningless exercise into bedlam, pounding the floor with an African cane obtained from Black Muslim leader Malcolm X while screaming insults at Liston and predicting victory in eight rounds. His blood pressure was monitored at 200/100 and his pulse at 110, levels so high that they prompted the ring doctor to describe Ali as "emotionally unstable and scared to death" and seemed to threaten the fight. Yet Ali was in such control that both readings returned to normal a short time later.
Ali's final act came in the ring as the fighters listened to referee Barney Felix's instructions. Surprisingly to most observers, the man Liston had described as "a little punk" towered over the bulky champion. Ali fixed Liston with a glare more malevolent than Sonny's own. Clearly intimidated, Liston looked away.
Explained Ali after the fight: "Sonny was scary, but I figured I could mess with his mind … get him so mad that he'd want to kill me and forget everything he knew about boxing."
When the bout started, Ali used his hand and foot speed to establish immediate dominance. Through three rounds, he outboxed and cut the befuddled champion badly under the left eye. After a combination staggered Liston in the third, Ali yelled, "Come on, you bum."
But in the fourth round, something strange happened if anything in boxing can be considered strange. Ali's eyes began to sting from a liniment-like illegal substance likely placed on Liston's gloves by his desperate cornermen, and now the challenger was showing a touch of yellow.
"I can't see," he cried. "Cut off my gloves [thereby stopping the fight]."
Angelo Dundee, Clay's famous trainer, would have none of it. "This is the big one, daddy cut the bull," he snapped. "We're not quitting now. You gotta get out there and run."
So Ali jumped on his bicycle and stayed away from Liston until his vision cleared midway through Round 5. By the sixth, Liston's face was swollen out of shape from Ali's jabs, and he wanted no more. Suddenly, Ali, leaping from his stool in jubilation, was heavyweight champion of the world.
Triumph, however, brought no humility. "You're just a bunch of hypocrites," he lectured the media at ringside. "I told you I was going to get Liston, and I got him. Now tell me who's the greatest?"
The next morning, the champion announced that he had indeed adopted the Black Muslim faith and was renouncing his "slave name." Ahead lay his refusal to be drafted into the armed services because "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong" and subsequent three-year suspension from boxing, three memorable fights with Joe Frazier, an upset of supposedly invincible George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" that allowed him to win the title for a third time and, finally, the long battle with boxing-induced Parkinson's syndrome that has left him today as a mostly mute but beloved example of bravery.
When Ali lit the Olympic torch to open the Atlanta Games in 1996, millions wept a national reaction no one could have anticipated decades earlier. But then again, no one could have anticipated 37 years ago that the loudmouthed kid from Louisville would vanquish Sonny Liston and become an enduring, endearing symbol of his era.

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