- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

The weigh-in, a meaningless rite before a heavyweight title fight, was held in a storage area of the Miami Beach Convention Center on the morning of Feb. 25, 1964. The challenger arrived at 11:09 and immediately began screaming at the bulky, bewildered champion.

“I’m ready to rumble right now,” Cassius Clay yowled at Sonny Liston. “Somebody’s gonna die at ringside tonight! You’re scared, chump! You ain’t no giant! I’m gonna eat you alive!”

Then Clay lunged at Liston as the challenger’s handlers held him back. “Round eight to prove I’m great!” Cassius shouted, predicting a knockout. “Round eight!”

A doctor took Clay’s pulse. It was a dangerous 120 beats a minute, and his blood pressure was boiling, too, at 200 over 100. “This fighter is scared to death,” the doctor told a New York sports columnist.

The weights were announced — 218 for Liston, 210 for Clay — and a boxing commission official announced the challenger would be fined $2,500 for his wild behavior. Then everybody went off to await Clay’s inevitable destruction.

Liston was considered invincible, the most terrifying heavyweight since Joe Louis was in his prime more than 20 years earlier. Twice the glowering ex-con had embarrassed and dispatched Floyd Patterson in one round to win the title and then defend it.

Now Liston was an 8-1 favorite over the 22-year-old Clay, whose fame devolved more from braggadocio and bad poetry than fistic accomplishments. Against journeymen foes Henry Cooper and Doug Jones, the so-called Louisville Lip had struggled. Many observers expected him to be another first-round victim of Liston, a nearly illiterate man who reputedly was controlled by the mob.

But in addition to his foot speed and defensive prowess, Clay had another significant advantage: He was smarter than Liston and knew how to use psychology the way most fighters use hooks and jabs.

“Why did you act so nutty in front of all those people?” Clay’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, asked him as the two rode from the weigh-in back to the hotel.

A broad grin creased Clay’s handsome, unmarked face. “Because now Liston thinks I’m a nut. He is scared of no man, but he is scared of a nut. Now he doesn’t know what I’m going to do.”

What Clay did, as it turned out, was beat Liston so savagely that night that Sonny quit on his stool after the sixth round, completing what seemed one of the greatest upsets in ring history. It really wasn’t given that Clay — who would announce the next day that he was joining the Black Muslims and later changed his name to Muhammad Ali — became one of the greatest heavyweight champions ever. But at the time, the boxing establishment was astonished and wary of so uncharacteristic a fighter.

The bout was strange throughout. Clay battered Liston at will almost from the start, cutting the champion badly under the eye and exposing him as a pussycat rather than a tiger. But between the third and fourth rounds, a caustic substance likely applied by his cornermen appeared on Sonny’s gloves and made its way to Clay’s eyes. When Cassius returned to his corner after the fourth round, he was nearly blind.

“Cut ‘em off!” he yelled, waving his gloves at trainer Angelo Dundee. “I can’t see! Cut ‘em off!”

Dundee, one of boxing’s most famous trainers, wouldn’t hear of it. “This is the big one, daddy!” he told Clay over the roar of the crowd. “Cut the bull! We’re not quitting now! Get out there and run!”

So Clay did, staying away from Liston’s maddened rushes and dangerous fists for most of the fifth round until his eyes cleared. Then he resumed pummeling his helpless and hapless opponent to the continued amazement of spectators at ringside and closed-circuit television viewers at theaters around the country.

After the sixth round, the battered and exhausted Liston plopped onto his stool and said, “That’s it.”

His handlers thought Sonny meant that now he was ready to teach Clay a lesson. They smeared Vaseline on his face, massaged his shoulders and gave him a sip of water. Then one of them slipped in the champion’s mouthpiece.

Liston spat it out and growled, “I said that’s it!”

Realizing that Liston had said, in effect, no mas before referee Barney Felix waved his arms to signify that the fight was over, Clay danced to the center of the ring, raised his hands in triumph and bawled, “I am the king! King of the world!”

Then he turned to the reporters seated at ringside, 97 percent of whom had picked Liston. “Eat your words!” he screamed. “Eat! Eat your words!”

Nobody could call Clay a gracious winner, but certainly he was entitled to strut. As he put it himself, “I shocked the world.”

Liston’s camp circulated the face-saving story that their man had quit because a shoulder injury sustained either in training or the first round had left him unable to defend himself. Some diehards expected Liston to gain revenge when the two met again 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine, of all places, but this time Liston went down and out in the first round from what was called “a phantom punch” that few people saw.

After that, Liston lived in virtual obscurity until his death under mysterious circumstances in December 1970. Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali became one of the planet’s best-known figures as he won back the heavyweight title twice more and became for many a symbol of courage for his stands against the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and later Parkinson’s syndrome. When he struggled to the cauldron and lit the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, millions wept at the ravaged sight of him.

But on the night he wrested the heavyweight crown away from Sonny Liston, aka “that big ugly bear,” he had every right in the world to proclaim, “I am the greatest!”

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