“I believe in Allah and in peace. I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was twelve, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be…I’m free to be what I want.”-Muhammed Ali, when asked if he was a “card-carrying” member of the Black Muslims
In 2015, the idea of professional athletes celebrating wildly, making swaggering statements, and just plain talking smack are all familiar, and accepted by all but the most calcified fossils as a normal part of sports culture. But in 1965, this idea was completely unheard of. That is, until Muhammed Ali burst onto the boxing scene.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17th, 1942, Ali started boxing at the age of 12, embarking upon an impressive amateur career that culminated with a Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympics. That October, Clay went pro, and amassed an impressive record of 19-0 with 15 knockouts. But what set Clay apart (and raised the ire of boxing fans and the press) was his trash talk. He called Doug Jones an “ugly little man”. Henry Cooper (who was eventually knighted in his native England) was a “bum”. Madison Square Garden (the third incarnation, not the current version) was “too small” for someone as talented as him. This, however, was nothing compared to what happened when Clay got his title shot with Sonny Liston on February 25th, 1964.
Liston was a large, mean fighter, and an ex-con with ties to the mob. He was also massively unpopular (to the point that the NAACP and even President Kennedy tried to persuade Floyd Patterson not to fight Liston-Patterson ignored the advice and lost his title and two fights to Liston), but the odds on favorite to beat Clay. Clay, however, under the advice of Eddie Machen, a fighter with good mobility (much like Clay) who had managed to take Liston to the distance (losing unanimously after the 12th round), decided to start talking trash in order to anger his opponent. Clay called Liston a “big, ugly bear” and wrote and read long poems ripping into Liston, declaring iconically that he would “float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”. At the weigh-in, Clay went wild, creating the first such circus-like environment (which is now a cliché) at a weigh-in. The press and Liston were convinced that Clay was scared.
Clay, in fact, was not, and other than the fourth and fifth rounds (when Ali was blinded by a substance on Liston’s gloves; there is still debate over whether or not it was intentional), Clay dominated the fight, and won when Liston refused to rise for the seventh round. Almost immediately, there were accusations of a fix, owing to Liston’s mob ties. However, no one has ever definitively proved it, but it is now known that Liston trained poorly, and may even have had shoulder bursitis while training.
A rematch was part of the contract between Liston and Clay (which resulted in Clay being stripped of the WBA title), and controversies involving Liston and Clay began to spiral out of control. Clay, who had been accused of being a Black Muslim leading up to the first fight (Malcolm X, still in good standing with the Nation of Islam, departed Miami Beach until the night of the fight as a compromise), publicly declared that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and started going by the name of Cassius X before settling on Muhammed Ali. After struggling to find a venue, the rematch was scheduled for November 16th, 1964 at the Boston Garden in Massachusetts. Liston trained hard while Ali continued mocking him, but then the fight was delayed when Ali was forced to have surgery to repair a strangulated hernia. To make matters worse, during the delay, Massachusetts officials started having second thoughts (in no small part because it was rumored that loyalists to Malcolm X were planning to shoot Ali in retaliation for Malcolm X’s assassination, for which three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted), leading to the fight being moved to Lewiston, Maine in order to preserve the closed circuit TV contract.
This, of course, is all prologue. It’s May 25th, 1965. The Beatles have the #1 song in the country with “Ticket to Ride”, with “Help Me, Rhonda” by The Beach Boys hot on its tail at #4. Three days ago, hundreds of Vietnam War protestors marched to the Draft Board in Berkeley, California, burning 19 draft cards and President’s Johnson’s image in effigy, a day after a teach-in 30,000 strong is held there. The Jack Benny Program, having made the leap from radio to TV in the ’50s, ended its incredible 33-year run. On the 23rd, actress Melissa McBride is born in Lexington, Kentucky. And in comic books, Sue Storm and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four are married.
As for the fight, well, you can watch the whole thing, because it’s so short that I don’t even feel guilty about posting a YouTube video of it. The ending of the fight was a farce of epic proportions, overshadowing even the buildup to the fight. As you can see on the above video, not even the commentators saw the knockout punch until the slow motion replay, and referee (and former Heavyweight Champion) Jersey Joe Walcott failed to pick up timekeeper Francis McDonough’s count after restraining Ali to his corner. However, under Maine rules, Walcott could have stopped the count until Ali finally went to his corner, but he never did, instead rushing to stop the fight after being told furiously that Liston had been counted out by both McDonough and Nat Fleischer, co-founder, publisher, and editor of The Ring (the most famous boxing magazine), which also maintained a lineal championship (movie fans will instantly recognize their belt, as it’s the one seen in the Rocky movies).
Reactions were swift and harsh. The knockout punch is forever known as the “phantom punch”, though Ali called it the “anchor punch” and declared that he had been taught it by notorious comedian/actor Stepin Fetchit (who by 1965 was the poster image of black stereotypes on film, even though he was ironically the first African-American millionaire), who himself claimed to have learned it from legendary boxer Jack Johnson. Walcott never refereed another fight. Liston’s reputation was shattered, and he died in 1970 (and depending on which stories you believe, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., at the time in the pockets of the mob like most everything in Vegas, let Liston rot until his wife returned from a vacation on January 5th, 1971). Muhammed Ali, however, was propelled into incredible fame, and we most certainly will revisit him later on.
Next week: a return to the ’80s, and another controversy (albeit a far more ridiculous one).