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When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali

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When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali

Cassius Clay would have preferred to beat up his opponent before the world championship fight. In the ring he then wears down Sonny Liston with all sorts of tricks – shortly afterwards he becomes Muhammad Ali.

Suddenly loses his nerve: Cassius Clay at the weigh-in before the world championship fight against Sonny Liston in February 1964.

Life Picture Collection / Imago

The day the new heavyweight boxing champion was crowned began and ended with a lot of shouting. It was shortly after eleven o’clock on February 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay, as he was then known, lost his nerve during the weigh-in for his 20th professional fight (after 19 victories) in a room at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.

The 22-year-old challenger seemed to want to pounce on world champion Sonny Liston right then and there. It was only with difficulty that he was caught by his entourage. So he contented himself with bombarding his designated opponent with wild tirades. “I can beat you at any time, you stupid!” he shouted and: “Someone is going to die in the ring tonight. You’re scared, stupid. I’ll eat you alive.”

From that moment until the first gong of the evening, eyewitnesses were allowed to ponder what Clay’s wild performance meant. The audience quickly agreed that the inexperienced aspirant was apparently trying to cover up his own fears. That evening he had to compete against the most feared of all title holders at the time: Liston was able to end a ring duel with one or two effective hits – as he had recently done in two title fights against Floyd Patterson, whom he destroyed in the first round in each case.

This interpretation was also supported by the findings of the ring doctor, who briefly noted that Clay had a pulse of 120 after he freaked out. Liston (35 wins, 1 loss) compared him in front of reporters to a child who begins to whistle alone in the dark forest.

Constantly provokes his opponent: Before the world championship fight, Cassius Clay goes to the training quarters of his opponent Sonny Liston.

Bettmann / Getty

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Cassius Clay belittled his opponents in order to appear even greater

Seeing through productions was not one of the talents of the 31-year-old former delinquent with the ice-cold eye, who socialized with Mafiosi in St. Louis. But on one point he knew that the majority opinion was behind him: the unwritten rule in the boxing business was that you should show your opponent a minimum of respect.

In this respect, the show of the eloquent challenger, who soon became the most famous sports icon on the planet as Muhammad Ali, can be understood as a historical turning point. For the first time, someone used every second of visibility for maximum PR impact in their own interest. He belittled his opponents in advance with a quick tongue in order to appear even bigger, more important and more attractive.

“Liston is nothing,” the youngster had already let all the sports journalists know. “The man needs speaking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And because he’s competing against me, he also needs lessons in falling.” After the victory, he then wants to become “champion of the universe” by beating “these little green men from Mars and Jupiter”. The sight of them certainly won’t scare him, “they can’t be uglier than Sonny Liston.”

Similarly, years later, Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, would denigrate Joe Frazier as a “gorilla” and call George Foreman a “big old Texas bull” who moved in the ring “as slowly as a mummy.”

Clever tactics: Cassius Clay wears down his opponent Sonny Liston (left) with avoidance movements and quick hits.

Topfoto / Imago

Today we know that the “Louisville Lip”, one of Clay’s many nicknames, not only had the physicality, but also the technique, the speed and the tactical finesse to actually defeat the boxing greats she insulted. At the beginning of 1964, Clay had hardly produced anything – apart from his Olympic victory in Rome (1960). His points victory over Doug Jones in New York (1963) was flattering; In two other duels, opponents had brought him to the ground at short notice. On top of that, his sympathy for the black civil rights activist Malcolm X and the rebellious Nation of Islam was noted with little enthusiasm by most of the American media.

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So it was hardly surprising that on the evening of the boxing match, a Tuesday, the Convention Hall in Miami Beach was only half full with almost 8,300 spectators. For the white, somewhat affluent majority in Florida, the world championship fight was “a confrontation between a Muslim idiot and a fearsome thug,” as David Remnick writes in his Muhammad Ali book “King of the World.” And for the journalists who were familiar with boxing, there was simply no discussion about the sporting outcome: in a survey, 43 of 46 experts had predicted another victory for Liston. His punch and killer instinct would quickly overwhelm Clay, this “two hundred pound bantamweight,” as New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon called him.

Former world champion Rocky Marciano, who was sitting directly at the ring as a co-commentator for the ABC radio station, was unable to make a decision. “If Clay survives the first few rounds, we might have an interesting fight,” he said a few minutes before the gong.

An unexpected triumph: On February 25, 1964, boxer Cassius Clay, alias Muhammad Ali, won his first heavyweight world title.

Life Picture Collection / Imago

He enrages his opponent – and lands poisonous hits

In fact, Liston couldn’t clearly dominate even at the start. His dreaded lead-hand strikes and right hooks often missed the mark, or their impact was blunted by Clay’s nimble avoidance movements.

At the same time, Liston himself received poisonous hits from all possible angles. These confirmed to the challenger that something was really possible here. Clay wasn’t nearly as convinced of this before the fight as he had been that morning. He wanted to make the champion so angry that he would “forget everything he knew about boxing” between the ropes, as he later described. Or, even better, thought he was a crazy person who couldn’t be taken seriously in sports.

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Liston’s displeasure with the cheeky Clay was soon joined by frustration, a deep cut and a damaged shoulder tendon – and, last but not least, the fear of being shown off as the fight continued. From the third round Clay was in forward gear, and after a short-term irritation caused by an ointment that had gotten into his eye from Liston’s body, he came back even more vehemently in round 5.

In doing so, he had worn down the defending champions. During the break in round 7 he remained sitting on the chair. “Enough now,” Liston told his astonished supervisors. Then shouts could be heard again everywhere.

The myth arises: Two days after the victory against Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay announced his conversion to Islam. The photo shows him signing autographs in New York in 1964, with Malcolm X to his left.

Everett Collection / Imago

“I shocked the world” – Clay immediately knows the meaning of his triumph

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” shouted radio commentator Howard Cosell from ringside, “Sonny Liston isn’t coming up anymore, Sonny Liston isn’t coming up anymore.” Supervisors and officials now streamed into the ring, and in the midst of the excitement, the new champion barked at the reporters in the front rows: “I’m the greatest. I shocked the world. Take back your words, give me justice!”

So in Miami Beach the short, dark era of Sonny Liston came to an end, while at the same time the myth of a new hero emerged who would shock the world many more times. After inconclusive investigations by Florida’s attorney general and a Senate committee, talk of a rigged fight was soon off the table – even if not all older white men liked that. They preferred a champion with ties to organized crime to one who would adopt a Muslim name a few days later.

The name change: That same year, Muhammad Ali explained to reporters why he wanted to be called Muhammad Ali in the future. Next to him is his wife Sophia.

Bettmann / Getty

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