Fifty years ago, the man who would become the icon known as MUHAMMAD ALI shocked the world.
He was vicious. He was malicious. He was a humorless, hard-as-a-rock ex-convict (for armed robbery), said to be 31 but quite likely years older who, at a time when the “heavyweight champion of the world” was someone men, women and kids everywhere could identify, was exactly that. And on the evening of Feb. 25, 1964, when Charles “Sonny” Liston stepped into an indoor boxing ring in Miami Beach, he also seemed to be something else: unbeatable.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was the champ’s mirror image in no way. He was 22, witty, wacky and happy-go-lucky. He had a handsome face and an Olympic gold medal. He also had a deep-rooted desire, obscured by his nonsense, to become a peace-loving conscientious objector who would fight for money and for Allah, not for his country, while revealing his faith to be Muslim and his name to be Cassius X, which he later changed to Muhammad Ali.
America had changed too.
The assassination of President Kennedy a few months before had numbed the public. But the British invasion of the Beatles suddenly galvanized the country. And so did Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay with the champ a 7-to-1 favorite. Liston was expected to blacken the eye, bloody the nose and, above all else, shut the flapping trap of a loudmouth known as the “Louisville Lip,” who for weeks had publicly taunted Liston as “the ugly bear” and recited poems like:
The crowd did not dream
When they put up their money
That they would see
A total eclipse of the Sonny.
Such boasting just wasn’t done. Heavyweights from Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano to Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson wore the heavyweight championship belt with a quiet dignity.