That did not deter Clay, however. He was a master showman, and his approach paid dividends. A nationwide radio audience listened to Les Keiter and relative newcomer Howard Cosell call the fight. A “closed circuit” version was seen on cinema screens from coast to coast; many of those theaters were standing room only. In person, however, the “crowd” at the Miami Beach Convention Center was a huge disappointment. Bill MacDonald, the promoter, overcharged ($250) for the ringside seats and sold the distant ones cheaply, but he found few takers for the pricey ones in between. Paid attendance was a reported 8,297. The “Fight of the Century” occurring in an arena barely half-full.
So who was there?
Louis and Marciano both were. So was the great middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, who helped Clay train. So was the popular pop singer Sam Cooke and the less popular, far more provocative activist Malcolm X. They sat ringside and watched in amazement while Clay jabbed and jabbered, overcame a case of temporary blindness in mid-fight (reputedly caused by a substance on Liston’s gloves), then raised his arm in victory when a bloodied, exhausted Liston declined to rise from his stool for Round 7. Clay began yelling, “I shocked the world!” and pointed mockingly to members of the press, gloating: “You were wrong! And you! And you!”
Many eyewitnesses are no longer with us. Cooke and Malcolm X both were shot to death within the next 12 months. Trainers Willie Reddish (for the champ) and Angelo Dundee (for Clay) are gone now, as is referee Barney Felix. Keiter, Cosell, MacDonald and so many more have also passed away. Liston’s lifeless body was discovered in a Las Vegas residence on Jan. 5, 1971, under unclear circumstances — dead for several days, possibly from lung congestion, possibly from a heroin overdose.
Parkinson’s disease, alas, in years gone by, has rendered the boxing chatterbox Ali all but mute.
Ah, but others express a vivid memory of an unforgettable night to American Way. Some were in Miami in person in ’64. Some sat glued to a radio. Ali’s personal ring doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, responded to a phone call by hanging up, although not before telling me what I could do with the stupid story. Many more graciously recounted, close to 50 years later, what they remembered most.