Remembering 59 Years Ago: How Did Cassius Clay’s Surprise Win Over Sonny Liston Amaze the World?


Some great fights, no matter how many times you watch them, they still give you something; with only repeated viewings letting a fan fully appreciate a special fight. And a controversial fight. Which brings us to the fight that took place one year shy of six long decades ago today – Cassius Clay Vs. Sonny Liston.

This fight, its result along with its aftermath, really did do what the cocksure Clay predicted it would do: it shook up the world. And then, before the world had had a chance to fully digest what had happened in the ring at the Convention Centre in Miami Beach, 22 year old Clay dropped another bombshell, this by telling everyone he was now to be called Muhammad Ali, that he had joined The Nation of Islam.

This was front page news, and almost nobody found it pleasant reading. The Nation, headed by the controversial Elijah Muhammad, was a group frightening to most Americans, and now the world heavyweight champion was the group’s main mouthpiece. It was for many people too much to take.


But getting back to the fight, Clay undeniably boxed quite masterfully, even if you, like many millions of fight fans and historians, will never be convinced the fight was not fixed. Liston, complaining about an injured left shoulder, one that left his glove “feeling like it was full of water,” quit at the end of round six. Clay then went into orbit, screaming “I told you! I told you!” and “I am the greatest!” Liston, who may have been closer to the age of 50 than he was to age 30, was all but finished as a top fighter and his actions put the sport into serious disrepute.

There was also the episode in the fifth round when a “blinded” Clay literally ran from Liston, his eyes burning. We will never know if there had been “dirty work afoot,” as Clay said at the time, with him wanting to do what Liston would do a few minutes later and quit on his stool. Angelo Dundee’s cool head and great experience saved the day for Clay/Ali, of that there is no doubt. At the time of the fight’s unsatisfactory ending, the three official judges had been unable to agree on who was winning the fight.


Amazingly, when we look back on Ali’s majestic performance, we find that only one judge had him winning the fight at the time of the weird ending. Judge William Bunny Lovett had it 58 to 56 in favour of Liston at the time of the ending, while judge/referee Barney Felix had it all even at 57-57. Judge Gus Jacobson had it 59-56 in favour of the challenger. So, Liston, as hurt as he was (or wasn’t, depending on your view) still had a chance to win on points.


Liston, whether he went in the tank or not, was downcast and visibly depressed after the fight, the former champ stating how he felt “like I did when the president got shot.” Liston, like the entire world, was shocked when John F. Kennedy was gunned down in November of 1963. Liston told reporters that he had not wanted to quit against Clay. “I never wanted to quit, I wanted to go on, just as I did in 1954 when Marty Marshall broke my jaw,” he insisted.

Indeed, Liston had shown immense toughness along with frightening punching power during his career, and this made his capitulation all the more difficult to swallow. Today, there is hardly anyone left who was there that day – February 25th, 1964 – and the fight enjoys its own uniquely mysterious and fascinating place in sports history. But then of course came the rematch, and things became even more controversial. Together, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston served up the two most controversial, forever debated, and most opinion-dividing heavyweight title fights of all-time.


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