Today In History – February 25

February 25, 1964.

A Twenty-two-year-old young man named Cassius Clay shocks the world by defeating the heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.

Clay was an eight-to-one underdog in the February fight in Miami Beach, Florida. He was known as “the Louisville lip” and had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He had a great hand but was seen as having controversial decisions made when it came to his boxing wins. Reporters also disliked him.

When it came to the fight, Lester B forecasted that “It will last longer than the Patterson fight- almost the entire first round.”[1] Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times said, “The only thing at which clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary.”[2] One of the reasons why he was so often dismissed was because his boxing style was seen as being ill-suited for the heavyweight division. He was seen as fast but a light puncher. He was also seen as lacking the ability to take a punch or to fight inside.

The fight lasted seven rounds. It was initially thought that Liston would end the fight in the first round. However, Clay held his own. By the third round, Clay began to dominate his opponent, but Liston appeared to be back on top in the fourth round. By the end of that round, Clay said he returned to his corner and complained that his eyes were burning and that he could not see. Clay’s trainer would later say, “he said ‘cut the gloves off. I want to prove to the world there’s dirty work a foot.’ and I said ‘whoa, whoa, backup baby. Come on now, this is for the title, this is the big apple. What are you doing? Sit down!’ so I get him down, I get the sponge and I pour the water into his eye trying to cleanse whatever’s there, but before I did that I put my pinky in his eye and I put it to my eye. It burned like hell. There was something caustic in both eyes.'” Due to his eyes, which the referee noticed, Clay was almost disqualified. However, they kept going.

Clay would later say that he could barely make Liston out for most of the fifth round. By the sixth round, his eyes had cleared a bit, and he began holding his own ground. He would later say, “I got back to my stool at the end of the sixth round, and under me I could hear the press like they had gone wild… I twisted round and hollered down to the reporters, ‘I’m going to upset the world.'”[3]

Liston did not come out for the seventh round. He did not respond to the bell, and a technical knockout declared Clay the winner. Liston became the first world champion since 1919 to retire on his stool during a heavyweight title fight.

Cassius Clay had made history. He would later change his name to Muhammad Ali.

[1] David Remnick, King of the World (New York, NY: Penguin Random House Secondary Education, 1999).
[2] David Remnick, King of the World.
[3] Ibid.

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