Monday, February 24, 2014

The Transformation and Ascension of Young Cassius Clay

                         The Rematch 1965 Lewiston Maine
Many people know of the fighter Muhammad Ali and the greatness of his legacy, but 

some don't know the backstory that made one his most remarkable accomplishments even more extraordinary. This entry highlights the villainous background of the once
invincible fighter whom he dethroned to become the heavyweight champion 50 years ago. It also provides a description of some of the action that took place from various rounds of the highly anticipated bout. Finally, the text describes an account of one of the most bizarre occurrences in the history of professional boxing, one that the then little known Cassius Clay would have to also fight through if he were to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I feel great, I don‘t have a mark on my face and I just upset Sonny Liston and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest!” These were the words jubilantly expressed by the then 8-1 underdog as he was being interviewed by Steve Ellis after fighting and defeating one of the most feared heavy weight champions that ever lived.

The night of February 25,1964 in Miami Beach, Florida the transformation and ascension of young Cassius Marcellus Clay into Muhammad Ali began, but the historic victory through which he
metamorphosed and meteorically rose could very well not have happened, at least not then.
How could it have been that Cassius Clay, a 22 year-old unproven fighter had won the 1964 heavyweight championship title fight?  Many experts had predicted that he would fold under the inexperience of his youth. Not only was he expected to lose the fight, he was expected to lose by a knock-out. Clay had only 19 professional bouts. Although he was undefeated and appeared well skilled as an up and coming fighter, his victories were not against the highest level of competition in the heavyweight division. Also he had been knocked down and almost counted out in his previous contest by England's Henry Cooper, a challenger considered to be a far less adept fighter than the rugged opponent he would meet for the title. Clay's opponent for the title fight would be Charles Sonny Liston, the world’s heavyweight champion at the time.  Liston was a career felon who started his boxing career while serving time in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Liston looked and acted the part dramatically well. He was more physically imposing than Clay and with a record of 35-1 he was far more experienced than his youthful challenger.  Included on his resume and documented in an article written by Jack Puma for Classic Sports, was an arrest of Liston for assault of a policeman in Saint Louis. Liston reportedly broke his knee, gashed his face and took his gun, for which he served nine months in the city workhouse. In a different incident after he was released, a hardened Liston assaulted another officer and left him upside down in a trash can.  Liston's record of bad behavior in the ring was equally menacing. On the very first punch he threw as a professional, he knocked his opponent out.  Then he walked through the division of heavyweight contenders competing for the throne like he was taking a stroll through the park and snatching candy from babies. In his first attempt to win the title he beat one of the best heavyweights ever, Floyd Patterson by an astounding first round knockout and for good measure in the rematch he knocked Patterson out again in the very first round.
It was in part because of Liston's violent nature that Clay fittingly nicknamed him, "The Big Ugly Bear". Liston struck paralyzing fear in the minds of his adversaries before his fights and inflicted paralyzing pain to their body's during them. Going into the championship fight with Clay, because of the criminal element and his pugilistic prowess, Liston was clearly viewed as having the advantage in the public's eye as well as with odds makers. Already the favorite to win, a couple of weeks before the fight
Liston gained another psychological edge.  It was described in Thomas Hauser‘s book, The Life and Times of Muhammad Ali. Clay saw Liston while Liston was losing at the craps table in a Las Vegas Casino. Clay taunted him. An upset Liston threw the dice and threatened Clay. Clay left. A short time later Liston saw Clay, walked up to him and slapped him. After Clay sheepishly responded by asking Liston, "What you do that for?" After answering with an expletive, Liston turned to a friend standing nearby and said, “I got the punk’s heart now”.

Fast forward, two weeks later to the Miami Beach Convention Center. Clay and Liston meet in the center of the ring for the introduction and the stare down. Standing face to face Liston glared at Clay in a curiously mean way, as if part of him was trying to frighten Clay and the other part was trying to figure out what to make of him and all of his pre-fight antics. Clay, slightly taller, peered down at Liston with a facial expression that exuded a silent confidence that boldly stated that he had no respect for him, and no fear of him. After the men returned to their corners Clay bounced lively up and down in his corner as he anxiously awaited the sound of the bell to start of the match. When the bell rang for the first round Liston came out and immediately pressed the fight. He pursued Clay aggressively throwing several punches. He was unsuccessful at landing any as Clay moved away effortlessly. Several seconds into the fight, still throwing hard punches, Liston missed one and Clay countered with a well timed pin point accurate left hook. Midway through the round, Liston swinging wildly with all of his might continued to miss punches. Later in the round for several seconds more, an undeterred Liston proceeded to stalk Clay as Clay fluidly danced away. Then suddenly Clay stopped and stood his ground, at which point he became more offensive. He carefully landed a quick jab as he simultaneously dodged Liston's punches. Then Clay, switching from defense to offense at a second's notice gradually started to establish control of the round by landing more lightning quick jabs.  An undaunted Liston relentlessly attempted to attack Clay, whose movement beautifully displayed a style of illusiveness that had never been seen. Conditioned to expect Clay to move away during his pursuit, Liston became more of an easy target when he moved in and the much quicker Clay stood and  went toe to toe with him. Near the end of the round Clay landed a solid combination and barely missed another while slipping Liston's punches. As the bell sounded to end the round, unable to hear it because of crowd noise, the fighters continued to fight until they were separated by the referee. Despite all of his effort Liston had only managed to land a few grazing punches and to the surprise of Liston, the experts and many of the spectators, the round was over and Clay was still standing. The end of the first round also signaled the beginning of the realization to the befuddled Liston, who had been handled unlike ever before that he was in for one of the toughest fights of his professional career. 

Early in the third round, Liston barreled forward and Clay unleashed a fury of hard punches that staggered Liston. It was the highlight of the round. As the round progressed Clay appeared to tire and Liston landed a few significant blows.

Before the bell rang to start the fifth round, Clay stood in his corner blinking his eyes and intently asking his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off because he couldn‘t see. Something had mysteriously gotten into his eyes and impaired his vision.  Dundee attempted to flush his eyes with water to restore his vision but to no avail. Dundee persuaded Clay to go back out. He instructed him to avoid any physical contact by posturing defensively and moving away. The prospect of beating Liston with good vision was already a monumental task. Now to win the heavyweight title, he would have to overcome a critical disadvantage, temporary blindness. As instructed, Clay went back out and exposed himself to the ferocious attack of the Big Ugly Bear. Liston, immediately aware that something was wrong, savagely went after Clay, swinging with wild abandon and renewed vigor. Clay covered up and struggled to stay away from his opponent who seemed rather anxious to end the fight instantaneously. Clay desperately tried to hang on as the heavy handed hitter went after him even more aggressively.  Then suddenly out of nowhere Liston hit Clay with a huge left hook! It wasn’t clear if Clay had been hurt as he continued to back away with his hands up to protect his face. As time was running out in the round and Clay’s vision gradually returned he started to fight more offensively, and at one point to the amusement of the crowd, he even taunted Liston by peppering his face with several soft but bothersome jabs. Shortly thereafter Liston's effort ended with the round in futility.  At least for the time Clay had managed to survive an attempted mauling that was intensified by a blindsiding twist of fate.

Having been tested in the previous round, at the start of the sixth round Clay showed tremendous poise as he moved confidently around the ring demonstrating that he was in total command of the contest. Using his trigger quick jab Clay tagged Liston hard repeatedly, seemingly at will and generated surprising force with his stinging power punches. He was virtually flawless as he continued to moved from offense to defense as necessary to avoid being hit. Between round six and seven Liston's corner men worked frantically to close the cut under his left eye as he sat there on the stool looking like a man who had been beaten into submission. Then suddenly, it was over! Liston, one of the toughest fighters ever to lace up a pair of gloves refused to come out for the 7th round to defend his title, making him the only heavyweight champion in history to lose his championship belt by way of retirement.  
Through the course of the fight in Miami Beach that night Clay transitioned from contender to champion. Shortly after his magnificent rise to greatness he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.


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