On Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) cashed the biggest mouth-written check in the history of sport when he TKO’d Sonny Liston, knock-out artist and reigning heavyweight world champion, after six rounds.
Absolutely no one has talked more shit — in verse, no less — before a sporting event than the 22-year-old “Louisville Lip” did in the lead up to this legendary fight. Exhibit A, a poem Clay had his sparring partner read on national television the night before the match:
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, if Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, just look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing but there’s not enough room, it’s a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom. Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, and the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring.*
Liston’s response, also delivered by his sparring partner: “Cassius, you’re my million dollar baby, so please don’t let anything happen to you before tomorrow night.”
Clay trained for the fight at the fabled 5th Street Gym, running in the morning from his home in segregated Overtown to Miami Beach and then back at night (sometimes backwards, legend has it, to quicken his back shuffle). In the lead-up to the fight, he terrorized Liston, a grave ex-con with suspected mob ties who had never met an antagonist with Clay’s bravado before.
During training, Clay took to driving his entourage in a bus over to the site in Surfside, Florida where Liston was training, and repeatedly called Liston the “big, ugly bear”. Liston grew increasingly irritated as the motormouthed Clay continued hurling insults (“After the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him… if Sonny Liston whups me, I’ll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he’s the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country.”). Clay insisted to a skeptical press that he would knock out Liston in eight rounds. There were rumours that Clay even left the country the day of the fight, fleeing to Mexico, but they proved untrue.
Utterly untrue. Clay not only showed up for the fight, but overcame having to fight blind in the fifth round (some suspect Liston’s trainers spread an irritant on his gloves) to win the fight in six — two fewer than even he’d predicted. When Liston threw in the towel
Clay sprang to the center of the ring, did a victory jig and then quickly ran to the ropes to remind sportswriters that he had told them so all along. In a scene that has been rebroadcast countless times over the ensuing decades, Clay repeatedly yelled “I’m the greatest!” and “I shook up the world!”
The next day, Clay would further shake up the world by announcing he was changing his name to Cassius X. The following week, he took the name Muhammad Ali. In 1967, also in Miami, he would announce his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong … No VietCong ever called me …”).
Here’s footage of rounds five and six, followed by Clay’s victory jig after winning the match.
* All block quotes from Wikipedia.