Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title

The storied career of one of the most legendary sports figures began when young boxer Cassius Clay overcame steep odds to defeat reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and his religion to Islam but never changed his boxing style during nearly two decades of fighting. He became one of the most recognizable figures in the world after his retirement, and he devotes his time to global humanitarian causes.

Summary of Event

On February 25, 1964, one of the most legendary, successful, and controversial careers in professional sports was launched when heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay successfully dethroned the champion Sonny Liston. Shortly thereafter, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and his religion to Islam and embarked on a two-decade-long career as one of the greatest prizefighters in the history of the sport and one of the most recognizable persons around the globe. Boxing
Heavywe ight boxing championship, world
Athletes;Muhammad Ali[Ali]
African Americans;athletes
[kw]Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title (Feb. 25, 1964)
[kw]Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title, Clay Defeats (Feb. 25, 1964)
[kw]Heavyweight Boxing Title, Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World (Feb. 25, 1964)
[kw]Boxing Title, Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight (Feb. 25, 1964)
Heavyweight boxing championship, world
Athletes;Muhammad Ali[Ali]
African Americans;athletes
[g]North America;Feb. 25, 1964: Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title[07960]
[g]United States;Feb. 25, 1964: Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title[07960]
[c]Sports;Feb. 25, 1964: Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title[07960]
[c]Popular culture;Feb. 25, 1964: Clay Defeats Liston to Gain World Heavyweight Boxing Title[07960]
Ali, Muhammad
Dundee, Angelo
Liston, Sonny

Ironically, prior to the fight, the twenty-two-year-old Clay had been considered an overwhelming underdog by most boxing sportswriters and other observers of the sport. The odds for the title fight were 7 to 1 against him, even though Clay had compiled an impressive overall record. His amateur mark was 108-8 and included six Kentucky Gold Glove titles, an International Gold Glove title, and a gold medal as the light heavyweight champion at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He had also amassed nineteen professional victories.

Nevertheless, it was widely held that the brash young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, was no match for the reigning heavyweight champion, thirty-two-year-old Sonny Liston. A scowling ex-convict, Liston was regarded as one of the fiercest fighters and most intimidating punchers of all time. He had become heavyweight champion by severely beating champion Floyd Patterson Patterson, Floyd on September 25, 1962. He beat Patterson again on July 22, 1963, to retain the title. Both fights were short, brutal affairs that lasted less than one round each and ended with Patterson prone on the canvas. Liston was thought to be unstoppable, and many believed he would do to Clay what he did to Patterson, or worse.

Clay, who was nicknamed the Louisville Lip for his boastful antics, had a very different end in mind. Even before he signed for the fight, Clay had subjected Liston to an unceasing barrage of quips and quotes designed to undercut the champion’s confidence while goading him enough that he had no choice but to fight Clay if he wanted peace. Clay heckled Liston while the champion was giving boxing exhibitions before the second Patterson fight. He harassed him at the dice tables in a Las Vegas casino. He climbed into the ring after Liston had won the second Patterson fight in convincing fashion and flourished a fake newspaper headline that announced how Liston would shut his mouth; Clay then tore up the paper.

Clay’s hyperbole was rewarded in November, 1963, when he signed to fight the champion. If Liston thought that by agreeing to the fight, he would get Clay finally to leave him alone, he was sadly mistaken. Clay continued his campaign of torment by driving a bus to Liston’s Denver, Colorado, home and honking the horn and screaming insults from the window—at 1:00 a.m. When Liston traveled to Miami to train for the fight against Clay, Clay met his plane on the tarmac and began verbally abusing him the instant he got off the plane. Clay drove after Liston’s car as he left the airport, yelling and screaming at him. Clay drove to the house Liston had rented and performed his antics on the front lawn before reporters and television cameras.

Clay, however, saved his most outrageous behavior for the weigh-in on the morning of the fight. Shouting out that he was ready to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” Clay pounded the ground with an African walking stick and proclaimed, with shrieking hysteria, that he was going to whip Liston badly. He even predicted that the eighth round was when he would knock Liston out. Clay became so animated, and his behavior so outrageous, that the Miami Boxing Commission fined him $2,500 on the spot.

To many at the weigh-in, Clay’s antics were that of a frightened fighter seeking to hide his terror behind a mask of false bravado. This view seemed justified when Clay’s pulse and blood pressure were taken at the weigh-in. His normal pulse rate of 54 had skyrocketed to 120, and his blood pressure was an astronomical 200 over 100. Indeed, the boxing commission doctor said that if Clay’s blood pressure remained high for long, the fight would be called off. One hour later, Clay’s blood pressure had returned to normal (120 over 80), as had his pulse rate.

Clay’s outlandish behavior was an act, a feint into the lunatic fringe designed to make Liston think that Clay was insane, and unpredictable. No one had ever seen Clay behave like he had before the fight with Liston. The deception worked so well that just hours before the fight, a radio report claimed that a panicked Clay was seen at the Miami airport, buying a ticket abroad so he could flee the wrath of Liston. Enough people bought into Clay’s act that the 15,744-seat Miami Beach Convention Hall (where the fight was to be held) was only half full. Or maybe the rumors about Clay’s conversion to Islam kept ticket sales low. Maybe the steep odds in Liston’s favor kept attendance down. For whatever reason, just 8,297 tickets had been sold to see history in the making.

The opening minute of the first round provided an inkling of what surprises the night had in store. Clay dodged and weaved furiously like an Olympic sprinter running from side to side. When Liston threw his sledgehammer blows they hit nothing but air. Liston, who had trained for a six- or seven-round fight, must have suddenly realized—as he flailed at the dodging Clay—that the night was going to be a long one and the fight very real.

By the second round, Liston was already desperate, throwing punches wildly in the vain hope that they would hit Clay. Meanwhile, Clay continued his incredible footwork while hitting Liston with a variety of blows that eventually opened up a cut under his left eye. It was the lithe panther versus the hulking bear, and now the panther had drawn blood. At the end of the fourth round, Clay came back to his corner blinking furiously, his eyes watering madly. Something had gotten into his eyes and he could barely see. Panicked, he told his veteran trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves, a move that would have ended the fight with Liston as the victor. Calling on his decades of experience, Dundee calmly washed out Clay’s eyes while shielding referee Barney Felix Felix, Barney so that he could not see what was happening; Felix would have stopped the fight. Dundee pushed Clay back into the ring with orders to stay away from Liston.

As Clay went out for the fifth round his vision was so blurry he could barely see, but Liston, too, had a moment of desperation as he realized that it was now or never to go after Clay. Clay survived the attack. By the middle of the round Clay’s vision had cleared and Liston’s chance had come and gone. At the end of the sixth round, Liston was tired and beaten. When he did not rise from his stool to answer the bell for the seventh round, Liston was only acknowledging what most of the crowd had realized several rounds before: A new king had been crowned. Shortly after the bout, when it was revealed that Clay had become a Muslim and had taken the name Muhammad Ali, American boxing fans realized that this new king was going to be unlike any who had come before.


Clay’s victory over Liston and his subsequent public embrace of Islam and new name heralded the Black Power movement of the 1960’s, when African Americans began to demand their civil rights at the national level. Also, Clay’s antics signaled the transformation of sport into spectacle, a form of public entertainment that transcended regional boundaries and appealed to a worldwide audience.

Finally, Clay’s win launched the career of one of the most gifted and controversial athletes in the history of sport. In 1978 he became the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship of the world three times. In 1999, Sports Illustrated magazine named him Sportsman of the Century. He has spent much of his retirement time working for human rights around the world, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Boxing
Heavywe ight boxing championship, world
Athletes;Muhammad Ali[Ali]
African Americans;athletes

Further Reading

  • Ali, Muhammad, with Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story. New York: Random House, 1975. Muhammad Ali’s no-punches-pulled autobiography. Part of the Random House African American Writers Collection.
  • Ali, Muhammad, with Hana Yasmeen. The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Ali’s soul-searching work, a spiritual autobiography that addresses religion, Ali’s personal philosophy, and other topics. Includes illustrations and photographs.
  • Edmonds, Anthony O. Muhammad Ali: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. A brief, concise biography of Muhammad Ali. Part of Greenwood’s ongoing series of biographies. Presents a time line of significant events in Ali’s life and several chapters, including “The Lip Is Launched: Cassius Clay Emerges, 1942-1960” and “The Liston Bouts and the ’Total Eclipses of the Sonny’s.’”
  • Marqusee, Mike. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. 2d ed. New York: Verso, 2005. A work that focuses not on Ali the boxer but Ali as a radical figure who was symbolic of 1960’s Black Power and other social movements.
  • Remnick, David. King of the World. New York: Random House, 1998. An inside look at the turbulent life and times of Muhammad Ali with comments from most of the principal figures in his life.

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