It wasn’t just the manner of the victory against the seemingly invincible Liston, in which the brash challenger Clay made the champion look like a novice at times. It was the youngster’s unshakeable confidence (outwardly at least) that he would defeat Liston and prove all the reporters and odds-layers wrong, because almost to a man they had given the Kentucky-born fighter virtually no chance at all. And it was also the fascinating sub-plot that would see Clay renounce his “slave name” and join the Nation of Islam in the aftermath of the fight.
Ali remains a boxing legend, but his exploits outside the ring are every bit as worthy of mention and his reputation has transcended the sport in which he excelled. Most of his life story is relatively well-known, as are the massive heavyweight title fights during the 1970s that arguably defined his career. However, I must admit that I have always been fascinated by his early career, the twenty fights that culminated in that incredible night at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.
The names of most of the fighters he defeated will be unknown to all but the most ardent boxing aficionados, but they chart the incredible rise of a boy venting his fury at the theft of his bicycle through to heavyweight champion of the world in just ten years. To me, the young Cassius Clay was the ultimate boxer, with agility and fist speed that was practically unheard of in the heavyweight division. The heavier Ali that emerged from an enforced absence from the ring was still quick, still powerful, and still hard to hit, but the young Clay had confidence bordering on arrogance that divided the boxing world.
Most were waiting (even hoping) for Clay and the associated hype to be dismantled by one of a number of experienced fighters who took on the precocious youngster, but despite the occasional under-par performance that defeat never came, and by the time Sonny Liston was left crying on his stool, Clay knew the world was watching and listening, and the legend was born.
Perhaps the boxing writers should have taken more notice of Clay’s sparring session with Ingemar Johansson in 1961. The Swede was preparing for a title clash (and third meeting) with Floyd Paterson, but was made to look foolish during a short meeting with the teenage Clay. In fact, Johansson’s trainer called a halt to proceedings after just two rounds, during which Clay was so dominant, he actually started taunting his more experienced rival. The episode prompted Gil Rogin of Sports Illustrated to say: “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
However it wasn’t all plain sailing for Clay, who had turned professional in 1960, after claiming the light-heavyweight Olympic gold medal in Rome earlier in the year. Henry Cooper famously floored Clay in their fight at Wembley Stadium in June 1963, however he had previously been knocked to the canvas by Lucien “Sonny” Banks (although Clay still won in the fourth round, just as he had predicted) and he was arguably fortunate to be awarded a points decision against Doug Jones.
Tragically, Sonny Banks would die in May 1965, following injuries sustained in a ninth round knockout loss to Leotis Martin. A later opponent of Clay’s, the handsome Argentinian Alejandro Lavorante (pictured losing to Clay), would also die as a result of a serious head injury suffered in the ring. He passed away in April 1964, after having spent a year and a half in a coma following his fight with Johnny Riggins. I am remembering both of these brave but tragic young men today.
For the young Cassius Clay however, fate had other things in store, and in celebrating the birthday of “the Greatest”, I will leave you with a short story concerning Clay’s defeat of Don Warner in February 1962. In the lead up to the fight, Clay had predicted a fifth round victory, but a bloodied Warner was hammered through the ropes in round four to bring the contest to a close. A reporter challenged Clay about his failure to predict the correct round, but the young fighter immediately replied that as Warner had refused to shake hands at the weigh-in, he had been docked one round for poor sportsmanship!