The third and final instalment of my three part series, this post concludes my article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston.
The fight started as predicted, with Liston charging out from his corner like a bull intent on doing damage. Clay for his part stuck to his plan and kept moving, circling clockwise away from Liston’s jab. Time after time Liston attacked only to see Clay sway back or slip away before the punch could connect. Liston was missing by 30cm, sometimes more, and try as he might, he couldn’t connect with a decent punch until halfway through the round. “I just kept running and watching his eyes,” Clay said later. “Liston’s eyes tip you when he is about to throw a heavy punch. Some kind of way, they just flicker.”
When Liston finally caught Clay with a rip below the rib cage it only spurred Clay into action. First, he fired a series of single jabs at the champ, and then he unleashed a blur of two, three, or four jabs followed by an overhand right or a left hook. When the bell to finish the round sounded, Joe Louis in his ringside commentary said: “I think we’ve just seen one of the greatest rounds we’ve seen from anybody in a long time. I think Clay completely outclassed Sonny Liston in this round.”
The second round was more of the same, with Clay dancing and Liston missing. At one point the fans in the bleachers watched Liston mistime a hook that struck one of the ring’s ropes. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Clay cut Liston under his left eye. “He hit me some,” Clay would tell Playboy magazine after the fight, “but I weaved and ducked away from most of his shots… Then I saw the first cut, high up on his cheekbone… Then I saw the blood, and I knew that eye was my target from then on. It was my concentrating on that cut that let me get caught with the hardest punch I took, that long left. It rocked me back. But he either didn’t realize how good I was hit or he was already getting tired and he didn’t press his chance. I sure heard the bell that time. I needed to get to my corner to get my head clear.”
By the time the bell for the next round had rung Clay had changed his game plan. Instead of coasting the third he attacked from the outset, and it was all that Liston could do to defend himself. Time and again he was forced to cover up, and each time he sensed a barrage of punches was over and looked to counter, he would find Clay gone.
When the round finished, Liston, blood trickling from cuts and his tank already nearing empty, made his way warily back to his corner. He was worn out, not just from chasing Clay, but from all the punches he had thrown and missed with. “The punches you miss are the ones that wear you out,” Clay’s trainer that night, Angelo Dundee, would say – and Liston had already missed plenty.
Clay, by now aware that he was in total control of the fight reverted back to his original plan for the fourth round, leaving Liston in his wake as he danced around the ring. Everything ran to script, until late in the round, when his night nearly fell apart. Dundee takes up the story: “Near the end of the fourth round, Cassius started having trouble with his eyes. To this day nobody knows exactly what the problem was. It might have been liniment from Liston’s shoulder. My guess is, it was coagulant that his corner used on the cuts. Probably, Cassius got the solution on his gloves, and when he brushed them against his forehead, it had left a layer of something that trickled down with the perspiration into his eyes.
“Whatever it was, he came back to the corner after the fourth round and started shouting, ‘I can’t see! My eyes!’ and something was wrong. His eyes were watery. He was saying, ‘Cut the gloves off! We’re going home!’ and you can imagine what was going through his mind. He was winning the fight, winning easily, and all of a sudden he can’t see. I told him, ‘Forget the bullshit. This is the championship. Sit down.’ I pushed him down, and took a towel, and started cleaning out his eyes. Then I threw the towel away, grabbed a sponge, rinsed his eyes and threw the sponge away. There was something in his eyes, definitely, because I put my pinky in the corner of his eye, and then I put it in my own eye, and it stung, it burned.
“I only had a minute between rounds, and Barney Felix, the referee, was coming toward us to see what the problem was. Cassius was hollering, ‘I can’t see,’ and I was scared they’d stop the fight. So I got his mouthpiece back in, stood him up, and said, ‘This is the big one, daddy. Stay away from him. Run!”
“Just going out for the fifth round was an incredibly brave thing to do,” recalled Pacheco. “The things he did, staying out of range, reaching out with his left hand, touching Liston when he got too close to break Sonny’s concentration. It was an amazing, astonishing, breath-taking performance. Cassius can’t see, and still Liston couldn’t do anything with him.” Somehow Clay survived Liston’s attack, and with half a minute left in the round his eyes began to clear. Liston, the ferocious, indestructible, and unbeatable Champion of the World had missed his chance to put away an all but defenceless Clay.
In the sixth, Clay came out with clear vision and he went to work on Liston – and everything he threw landed. Liston, by now flat-footed, had nothing left. His heavily muscled arms that had been instrumental in so many victories were now a weighty liability as he struggled to keep them up. At one point, Clay recalled, “I hit him with eight punches in a row, until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like “Yeah, you old sucker! You tried to be so big and bad!” He was gone. He knew he couldn’t last … I missed a right that might have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before.”
When the bell sounded ending the sixth, Liston walked back to his corner. The missed runs and ill-discipline he had shown when he should have been training had come home to roost. “That’s it,” he announced as he sat down. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston had quit on his stool: the first heavyweight champion of the world to do so since Jess Willard had succumbed to a broken nose, cracked ribs, a broken jaw and six broken teeth in 1919. Only Liston hadn’t been smashed into submission. Instead, he had been out-thought and out-boxed – and then he simply gave up.
To watch Clay on this night, in this fight, was to witness something special. Even now, watching black and white footage five decades on, you can instinctively tell Clay was in a new breed of fighter. He was the future, and the future combined the mass of a heavyweight with the speed and agility of a lightweight. In a stroke he had changed the face of heavyweight boxing. He was simply irresistible.