Part two of three, this post continues my article celebrating Cassius Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston.
Whether the walk-up crowd was affected by a radio report stating Clay had been spotted at the airport trying to leave town isn’t clear, but only a little over half of the 15,744 seats were paid for by the time the two fighters entered the ring. The challenger, despite looking calm and controlled as referee Barney Felix issued last-minute instructions, was a ball of nerves. “He was just a kid,” his ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, would later say, “and that night he had no idea if he could really do what he had been saying he could do all along.”
Liston, on the other hand, had the confident air of a seasoned pro. He was there to do a job on Clay and expected an easy time of it. As the two men stood in the middle of the ring listening to Felix finish his instructions he fixed a menacing stare on the 22-year old challenger – there was no mistaking his intentions. Somehow Clay managed to hold his nerve – despite, as he later admitted, being genuinely scared – and just before the two heavyweights turned to walk back to their respective corners he took one last opportunity to rile Liston, exclaiming, “I’ve got you now, sucker!”
Back in his corner, Clay waited anxiously for the bell, all the while wondering if his tactics would see him survive Liston’s inevitable onslaught. His plan was to spend the first two rounds fighting on his toes – continuously moving to keep Liston off balance so that he couldn’t set the solid platform he needed to throw his thunderous jabs. Then he would coast through rounds three, four and five, defending himself while Liston expended precious energy chasing him around the ring. Finally in round six, he would explode into action, using his blistering hand speed to pummel the exhausted champ until the end came. It was a sound plan. Liston was sure to be lacking the stamina needed for a prolonged fight as he had only defended his belt three times in the preceding three years, and none of those fights had made it out of the first round. But still, it was only a theory.
Whether Liston himself had a plan of his own that extended past the desire to hurt Clay no one knew, but when one of his cornermen later reflected on Liston’s mood before the fight, he had no doubt that Liston was confident of winning. “Sonny never really expressed his emotions,” recalled Milt Bailey, “but before the fight, he was confident, just like all of us. We thought Clay was crazy, because he was acting the way a crazy man acts. But we also knew he was afraid because of the way he was talking, and at the weigh-in, he seemed full of fear. So we didn’t expect anything different that night. I know I didn’t think Clay had a chance. Sonny was so powerful, and nobody had stood up to him.”
There was just one problem. Liston expected a quick victory and had trained accordingly: the early-morning road runs used to build the stamina needed for longer fights were cut short or skipped altogether, and the raw intensity Liston had brought to the gym in his early days was missing. As Foneda Cox, one of Liston’s sparring partners, would later recall: “He firmly believed that he would kill Clay. I mean it, really kill him. Why work too hard?” Why indeed.