Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) versus Sonny Liston.
Muhammad Ali served as a sort of touchstone for me in my formative years. I was too young to appreciate first-hand a lot of his early fights, but his last few were well within my time. The first that I remember being personally aware of was his fight with Jimmy Young in Landover, Maryland, in 1977. A rather dull fight as it turned out but I watched it all hoping to see flashes of the old Ali. There were, as I recall, very few flashes that night and Ali was lucky to escape with his title intact. That wasn't entirely Ali's fault because I don't think Jimmy Young was ever involved in an exciting fight his entire career. He was a backward shuffling counter puncher and forced Ali to do the one thing he was never really good at: fighting an offensively aggressive fight.
His second to last fight with Larry Holmes occurred in 1981 and I remember paying to see the fight on closed circuit along with my friend, the late Robert Fiedler, at some arena in downtown Springfield, MO. It was a sad night. Ali was never in the ball game and Holmes beat him mercilessly. Robert and I quietly drank a lot of whiskey later that night. I remember at one point, late in the fight, an older, white guy next to us, turning and saying, "Well, he's finally getting his ass kicked tonight." Rather than be angry I only said, "Ah, but you don't understand. He was so beautiful when he was young." And I realized I was quoting my own father about Rocky Marciano. And HIS own father about Joe Louis. Age is the great equalizer. The one and only thing that can strip someone of their deity. The great dream killer.
His last fight was a unanimous decision loss to a journeyman named Trever Burbick. I was an overnight DJ at the time at a radio station in Columbia, Missouri, called KFRU and followed the fight, round by round, from the AP and UPI wire services. Another sad night. Burbick couldn't carry Ali's jockstrap when he was in his prime, to steal an infamous quote from Larry Holmes about Rocky Maricano.
Since then, however, I've watched nearly every Ali fight on video and, later, DVD. I've spent a great deal of time studying this remarkable fighter.
I dabbled myself in the 'sweet science' early in my adult life. Boxing here and there, Golden Gloves, not especially good at it, but not especially bad, either. But I learned enough about boxing to be able to watch a fight with a keen eye, seeing a great deal more than the uninitiated viewer. And watching Ali in those fights is like a good golfer watching Tiger Woods at his best, or a good basketball player watching Michael Jordon at the peak of his game, or a decent artist watching Picasso paint. Ali was quite possibly the best I've ever seen. And by that I mean not the best heavyweight, but the best fighter, pound for pound, I"ve ever seen.
There were, of course, dozens of breathtaking fights, displays of skill simply remarkable in their scope. But for the purposes of this blog I'll concentrate on the 'miracle fights.'
The first was against Sonny Liston in 1964. Ali (then still Cassius Clay) was a 9-1 underdog. Liston was fresh off of two, count them, TWO, one round knockouts of former champion Floyd Patterson. He was, like George Foreman later in Ali's career, seemingly unbeatable. Ali was 22 years old at the time of the fight.
While Ali controlled the fight from start to finish, the real drama came in the fifth round when Ali was blinded by the illegal stringent Liston's unsavory cornermen placed on his gloves. One can see him clearly pulling Ali into clinch after clinch in the preceding round and rubbing his gloves over Ali's eyes as the referee separates them. Liston, it comes as no surprise today, was firmly controlled by the mob and it became increasingly clear he was getting his ass handed to him as the night wore on. He couldn't touch Ali. He was swinging wildly and hitting nothing but air. The young Ali was systematically picking him apart. As the fifth round started Ali is seen asking his own cornermen to cut off his gloves because he is blind. Angelo Dundee, his lifelong trainer, pushed him off his stool anyway, saying, "This one's for all the marbles, kid, just stay away from him." The astonishing part, the miracle part, is that Ali won that round anyway, fighting purely from instinct, unable to even see Liston. Continually wiping his eyes and sort of pouting throughout the round. Now, pouting is fine for a ten year old kid that's lost his baseball glove, but to pout while fighting the most dangerous fighter alive for a full three minutes, well, that's something else entirely. And all the while doing it while moving counterclockwise at full speed and still peppering Liston with lightning jabs, that's bordering on madness. At the end of the fifth it became clear to Liston he couldn't beat this kid under any circumstances so at the end of the seventh round he just quit. He spit out his mouthpiece and just quit. Like most bullies, Liston just couldn't take it. A new era of professional sports was born that night.
I have watched that fight many, many times on DVD. Ali's best work against the likes of Liston or Foreman or Frazier were like one-act plays. A beginning, a middle and an end. Exposition with the theme introduced, the crux of the storyline and finally, the denoument. Like the very best of sports there was drama, surprising devopments, unexpected turnarounds and, in the end, cartharsis and redemption.
Of the 231 reporters covering that fight, 230 predicted a Liston knockout, probably early in the fight. The one dissenting opinion was from a young reporter covering the fight for a Cleveland, Ohio, paper named Howard Cosell. The reporter, that is, not the paper. This young reporter had a good eye for boxing and said from the first day that Liston didn't stand a chance. He was univerally looked upon as green, naive and quite possibly insane. The following day he was given an exclusive interview with the young, new champion and another legend was born.
Ali himself later said about the fight that he doesn't even remember fighting the first round because he fought in sheer terror. He, too, had believed the hype written about Liston and was fully prepared to be seriously hurt in the first round. He was nearly beside himself with fear. But, he later said, after the first round he realized Liston was just a man, like all the other fighters he'd disposed of before that night, and there was no reason to be afraid. So in the second round we see him go to work. And it is a sight to see. At one point Ali throws a triple hook. Now, I know that doesn't mean a lot to most people, but to a fighter or someone trained in the art of watching a fight, it's as impossible as a four and a half gainer from the diving board. It's as improbable as a hole-in-one on a par four hole in golf. It's as rare as an inside the park grand slam home run. In short, it's damn near impossible at that level of professional fighting. And yet, there it is, second round, Miami, Florida, 1964, Cassius Clay throws a triple hook and lands all three shots against the most dangerous fighter on the planet at the time. On the tape even the referee is shocked. You can see him looking at the judges for a brief moment as if to ask if they'd seen the same thing.
Later, after the famous 'blind' round, in the sixth, Ali is hitting Liston at will. There is quite simply nothing Liston can do to keep from being hit. There is a huge welt under his left eye and Ali is focused on it. He doesn't know Liston is about to quit on his stool so he's preparing for a long night and he's zeroing in on the welt like bombers over Dresden. By now, he's throwing right hand leads, which is also unheard of at this level of professional fighting. He's hitting Liston with either hand with equal ease. And then, lo and behold, we see the fight for the first time for what it is: a supremely gifted young man beating the shit out of an old, tired, outclassed, former champion. The arena is strangely quiet. No one can quite grasp what is actually happening, least of all Liston and his gang of criminals in his corner. One can see Ali, not excited, not contorted with anticipation, not out of control, but calmly going about the ugly task of dismantling a legend. The sixth round of Ali versus Liston, Mami, Florida, 1964, may be the closest thing to perfect boxing I've ever seen.
Ali was to dominate professional boxing, both as a champion and a contender, for the next nineteen years. I suppose that's completely acceptable in a non-contact sport like tennis or bowling, but to do so in the ring is almost god-like. It's difficult to comprehend. Yet he did. And he did it with the aplomb and charisma of a true champion, a true leader. And I'm not talking about his exploits outside the sport. I'm not referring to his history-changing stance on the Vietnam war. I'm not talking about his shocking conversion to the nation of Islam. I'm not even talking about his undeniable gift for selling a fight. But rather his gifts as a professional athlete during the fighting itself, his actual performance in the ring. All of that other stuff is gravy on the potatoes. Take it all away, focus entirely on his skill, and aye, there's the rub. There's the proof in the pudding.
Tomorrow, miracle fight number two. Ali versus Forman, ten years later, in Kinshasa, Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, The Rumble in the Jungle, the most exciting fight I've ever seen.
See you tomorrow.