He'd have better fights, create greater spectacle, make more history, practice another religion, have another name, become a so-called traitor to his country, transform himself into its conscience and light an Olympic torch. So there was a lot more news in him man this. But in February 1964, when he was 22, Cassius Clay helped set the tone for a decade (at least) when he toppled Sonny Liston in one of sport's most important upsets.
Maybe the '60s would have been tumultuous without Clay's wild personality. Probably the times, they were a-changin' anyway. But give Clay—later Muhammad Ali, of course—credit for being a magical character who in the course of a spectacular boxing career somehow made us reconsider politics, war, race and religion. Poetry, too.
The spell in which he held us was cast that night in Miami Beach, when he dared challenge Liston, an unsavory personality but the establishment nonetheless. Clay, despite his Olympic gold in 1960 and his obvious charisma, was a huge underdog. Liston, the champion after a couple of unsettling knockouts of Floyd Patterson, was considered indomitable. He fit in with America's principal value at the time: Bigger is better. He was a 9-to-1 favorite at one point and the expert opinion was that the ringside physician had better have some postmortem experience.
There was—and this is difficult to believe from our vantage point—little interest in the fight. For all Clay's charm, and for all his media-friendly capers, the bout was indifferently covered and attended. This was partly because it was considered a mismatch, but it didn't help that Clay gave off the scent of the counterculture. Clay was an upstart showing a budding interest in a religion and a brand of politics that were out of the mainstream. He was a character, all right, but a lot of people couldn't wait to see his act retired. The surly Liston, much to his surprise, found himself in the unaccustomed role of people's choice. It was one thing to have been in the pen as Liston had been for more than two years after being found guilty of two counts of larceny and two counts of first-degree robbery, but quite another to flirt with Muslims and the antiwar movement.
It being a heavyweight title fight, there was the usual nonsense; to this day, reporters there to cover this hopeless bout remember a washed-up fighter named King Levinsky circulating through press headquarters, demanding that they buy his ties. It was chilling to see Levinsky, who had been one of Joe Louis's bums of the month, peddle his wares, the more so when he sidled up to Clay and, proposing a partnership, said, " Liston's gonna make you a guy selling ties."
As Clay went about provoking mayhem (before the fight he drove up to Liston's house to shout at him from the sidewalk, a mortifying insult to Liston, who had only recently obtained white-collar quarters), there was a sense that even he thought he was in over his head. This seemed to be confirmed at the weigh-in when Clay went so far over the edge in creating chaos that he had to be restrained. He later maintained it was all in the script—" Liston's not afraid of me, but he's afraid of a nut"—but the doctor at the weigh-in, who took Clay's soaring blood pressure, let it be known which way he was betting: "This fighter is scared to death."
Clay wasn't. In front of a half-empty house, one of the few he would ever play to, Clay marched up to Liston at the introductions and said, "I've got you now, sucker." And, of course, he did. Clay not only survived Liston's fabled jab, tilting his jaw back in a kind of contempt, but also bloodied the champ in the third round. By then Clay was spending the time between rounds mugging for reporters and photographers at ringside.
The Liston bout was to become the business plan for Clay's career, featuring, among other things, the element of confusion that would characterize so many of his other big events. A caustic solution, probably being used to stop Liston's bleeding, got into Clay's eyes in the fourth round, and Clay, believing himself blinded, nearly did not come out for the fifth. Suddenly it occurred to onlookers that the fix was in. Clay had given his little show and now he was about to be consigned to the obscurity he deserved.
He lasted the fifth round, though, and the next. But Liston refused to get up off his own stool after six. His face a mess, Liston had suddenly realized that this wasn't going to end pretty for him. So he ended it sooner. You could say that bedlam ensued.
Clay had a higher tolerance for bedlam than most of us and, indeed, it was an ideal working condition for him. After the Liston fight he was known alternately as Muhammad Ali and the Greatest, and he became as much instigator as athlete, using his growing celebrity to stir things up. He was playful enough that people found it impossible to hold an issue against him for long. Even when he rejected blind patriotism, refusing to fight in Vietnam, his exile was impermanent. He eventually was welcomed back, and the excitement he gave us in various rumbles and thrillas forged a forgiveness that will certainly last him a lifetime.