Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world, will meet his match next Tuesday night in Convention Hall in Miami Beach—his match, that is, in confidence, arrogance and psychological left jabs. Unfortunately for Cassius Marcellus Clay, he is not yet a match for Liston in the somewhat more pertinent matters of ring craftsmanship, punching power and the ability to take a smart clip on the jaw with no loss of equanimity or senses.
Both Liston and Clay have predicted early knockouts. No one who has seen any of Liston's last three fights—each of which went less than a round—can doubt his ability to end any bout suddenly and dramatically. But Clay is a good fighter, better than his constant bragging would lead one to believe. He can, and should, make a "battle of it.
A great deal depends upon Clay's power of concentration; more accurately, upon his span of attention. He has a history of showing a curiously casual attitude at one time or another in most of his professional fights. Three times this inattention to the matter at hand has resulted in his being deposited abruptly on the seat of his pants by punchers of far less authority than Liston. It is beside the point that in each case Clay fought back savagely to win either by a knockout or by a technical knockout.
The same carelessness against Liston would end the fight. Even if Clay were fortunate enough to keep a few of his senses after Liston dropped him, it is doubtful that he would retain enough of his marvelous speed and coordination to hold off the ensuing brutal attack by the champion.
Angelo Dundee, who trains Clay, has devised an intelligent battle plan for him. "We have many assets," Dundee said as he watched Clay working in his Fifth Street Gym training quarters. "Clay has a style Liston has never seen before. He is much faster than Liston. He has the faculty of getting under Liston's skin and he will not be browbeaten by him. Cassius respects the champion, but really, deep down inside himself, Clay thinks he is unbeatable. And he can hit Sonny with every punch he has. Sonny isn't hard to hit. We can beat Liston with quantity and consistency. We can hit him with uppercuts. Left and right. Cassius is the only heavyweight in the world with a good left uppercut, and Liston can be hit easy with uppercuts.
"If you built a prototype of what kind of fighter can whip Liston, you couldn't improve on Clay. He hits hard, he moves, he has every punch in the book. We can knock Liston out in the 11th or 12th round by wearing him down with the quantity of punches. If Cassius will do what he is told."
He said the last words wistfully, for Clay is not known for his coachability. "It makes you want to cry," says Solomon McTier, who was a good heavyweight himself until he got a detached retina and Dundee made him quit. McTier is a big, quiet, thoughtful man who is a part of Clay's entourage and who has a vast respect for Cassius' physical ability. "You see this kid, the way he can go, the things he can do. He can be a great man if he only does what he is told. All he needs to be afraid of is Clay. If he keeps his cool and outboxes and outfoxes Liston—which he can do with ease—he can win without any trouble. He's the most wonderful boxer there is; Liston could be just another sparring partner for him. But he gets carried away. He's young and restless and foolish sometimes."
In one memorable workout before this fight, Clay demonstrated just how effective he can be when he uses all his speed and his wide assortment of punches. On a Sunday afternoon he sparred a full six rounds with the two massive heavyweights Dundee had imported to impersonate Liston, Harvey Cody Jones and Dave Bailey, both of whom are tall, slab-muscled 215-pounders. Both hit very hard and both worked against Clay in deadly seriousness, doing their utmost to destroy him.
In earlier workouts Clay had seemed listless, often careless. In this one he seemed determined to prove something to himself. He wasted no time on impromptu speeches to the crowd on the excellence of Cassius Clay and he eschewed the farcical interchange of slogans with Drew (Budini) Brown, his foil in the low vaudeville act with which he usually enlivens his training sessions. Clay's little-boy face was grim and cruel and he fought viciously.
One felt that this was a true dress rehearsal for the main event. In it, Clay followed almost to perfection the Dundee war plan. He circled to the left, away from the biggest gun in the Liston arsenal, the left hook, moving with the fluid speed that always surprises observers. He hit in quick, deceptively easy-looking combinations, the long left jab very accurate. It was hard to realize how hard he was hitting until one saw the head of his sparring partner snap back from the force of the blow. At one point Jones came to the ropes between rounds with a thin smear of blood trickling from his nose, despite the protection of a face guard.