It was, no matter what you have read or heard, an enormously exciting fight. It matched the classic contenders for a heavyweight championship of the world—a beautiful, controlled boxer against a man who could hit with deadly power. The fight—Clay against Liston—restored balance and intelligence to the concept of boxing. The boxer, using his skills with aplomb and courage and forethought, confounded and defeated the slugger.
Cassius Clay, who for weeks had cried, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," floated and stung—and he whipped Sonny Liston as thoroughly as a man can be whipped. It was a satisfying lesson to watch and it was an entirely honest fight, fought to the limit by both men.
When the bell rang for the first round, the spectators sat in tense expectation. For weeks, comment on the outcome of the fight had centered on the number of minutes Clay could avoid Liston's fearsome left hand. For the whole first round, those watching—in theaters and at ringside—were on the edges of their seats, expecting at any moment that Clay, a feather-footed, fluidly graceful man dancing around the perimeter of disaster, would slip or falter and that one of the vicious, brutal punches that Liston launched in an endless series would catch him.
As the round neared its end, the big question was answered. Liston could be lived with. Clay, the braggart who had goaded the champion into coming out for the first round in a mist of destructive rage, could smother and slip and slide away from that rage. Liston was no superman, as many had begun to believe. He might be a deadly puncher, but Clay—a remarkably calm and composed Clay when he came into the ring—was prepared for him, and he was certain that he was not going to be destroyed in the flash of a left hook.
The realization of this seemed to come as a vast surprise to the spectators. It should not have. Clay, in the ring under the pressure of a championship fight, was doing what he had carefully rehearsed and meticulously perfected for weeks in the grimy confines of the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach (SI, Feb. 17). No move he made in the ring was a casual one; each move was made with a purpose, and the purpose had been developed and the move perfected long before.
Even Liston's rage, which took from him most of his boxing ability, had been a part of Clay's strategy. The boasting and calculated gibes with which Clay had irritated Liston during the weeks before the fight had seemed the overweening confidence of a child. Clay had hoodwinked sportswriters, fans, even members of the combine which owns him. At the weigh-in, he had put on a long, hysterical show, also designed to upset Liston.
Before the fight, Liston had seemed imperturbable. But in the first round, all the smoldering resentment came out in a rush. Bulling from his corner, Liston forgot the instructions of Willie Reddish, his trainer, and he forgot most of what he had learned about boxing. Proud, especially vain of his body and his reputation as a puncher, Liston was a man with but one thought, and it was a dangerously emotional one. He wanted to murder his tormentor, in one minute if possible, more quickly than he had knocked out Floyd Patterson.
Clay danced and moved and watched curiously and did what he had prepared to do in the Fifth Street Gym. In the long, hot early afternoons there, against two reasonable facsimiles of Liston, he had practiced moving quickly to his left, slipping left hooks by leaning and moving his head, avoiding damage on the ropes by ducking down and away and sliding out of trouble. All these things he did now.
As the round grew old and Liston's heavy rushes produced no tangible result, Clay, assured now that his tactical plan was a sound one, tested it a little more. He moved to the attack, as he had in his sparring sessions, stinging Liston with a sharp left hand, crossing the right over against the side of Liston's head. That worked, too. Although it would not be apparent for another round, Clay was in command. And by the middle of the third round another fact began to come clear: Sonny Liston was no longer the heavyweight champion of the world.
He was leaning heavily against the ropes, peering between raised gloves at Cassius Clay. His face had begun to swell from a cleanly delivered, drum-fast combination of blows that had driven him cowering across the ring. His expression was puzzled and shocked and almost frightened. The arrogant self-confidence that, in previous fights, had allowed him to dominate his opponents, was gone.