This is a joke making the rounds: "Don't invite Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston to the same party—it seems last time they almost had a fight." Which is better humor than history. Whatever happens next week in the Boston Garden, the fact is that last February in Miami, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title in what was conspicuously a fight (see cover) and, moreover, one that was eventful, exciting, probable, and as dismaying to most of the nation's sportswriters as it was to Liston, who still peevishly insists that Clay is only a "fair" fighter, and not as "brave" as Patterson. Liston not only failed to win, as both he and the daily press had foreordained, but the fight ended with him sitting ambiguously on his stool, his face swollen and altered as much by intimations of mortality as by Clay's lists; and this, this almost tragic expression of hurt and irremediable loss, remains. "You can see it in his eyes," says one of Liston's sparring partners. "They don't look so scary any more. They look sad and confused." " Liston is burnt out," says Cassius Clay.
Although life, unlike fiction, cannot demand a logical or rational ending, the sportswriters felt they had been took. Consequently, they reported it was a lousy fight, a fix, and what is called a Setback To Boxing. Evidently it was these things because Liston, who was the nearest piece of talent to Godzilla, failed to knock out Clay, whose only known asset was his mouth. The merits of the fight may well be a matter of de gustibus, but there has been no evidence of a fix. Furthermore, it had been written that if any commission had the gall (read greed) to sanction the rematch, no one would pay money to see it. Last week Harold Conrad who, as the fight's publicist, is trying to convince Liston to leave his brain to Harvard, announced that a record gross of $4.7 million is anticipated, a figure that includes 600,000 theater TV seats at an average of $6 a chair and a live gate of $450,000 and change. But such are the effects of journalistic vanity that Liston is a 9-to-5 favorite in Las Vegas; it is almost as though, by some supreme effort of the will, the last fight can be scrubbed from history.
But it happened, and one day last month in the living room of his rented house at 4610 NW 15th Court in Miami, Clay, who now signs in as Muhammad Ali, asked his chauffeur to turn off a taped broadcast by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslim sect to which Clay belongs, and to turn on the movie of the fight. There, on the wall below a handmade sign which reads "Allah Is The Greatest," it inevitably unfolded. Clay watched the film every afternoon before he went to the gym, and he has it with him at the Sherry Biltmore in Boston. "It keeps me in shape," he says. Once more, in the first round, he was fleeing the obsessed, despairing Liston. Luis Serria, a Cuban who gravely leads Clay in calisthenics and rubs him down, says that Clay was "distraught with fear" in those early moments. Clay admits he was "a little nervous. In Miami I was Columbus," he adds. "I was traveling into the unknown. I had to be cautious because I didn't know what to expect. Now I know."
What Clay discovered first of all, and what was, in effect, the point upon which the fight turned, was that he could duck Liston's vaunted jab. "Man can't lead with a hook, get me," Clay said,-watching Liston pursuing him across the plaster with great, futile hooks. (Alas, the sound track did not pick up the anguished and unheeded cries of Willie Reddish, Liston's trainer: "Cut down on your punches! Shorten your stance!") Clay found, too, that on the infrequent occasions that Liston was able to hit him, he could take the punch. But not only was Clay evading the majority of Liston's ill-considered blows, he was hitting Sonny as freely as he wished, and forcefully. Indeed, there was Liston, a shadow on the wall—bleeding, tired, suddenly aged, an impostor. "He's backing up now," Clay said. "He's never backed up." "Cook on him," Clay's brother shouted from across the room. "Cook on him, Brother Muhammad."
"One day you are the champ and your friends say, 'Yes, champ, no one in the world can beat you, champ.' Then you are no longer the champ and you are all alone." This is Liston. He was walking one evening last week with his wife, Geraldine, carrying a bag of groceries, returning to the White Cliffs hotel, his training camp at Plymouth, Mass. He went on. "After that, your friends and the people who have been making a big payday off of you aren't talking to you but about you, and what they say isn't what they said the day before. Look at there," he said, pointing to the horizon, where the setting sun colored Cape Cod Bay. "Isn't that the most beautifulest sight you've ever seen? When I first came here the moon was full and all the men kept going outside to see the moon on the water."
Liston is trying to return to the hard, narrow way that led him to the championship, even attempting to duplicate, in his anguish, the things he did two years ago, such as balancing himself on high fences. While Clay's retinue now includes an assistant to the assistant trainer, three Muslim cooks and Stepin Fetchit, who tells the audience at Clay's workouts, "Please don't smoke or spit on the carpet," the troupe that stayed up late with Liston in Miami while he played tonk and ate potato chips is gone—like his title, his arrogance, his intimidating majesty. Liston has also divested his body of so much weight (last weekend he was 208, compared to 218 for the Miami fight) that he no longer resembles himself. It is chiefly missing from his hips and buttocks, so that he looks strangely deformed, his head huge and unsettling, like some monstrous, morose dwarf. "I'll be able to bend easier," he explains.
Until recently, these deprivations had not enhanced Liston's boxing. In Denver he had not been able to put any of his sparring partners down. He had beaten some up, hurt them, but not overpowered them. Not until October 26 was Liston's confidence, to any measure, restored. That day he hit a sparring partner named Lee Williams between the eyes and busted him open. Afterward, all Liston could talk about was the blood and the eight stitches it took to sew Williams up. "Blood is like champagne to a fighter," says Al Lacey, an oldtime trainer. "It gives his ego bubbly sensations. It helps the fighter's inner man; he begins to believe in himself. They used to feed Dempsey old has-beens in the last days of his training just so he could knock them down, and it never failed to pick up his spirit."
But it still appears that Liston has done little to correct the inadequacies Clay exploited in Miami. When Liston brings his jab back, his fist hangs by his waist. In the interval it takes him to cock it, Clay will be able to hit him on the head two, three times. When Liston remembers to bob and weave, it is in a simple, predictable pattern, like a pendulum, and Clay will have no trouble timing and penetrating this defense. It is evident that Liston is practicing restraint—"biding my time," he says—holding fire until he is decidedly within range. But any unexpected move breaks his muscular tension and disconcerts him and, as Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, says, "My guy is no conformist."
Only rarely does Liston punch in combinations, and he never throws a straight right hand to the body. When Clay leans back to evade Liston's jab, his jaw is beyond reach, but not his midsection. If, after the jab, Liston follows with a right to the body, he might well slow Clay down enough to beat on his head and, by his own admission, Clay was hurt by right hands to the body in the second and fifth rounds. " Liston should be working on a straight right to the body," says one of his sparring partners, "but he don't seem able to throw the punch that way. He's working on another round punch, and Clay can twist away from that. If you watch Liston closely you can avoid getting hurt. He's slow and plants himself before he punches. Any sudden movement, a shoulder feint or head fake, and his concentration is broken."
" Liston buys everything," Dundee says. "He's a one-way fighter. He can't lick a two-way, let alone a four-way fighter, a guy that can go forward and back, side to side. A fellow that can go side to side can beat him! I first got enthused about Clay's chances when I saw what Machen did to Liston. He can only go one way—forward. He's big, ponderous, and every one of his movements is predictable. Liston can't lick Clay. He can't lick that format. He can't lick a tall guy. Liston punching down is powerful. Banging down on you he can hurt, but banging up.... It's like hitting a nail with a hammer. It you hit down, you have power, but when you hit up.... And Liston can't change nothing. Liston is Liston."