Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning right-hand punch to the side of the head (page 48), and he won without benefit of a fix.
Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing's still-too-intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach. Today the big money is in television—not betting.
The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston's ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston's left arm and into the side of Liston's jaw. The blow had so much force it lifted Liston's left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas. It was also powerful enough to drop him instantly—first to his hands and knees and then over on his back. More than 17 seconds elapsed before Liston could flounder to his feet, still only partly conscious. Even some 30 seconds later, when Jersey Joe Walcott, the referee, finally stopped the fight after a wild flurry of inaccurate punches by the almost-hysterical Clay, Liston was staggering drunkenly and had to be led to his corner by Trainer Willie Reddish.
The knockout punch was only the third that the champion landed, but all of his blows were significant ones. He opened the fight by rushing across the ring and banging the surprised Liston with a hard right cross. Then, about 30 seconds before the end, he hit Liston with another strong right (see cover) that may have started Sonny's downfall.
"That shot shivered Liston," said Trainer Chicky Ferrara, who had been placed in Liston's corner by Manager Angelo Dundee to guard against a recurrence of the eye burning that had left Clay semiblind in the fifth round in Miami Beach. "He blinked his eyes three times, like he was trying to clear his head, and I looked at Willie Reddish. I could see Reddish looked sick because he knew his fighter was in trouble."
For the few qualified observers who had a clear view of the knockout punch, there was no doubt about its power. Immediately after it landed, Floyd Patterson, seated at ringside in the most advantageous position to see the blow, said, in answer to a direct question: "It was a perfect right hand." Jos� Torres, the light heavyweight champion, agreed. "A very strong right hand," he said. Indeed, for all those who had a good view of the punch—and, unfortunately, there could not have been more than 1,200—there was never any doubt as to the stunning power of the blow. it was perfectly delivered against an opponent who was moving toward it, so that the effect was of a head-on collision.
The suddenness of Clay's blow plunged everybody—fighters, officials and spectators—into a morass of confusion. Responsibility for this can be laid to an inept timekeeper and a bewildered referee. But primarily it was the fault of Muhammad Ali, who went berserk when he saw Liston on the canvas and heard the chorus of "Fake! Fake!" coming from the fans who had missed the knockout punch.
Instead of retreating to a neutral corner and allowing Referee Joe Walcott to begin his count, the frantic champion stood over Liston shouting: "Get up and fight, sucker!" Walcott repeatedly pushed and shoved Clay away from the fallen challenger, only to have the champion charge back to ring center. Absorbed in this frustrating effort, Walcott never did start a count. Nor was he able to pick one up from the timekeeper, a diminutive man whose head was barely visible above the ring and whose voice was inaudible. Liston finally struggled to his feet and Walcott, thinking the fight was still on, wiped his gloves off.
At that moment Walcott heard shouts from Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring Magazine, who was sitting by the timekeeper. The referee turned his back on the fighters to listen to Fleischer. Liston, still dazed but courageous, put his hands up and started toward Clay, who then began his wild attack.
Liston was fighting from instinct, moving his head from side to side to avoid Clay's blows and trying to clinch. Whatever defects he had in this fight—and principal among them were age and its concomitant slowness—Liston was no quitter. No man ever struggled more grimly through the fog of unconsciousness to regain his feet than did Liston during the 17 seconds he was on the floor, and when Walcott at last stepped between the fighters to stop them Liston was still doing his best to fight back.