From the archives:: Upset -- or set-up

Clay Liston Title Fight

American boxer Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali), on his way to defeating Sonny Liston during their world heavyweight title fight at Miami Beach, Fla. on Feb. 25, 1964.

(Harry Benson / Getty Images)

You will pardon me if the keys slip as I try to write this story. You see, I am trying to type with one hand and hold my nose with the other.

I am a little unclear at this point whether I have just seen the upset of the century or the set-up.

Cassius Clay, who looked like a hot prospect for a straight-jacket instead of a crown as late as an hour before fight time, is the heavyweight champion of the world. And Sonny Liston is just another ex-con with his arm in a sling.

The old champ was as clumsy as a guy groping for a light switch in the dark with a hangover. I have seen guys look more graceful falling down cellar stairs. They say Liston threw his shoulder in this fight. I only hope that’s all he threw.


But if he did, I know how he did it — missing punches.

Sonny Unmasked at Last

But we now know one thing: you can throw away that silver bullet. The “King Kong” of the ring has been unmasked as just a big stiff in a fur coat. If the real Sonny Liston stood up tonight, he couldn’t scare a kid in a graveyard at midnight. You won’t have to match him with Russia after all. Guys will be picking on him in barrooms now.

Cassius Clay was supposed to be exposed as a counterfeit in this fight. He was the three-dollar bill of boxing. Liston was something that ran you up a tree.


The first shock came when a mysterious red substance began to trickle down Liston’s eye. It was unthinkable it was blood. But that’s exactly what it was. Clay, who was not supposed to be able to stun a mosquito with a combination of one-tow’s, had the champion’s face looking like a melon that had fallen off the back of a truck. He not only bleeds, he lumps. It was possibly to feel pity for this mastodon.

Cassius appeared to believe it least of anybody. He fought as hysterically as a guy brushing off a swarm of bees. He was popularly believed to be the first fighter in the history of the ring who would need smelling salts BEFORE the fight. He would have to be revived to be introduced, was the word to the unwise.

The Lip Becomes the Limp

This was the night the “Louisville Lip” was to become the “Louisville Limp.” He came to the weigh-in like Donald Duck on a bender. To a man, the 400 onlookers were convinced they were looking at a man who had just seen his own ghost. The classic defense against fear, Charlie McCabe pointed out, is noise. Judging by the decibels Cassius raised, he was scared silly. His pulse rate beat the clock around the minute hand by double. It lapped it, in fact. It registered 120. Usually, a fight “physical” consists of holding a mirror up in front of a fighter’s mouth. It if clouds, he’s ready. Most fighters are so low pressure, you have to hold it there for a quarter-hour. The had to stick pins in Joe Louis. But Cassius’ mirror would drop from across the room.

He showed up in a tuxedo and the crowd thought this was provident of him. That way, all the undertaker would have to do is take off the shoes.

But instead of Cassius in the morgue, the fight wound up with Liston in the hospital. Six days ago, you wouldn’t have believed he’d have to go there for anything more serious than a tonsillectomy — or to visit Cassius Clay.

Cassius did not exactly rule the fight from the opening bell. In fact, Sonny came out as if he had nothing more trying to do than take the boy to the woodshed. But he kept looking around to see where Cassius went. A couple of times I expected him to tap the referee on the shoulder and ask him if he had seen anything of Cassius.

When the Stalk ‘Stalled’


You might say Liston “stalked” him. But the way he went at it, if he went for a polar bear, he’d wind up with a camel. He was so sure Cassius’ heart beat would drown out the sound of his feet thumping on the canvas, he didn’t telegraph his punches, he sent them by straight mail — fourth class. But it looked as if nothing short of a flood could stop him.

Cassius flurried wildly from time to time and, unaccountably, Liston looked like a man trying to crawl away from mortar. The crowed cheered wildly each

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