A Legend is Born

On this day in 1964, in the half-filled, sweaty Miami Beach Auditorium, a brash young boxer from Louisville, KY, forcefully introduced himself to a world that he was about to take by storm.

On that night, when Cassius Clay walked into the ring against the fearsome and highly-favoured Sonny Liston, few gave him a chance. Not only was Clay a 7-1 underdog but boxing experts had written him off as a loudmouth prettyboy: sure he could dance around the ring, they wrote, but there was no way he could take one on the chin from the champ. Indeed, many were so scornful of his abilities that they predicted he wouldn’t even last a round with Liston, a frightening puncher who had knocked out so many on his way to heavyweight champion of the world.

But from the first round on, Clay was determined to rewrite that script. Bursting with energy and supremely confident, the challenger made Liston seem slow and flat-footed, waving his gloves mockingly in the champ’s face, yawning between rounds, floating around the ring, bobbing away from punches easily and then landing his own stinging jabs. As the fight wore on, Clay’s blows started to take their toll. Finally, between the sixth and seventh rounds, Liston, whose eyes were by now almost completely swollen shut, had nothing left – he spat out his mouthpiece and the fight was declared over.

Pandemonium ensued. Clay raced to the centre of the centre of the ring and did a celebratory jig, then jumped on the ropes screaming: “I told you! I told you!” to the newspaper writers who had doubted his abilities. Turning to the television cameras, he shouted: “I just upset Sonny Liston. I must be the greatest. I shook up the world. I am the greatest.”

“I am the greatest” were prophetic words that would be repeated many times over the course of his career. Days after the Liston fight, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and the new heavyweight champion became the polarizing cultural figure, who is still shaking up the world to this day.

-Peter Muggeridge