Fifty years ago Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, ‘Shook up world’ when he defeated the apparently invincible man/myth that was Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston to become World Heavyweight Champion. On that sultry Miami night the callow, impossibly brash and outrageously self-boosting 22 year old from Louisville Kentucky turned all rational predictions on their head.
The boxing fraternity was certain Sonny would win, it was just a matter of how quickly he would knock out Clay, the prancing pretender, and how badly he would hurt him. The grizzled veterans of the gambling world, above and below the legal line, knew there was no percentage in backing the long odds outsider. The good old boys of the south wanted the lippy, too smart for his own good, too handsome to trust black youngster to be put firmly in his place.
The only person who truly believed that there would be an epochal upset was Muhammad himself. His greatest asset was not his wonderfully lithe athleticism or his lightning jab and reflexes. His greatest asset was and would continue to be a stratospheric self-confidence, a sure belief in his own talent and the destiny he was born to enact. Looking into his opponents eyes Sonny usually saw a losers downcast dullness and often naked fear. Looking into Muhammad’s eyes he must have been shocked to see the glitter of absolute zeal and belief. Sonny couldn’t accept that this young punk could really believe that he might win – but maybe he really was mad not just acting like a lunatic – and nobody likes to fight a madman.
Over six historic rounds Sonny was to learn, painfully, that Muhammad was smarter, stronger and faster than he could ever have imagined and that behind the youthful charm there was a ruthless and brutal boxer who had come to win not to put up a good show. By the start of the seventh Sonny was beaten physically and exhausted mentally and emotionally. Sitting on the stool and not coming out for more humiliation was the only choice in the circumstances.
The victory was a cue for wild celebrations in our suburban Harrow on the Hill home. I was eight years old and full of grown up pride to be listening with my dad to the early hours commentary. Dad, a long time boxing aficionado, was already a fully paid up Ali fan and, as sons will, I followed and shared my father’s enthusiasm. In 1964, given my tender years, we were fortified in our vigil by industrial strength tea. As the years progressed through epic victories and defeats we listened,rapt, to Ali’s fights sipping bottles of Guinness. I can never think of Ali without lifting a metaphorical bottle of the black stuff to my dad.
Over the fifty years following the Liston victory Muhammad would demonstrate that he was the preeminent sportsman of the twentieth century and an icon of courage and steadfastness in triumph and disaster. Even in the face of cruel illness he would live with grace and grandeur. He has always been a credit to his race; by which I mean the human race.
It seems to me that the world is still shaking from the impact Muhammad has made on the globe in the last half century.