This week marks fifty years since Muhammad Ali “shook up the world” by taking the world heavyweight boxing title from Sony Liston. (25th of Feb 1964) Liston who has largely been forgotten from history was at the time seen as one of fiercest heavyweights ever. Nevertheless, the great sports and political achievements of Ali’s later career somewhat over shadowed his first outing with greatness. But to the serious boxing/political inquisitor, this fight with all its 1960’s charisma can’t be so easily forgotten. To those in the know, this was the time in which fight fans got to see him in his real prime. Ali 1.0, while his legs were still fast and he almost never got hit.
But why does Ali matter beyond the realm of sports? Because in the greater structure of western politics, Ali made the heavyweight championship transcend the world of simple sports. He made it an iconic position that then laid for him the ability to simultaneously move between the Whitehouse and Malcolm X or Buckingham Palace and African poverty. Ali blazed this path and used it as a political platform so effectively that he became one of the key figures in not only the Civil Rights movement but also the anti Vietnam War movement.
At the time, Ali was known by his family name of Cassius Clay. Already the political animal he psychologically slaughtered Liston before the fight in a way that hadn’t been seen in sports. Liston, who was not only feared for his menacing achievements in the ring, was also a convicted felon who had done serious prison time. He was suspected for crimes that stretched from robbery to rape therefore the strategy from the Clay camp was simple. The only thing a hard-core thug like Liston would fear was a mad man; hence the nature of Ali’s deluded screams and rants intended to take the champion of his game.
Clay went into the fight as a 7-1 under-dog, but in my mind he at no time looked like he was going to loose against the slower and older champion. The exception to this was a short period of controversy in which a substance ended up in the eyes of Clay. The theory is that coagulant used to halt a bleeding cut on Liston’s face was deliberately put on his gloves and consequently ended up in Clay’s eyes. A battered, cut and discouraged Liston did not come out for the seventh round and the spectacle that Clay was in celebration has never been forgotten in sports history.
Full film of the weigh-in and fight.
It was not long after this that he would officially announce that he was to be known as Muhammad Ali. A name given to him by his adopted faith “the nation of Islam.” He would soon explode into the realm of American politics through his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War and his perfectly targeted and inflammatory political statements. When Ali said,
“I ain’t got not quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
it clarified a simple yet perfectly accurate argument. As such, this gave a just reason to oppose the War to a whole generation of young African Americans. This instantly infuriated an overwhelmingly white establishment.
The great warrior poets of era’s past found a home in the then named Cassius Clay and historical circumstance then lifted him above anything anyone predicted at the time. His politics was as pure as his fight style and because of his position of physical supremacy he was able to articulate what others simply couldn’t.
This all started from the platform he achieved in defeating Sonny Liston.
The rest is history….
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