Today marks half a century since a brash young man by the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, in his own words, “shook up the world”.
From that February night in Miami Beach, Florida in 1964, when the supposedly unbeatable behemoth Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and in doing so relinquished his World Heavyweight title, things would never be quite the same.
The legend of Muhammad Ali, the name Clay adopted shortly after that first bout with Liston, took flight there and then. Having caused one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, Ali had stunned the overwhelming majority of commentators who had fully expected him to be demolished in the way that so many before him had been.
Yes Clay was fast, they said, but he couldn’t punch like Liston – nobody could. He couldn’t take a hit as well as he would need to in order to win, and had technical flaws that would be badly exposed by the world’s most destructive heavyweight. How wrong they were.
The 22-year-old from Louisville danced around the champion’s comparatively clumsy punches, and even fought the fifth round near-blind after getting a substance in his eyes.
Minutes later, Liston spat out his mouth guard and stayed slumped in his corner – the first time since 1919 that a heavyweight champion had quit sitting on his stool. Since, Liston’s fearsome status has been downgraded from what it once was, and talk of a shoulder injury and a complacent training regime have taken some gloss off the result – but there is no doubting how mammoth an upset this was at the time.
Triumphant and almost hysterical, Clay quite rightly told the assembled press core to eat their words. When you have a spare 45 minutes or so, you can still see the entire fight and the aftermath on YouTube – it’s well worth watching.
If hardly anyone had predicted he would win that night, even fewer could have imagined where Muhammad Ali would go from there on. In the years that followed, he would become one of the most recognisable and well-loved men on the planet. He was more than a boxer, more than a champion – Ali transcended sport. He was as much myth as man, and he still is.
His professional boxing record and stunning fighting skills alone are enough to see him ranked among the best of all time. He won the World Heavyweight title three times (1964, 1974, and 1978) and his rivalries with Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman are infamous.
But the aura that surrounded him beyond the ring is what elevated Ali above any fighter before him and any since. His magnetic personality gave him the rarest of abilities – to reach millions, even billions, of people outside the usual confines of sport. Whether that was with an entertaining poem or a stunning and bold political stance, Ali was never far from the centre of the world’s attention while at the peak of his powers.
That is what first made him an incredibly polarizing figure, a dangerous symbol of hate for many, and then later a global icon and a symbol of freedom and justice.
It’s the reason I – someone who was born decades after Ali’s prime and thousands of miles away from his home of Louisville, Kentucky – still have Ali posters adorning my walls, Ali books sitting on my shelves, and hang on every word he has ever uttered. That is despite the fact that Ali’s battle with Parkinson’s syndrome has made public appearances during my lifetime a rarity.
It’s the reason my father spent months of his teenage years compiling newspaper cuttings, researching every aspect of Ali’s life, and meticulously noting down his entire career for a school report that I’ve read more times than I care to remember.
It’s the reason my grandparents would stay up into the early hours of the morning to listen to his fights on the radio – even in the knowledge that he could have his opponent knocked out before there was time to boil the kettle, as was the case when he fought Liston in the rematch.
This is the majesty of Ali – the thing that makes him truly great, a class apart from every other sporting figure I can think of; there are countless more people like me all across the world – those who are utterly captivated by everything about him and have drawn inspiration from his incredible life, despite having little or no firsthand experience of him.
We can most definitely say, 50 years on from the moment he first raised that Heavyweight title belt above his head, that the young Ali was right when he roared through the swarm of cameras and notepads the immortal words: “I am the Greatest!”