Muhammad Ali then Known as Cassius Clay Perfectly Set Up Sonny Liston for Title Coup
By Teodoro Medina Reynoso
Fri, 20 Nov 2020
The past few weeks without much new worthwhile boxing to watch on TV or over the Internet, I went for the dependable YouTube to view or review some past Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fights.
I stumbled upon Ali then still known Cassius Clay fights versus Doug Jones and Henry Cooper in 1963 and his title winning fight against Sonny Liston in 1964. I was struck by how vastly different Clay was in the Jones and Cooper bouts compared to the Clay that showed up in the Liston fight.
I suddenly remembered how Clay struggled to convince Liston to give him a title crack, an effort that started nearly two years back almost at around the time Liston wrested the championship from Floyd Patterson by brutal first round KO.
Most fighters would want to win impressively in every fight to deserve consideration for world title crack but in the case of Clay prior to challenging Liston, he had to show some weakness and vulnerabilities so as not to alarm but rather to convince the champion that he was not much of a threat.
That was how Ali then known as Clay and his camp was able to set up Liston for their 1964 world heavyweight championship fight that is now part of boxing history.
The Struggle to Get The Crack
By the end of 1962, Clay had established himself as a force in the heavyweights with back to back knockouts of Archie Moore and Charlie Powell as he stretched his undefeated record. He began calling out on Liston through the press and later even personally hounding and virtually badgering Liston for a title crack.
But Liston, himself forced to wait long by Patterson before finally given the opportunity, was in no mood to grant Clay or anybody else that instant chance.
After disposing off Patterson by another first round shellacking in the initial defense of the heavyweight crown, Liston bided his time while savoring the championship he had waited for long, going on nightly partying binge. It was in one night of partying that Clay came badgering him for a fight only to be sent scampering when Liston threatened to pull out a pistol.
Liston publicly showed low regard and respect for Clay despite his fight record, dismissing him at times as nothing but a nuisance and talkative light puncher who posed no threat.
But Liston privately could have been also wary of Clay. For back in 1961, he fought a young promising then fellow contender named Eddie Machen who looked physically and moved and fought like Clay. Barely six feet and nearly 200 pounds, Machen gave the slightly taller but decisively heavier Liston fits during their 12 round title elimination bout that Liston had to resort to fouling and roughhousing which costed him five points in penalties. Liston still won by unanimous decision but it was a very bad night for him.
This was one of the reasons some writers claimed Liston would not have anything to do with Clay that soon. Though he did not regard Clay as a serious threat, these writers claimed that as tough as he was, Liston had aversion for people he believed as weird or crazy. To top it all, most of the sporting media seemed to support his contention that Clay was not deserving and hence had to earn a title crack.
Given the situation, the World Boxing Association came up with a step ladder tournament pitting the top three contenders, namely Henry Cooper, the Europen champion, Clay and Doug Jones in 1963.
Clay Vs Jones
Clay and Jones met first with their 10 round fight held in Jones hometown of New York on March 13, 1963. Clay initially predicted a knockout in the sixth later changing it to fourth round, explaining that he was pissed off by a photo of Jones reading a supposed book titled The Rise and Fall of Cassius Clay.
Clay clips Jones with a right straight.
Scribes called it the hardest fight ever fought by Clay/Ali, with some even claiming that Clay lost that close contest.
Indeed for the first few rounds, Clay seemed to be troubled by Jones who managed to connect and at times stagger him with hooks. Strangely, Clay fought flatfooted for almost the entire duration of the fight and did not seem committed to his punches until the final two to three rounds.
The partisan New York crowd even went totally against Ali when he failed to deliver on his fourth round knockout prediction. They cheered almost every Jones offensive thrusts though many of his punches missed or were caught by Clay's gloves or arms. On the other hand, there was hardly any cheer whenever Clay connected with his clearer jabs and combos.
By the final three rounds, Clay had Jones tottering and on the retreat with bristling two fisted attacks that had Jones head bouncing on impact. To Jones credit, he held on and fought back, finishing on his feet by the final bell.
Perhaps influenced by the noisy crowd, the two judges both submitted a close 5-4-1 card in favor of Clay. The scoring referee who called the fight up close was not convinced that it was that close, scoring it 8-1-1 for Clay. The fight was later named "Fight of the Year" by The Ring magazine.
The decision was roundly booed. Watching on closed-circuit TV, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder.
NOTE: With the title won, Clay fought Jones a six-round exhibition in Louisville, Kentucky on October 27, 1966. UPI who had in 1963 had Jones winning called it "humiliating" for Jones, who had hoped a good showing might get him a rematch with Clay, by then known as Muhammad Ali and holder of the World Heavyweight Championship. UPI reported: "Clay toyed with Jones, landing his patented jab time after time. At no point did Jones land a solid punch."
Clay Vs Cooper
Three months later, in June of the same year, Clay flew to England to face Henry Cooper in the final eliminator in London. The fight was held at the Wembley Stadium with some 35,000 rabid pro Cooper British fans in attendance. Clay was 7-1 favorite and predicted his victory by the fifth round.
Clay (R) and Cooper.
According to various accounts of the fight, Cooper won the opening round as he aggressively attacked Clay, forcing him to the ropes repeatedly, roughing him up and bloodying his nose.
Round two saw Cooper again trying to rough up the American. In this round, however, Clay was more composed as he glided out of the way and began to pump the left jab with enough accuracy to have Cooper nicked by his right eye. It was Clay's round.
The third round saw Clay moving gracefully as Cooper pursued. As Cooper moved in closer, Clay threw a chopping right hand that opened a gash on Cooper's left eyebrow. It seemed only a matter of time before eye trouble would once again thwart "Our 'Enry". Clay played with Cooper for the rest of the round, standing right in front of him, opening his arms and generally trying to humiliate Cooper.
Before round four, one of Clay's managers, William Faversham, shouted to his man to stop messing about and to get down to work. This Clay did, though he still would not go all out. He had predicted a fifth-round win and appeared to carry Cooper until he decided enough was enough.
With seconds remaining at the end of the fourth round, Cooper unleashed a savage left hook, "Enry's 'Ammer". The punch landed bang on Clay's jaw and he fell, backwards on to the ropes and then down. He got up at the count of four, then the bell sounded. There was pandemonium in Wembley Stadium.
What happened next became ring folklore. Clay was in a bad way and was helped to his stool by trainer Angelo Dundee, who slapped his legs and gave him smelling salts in the corner. Clay looked in shock: wide eyes staring in bewilderment.
Dundee called the referee over to the corner and told him Clay had a torn right glove. Some have accused Dundee of tearing the glove to get Clay more time to clear his head, but the films of the fight prove that the glove had been split in the fourth round. However, Dundee later admitted that he stuck his finger in split glove, causing a slightly bigger split
It has been reported that officials went back to the dressing room to get a pair of replacement gloves, but they were unable to find a pair. However, Teddy Waltham, then General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, said that is not true. "Referee Little was called to Clay's corner, and then shouted to us officials at ringside for a new pair, which I already had quite near," Waltham said. "There was no question of anyone having to go to the dressing room to get them, as has been suggested."
Harry Vines, who later became Chief Inspector for the BBBofC, also said that there were a suitable pair of replacement gloves at ringside. "I am not sure whether both gloves were replaced or just the split one, but the latter certainly was," he said. "Certainly no one had to go all the way back to the dressing room to get a pair."
It has also been reported that five minutes passed before the fifth round started, but ringside timekeeper Stan Courtney said that is false. "At no time was I instructed to stop my watch to allow for the refitting of the gloves," he said. "Therefore, I waited until I got the signal from referee Little to ring the bell. When I did so, my watch showed that the interval between rounds had in fact been 1:40."
At the beginning of round five, Clay came out and stood flatfooted. His punching was fast, furious and deadly accurate. The punches bounced off Cooper's head before he could even set himself to punch back. Cooper's left eye began to pour blood like a burst pipe. Although not dazed or seriously hurt, Cooper could not possibly go on. He looked like a man who had put his head in a shredder.
Referee Tommy Little had no option but to stop the fight. Clay's prediction of a fifth-round win had come to fruition, though not without a big scare.
NOTE: Clay by then already known as Muhammad Ali gave Cooper a crack at his world title in his fourth defense in June 1966. At 201½ pounds, Ali was at his lightest ever weight for a title fight. 46,000 fans attended the fight which was England's first world heavyweight title fight in 58 years. The fight was stopped due to a cut over Cooper's left eye, which Ali opened early in the sixth round. The cut required 16 stitches. Sports Illustrated reported that Ali landed "a short, chopping right hand onto Cooper's left brow. The blood shot out at once. Cooper did not merely bleed, he gushed. The cut opened above and slightly to the side of the brow, near the small artery at the temple, and both fighters were immediately splashed with blood." Cooper's face was virtually a crimson mask which was gory to watch even in black and white tv.
Clay seemed to hold his punches and played possum in the crucial bouts versus Jones and Cooper giving the impression of vulnerability and even giving credence to claims he could have even lost those fights.
As was explained before, it was a calibrated strategy to lead Liston into thinking that despite the wins, Clay was not a big threat thus Liston could give him a title crack.
Though Liston still had doubts about Clay deserving a title fight with him, Liston had no other option but to defend his title against him being the victor of that WBA step ladder eliminator and as a result gaining the ranking of the top contender.
Revisiting the Clay-Liston 1 and 2 fights would readily show the early glimpse of Clay/Ali's true worth and as succeeding events and facts would confirm, his claim to the title as the Greatest of All Time fighter.
The author Teodoro Medina Reynoso is a veteran boxing radio talk show host living in the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone 09215309477.
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