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You Tube Gold: Ali-Liston I & 2

The dawn of the age of Ali.

Muhammad Ali Taunting Sonny Liston
The classic image of Muhammad Ali taunting the fallen Sonny Liston

In 1964, Sonny Liston was a frightening champion to many people. He also had a criminal record and ties to suspected mobsters.

To say he was an unpopular champion really misses the mark. He was despised by many whites - remember many Americans still lived in a segregated world - and the NAACP wanted Floyd Patterson to refuse to fight him because they thought it would set the Civil Rights movement back.

Cassius Clay, as Muhammad Ali was known until the end of the first fight, wasn’t easy for a lot of people either. He modeled himself to an extent after the wrestler Gorgeous George and talked endlessly and boastfully - a new experience for many Americans raised to prize modesty.

The 1964 match was expected to easily go to Liston. Yet as the fight went on, Ali began to dominate the older man.

The young Ali was an astonishing athlete. His style was highly unconventional and he was almost impossible to hit. He was big at 6-3 and didn't stand still for long, dancing around the ring. The champion had a hard time catching him.

In the first fight, Liston didn't come out for the seventh round and Ali jubilantly claimed the crown and identified himself as a Muslim and a follower of Elijah Muhammad.

The second fight didn't last nearly as long: Liston went down in the first round to a punch that didn’t appear to fully connect. The TV crew, including Howard Cosell, had trouble understanding what had happened and rumors have persisted ever since that the fight was fixed.

None of that was Ali’s fault and we’re sure it wasn’t with his knowledge. Is it possible that Liston’s underworld cronies ordered him to take a dive? Of course it is. It’s never been proven though.

These two fights changed Liston’s historical reputation immensely. Before he was seen as menacing and unbeatable; afterwards as a tool of the Mob.

He was not a very sympathetic character in a lot of ways but he clearly lived a life of hurt and massive disappointments, starting with his father, who beat him severely for most of his childhood.

Today Ali is an iconic figure, someone who transcended the sport before ultimately falling victim to it, unable to speak or move freely due to Parkinson’s which many think boxing may have accelerated.

Liston’s death, like his life, was controversial with many believing he was murdered. That’s never been proven though.

He was a hard man obviously who wasn’t easily liked. However, he overcame a great many challenges, became champion in spite of widespread resistance and near hatred, and even today is regarded as one of the very best boxers ever to have lived.

He never got the respect he craved though, least of all after the Ali fights.

Liston died in 1970, alone. His body wasn’t found for two weeks. He touched greatness but Ali was far greater. His pain was never fully understood and he remained in many ways a mystery. Much more than that, though, he ultimately became a tragic figure. Ali joined him in that later in his own life but unlike his old rival, he was beloved and deeply respected when he died.

His faults shouldn’t be overlooked but clearly, Liston deserves to be reconsidered.