The trajectories of Sonny Liston’s and Cassius Clay’s careers after their famous fight present a case study of how winners and losers are made.
By Mallori Brennan
In February 25, 1964, history was being made. In a convention center in Miami Beach, Florida, two men were about to brawl in a 23 ft by 23 ft boxing ring. The men were given 12 three-minute rounds to beat each other into submission for the Heavyweight World Title. The challenger, a man named Cassius Clay, walked through the arena’s bright lights to his corner and began stripping off his walkout gear. His cutman searched him for weapons or any illegal substances, then he hugged his coaches before turning to step into the ring. He skipped around it, getting familiar with its size and shape. Clay opened his eyes wide, showing he had no fear as he stared down the reigning champion, Sonny Liston. The bell rang and the match was underway.
Clay and Liston brawled for six rounds before Liston refused to come out of his corner for a seventh. This made Clay the new WBA and WBC World Heavyweight Champion. It was the biggest upset in boxing history. Liston was a tough champion, and until this moment no one had been close to dethroning him. But Cassius Clay went into the ring as an underdog and left it a champion, shocking everyone who had the privilege to see the fight. After Clay’s big win, his entire life changed. He announced that he was going to be inducted into the Nation of Islam and he would change his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. His name changed, and so did the sport of boxing.
As a new champion was crowned, so was a new style of fighting. At the time of their fight, Sonny Liston had the heaviest hands in boxing. He constantly pressed forward and was always looking for a power shot to get the knock out. But, in the combat world, precision beats power and timing beats speed, and those qualities were exactly what Muhammad Ali possessed. Ali had lightning fast footwork and quick, accurate hands. He moved as fast as the featherweight fighters and hit harder than most heavyweights. No one was ever quite as agile as he was in the ring. This style of fighting was adopted by many fighters, even years after Ali retired from the sport.
After the Liston bout, Ali continued to shock everyone who tuned into his fights. He proved over and over again that he was truly the most talented fighter to ever step in the ring.
Before Ali’s rise, boxing was one of the lesser known sports. No fighter had ever been able to drag it into the spotlight and make people want to watch it. That all changed when Ali stepped onto the scene. He lit up press conferences with humor, insults, and wit. He would even go as far as picking the round in which he would win and the way he would do it. He was able to promote fights with jabs at the other opponent like, “How tall are you? So I can know in advance how far to step back when you fall down!” Because of this, boxing’s popularity skyrocketed and no matter how hard they tried, no one could hype an event like Muhammad Ali.
Unfortunately for Sonny Liston, he never recovered from the loss of his title. Immediately after that fight with Ali, Liston went back to Denver, Colorado, where he threw himself into proper fighting shape for the first time in a long time. He was hungry to get his title back and this time he would not underestimate his opponent. But in their next fight on May 25th, 1965, Ali knocked Liston out in the very first round. Liston went on to win 14 fights after his bout with Ali, but he never fought for the title again. Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home in 1970. No one knows the exact cause of death, but it is speculated that heroin was a factor. He will always be remembered by the boxing community, but for his losses, not his victories.
Muhammad Ali went on to become the greatest fighter of all time. He is currently the only boxer to become a three-time Heavyweight World Champion. After the Liston bout, Ali continued to shock everyone who tuned into his fights. He proved over and over again that he was truly the most talented fighter to ever step in the ring. He defeated Joe Frazier and George Foreman multiple times, even after leaving boxing for three years due to draft evasion charges. Ali retired with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses–including 37 knockouts–and won a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. His win over Liston was just the stepping stone to his achieving greatness.
At the end of every fight there is a winner and a loser. The wins are addictive and give you a high no drug could ever re-create. The losses can cut you down, and it’s up to you to decide how you will handle them. For Muhammad Ali, the win gave him the spotlight. It put his name on the map and he kept it there. He became the greatest fighter that ever lived. Sonny Liston let his loss control his life. He never won a major bout again and died young under terrible circumstances. All because he never recovered from that first loss. People get knocked down everyday and it’s their job to decide whether or not they want to get back up. No one will get through life unscathed, you will face obstacles. Where you take it from there is up you.