“Cassius, you’re my million dollar baby, so please don’t let anything happen to you before tomorrow night.”
These words were spoken by Jesse Bowdry, the sparing partner for boxer Sonny Liston on the CBS television show, I’ve Got a Secret, which aired February 24, 1964.
Bowdry delivered the message for Liston on the eve of the first fight between Liston and a boxer then known as Cassius Clay — now known as Muhammad Ali. Today marks the 50th anniversary of that legendary bout.
The contest is noteworthy for many reasons. It stands as something more than the mere meeting of two world class boxers. Sports Illustrated named it the fourth greatest moment in sports history during the 20th century. More than this, it serves as a complicated metaphor about the social order, race and politics of athletic fame of the era.
At the time of the match, Liston was the reigning heavyweight champion. Two years earlier, Liston has beaten Floyd Patterson to win the title. He was among the most fearsome fighters of his day.
Liston was a man with a troubled past. He had served time for armed robbery and had learned to box while incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Liston’s contract was then owned by Frankie Carbo, a mafia hit man and associate of the Lucchese crime family. He was in many ways the exemplar of everything bad in the sport.
Ironically though, Liston was embraced by both the sports press and much of the American public. His popularly owed not so much to his attributes, but to the brash and unappealing braggadocio of Clay. Leading up to the fight, the editor of The New Republic magazine, Murray Kempton, wrote: “Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.”
In addition to all of his posturing and incessant baiting of Liston, Clay’s social, political and religious views further fed the evolving good guy/bad guy narrative. Before the fight, the Miami Herald newspaper published an article that alleged Clay’s connection to the Nation of Islam and his burgeoning hatred of white people.
Bill MacDonald, the main promoter, threatened to cancel the fight unless Clay publicly disavowed the Nation of Islam. Clay refused to do so. A compromise was reached when Malcolm X, a friend of Clay’s and an outspoken member of the Nation, agreed to leave town before the fight.
While Clay never directly confirmed his link with the Nation before the fight, the rumors only stoked the growing perception among some white people that Clay was to be reviled. His antics and attempts to incite Liston at the pre-fight weigh-in prompted boxing officials to levy a $2,500 fine against him — only further “substantiating” the dominant narrative.
Clay began the fight fast and strong. He slipped past most of Liston’s fierce jabs. Some reporters even deemed the first round as the worst one in Liston’s career.
With the second round underway, Liston settled into a more familiar groove, delivering a huge blow to Clay’s stomach.
In the third, Clay landed a series of blows to Liston’s face, opening up a cut. This was the first time in his career that Liston had been cut.
By the sixth, the die was cast. Clay’s dominance was evident. Liston’s cuts were growing. An old shoulder injury squelched the power of his punches. Clay proved to be too much. Liston’s corner stopped the fight.
Clay was pronounced the new heavyweight champ by technical knockout. In true Clay fashion he celebrated by proclaiming his now famous tag: “I am the greatest!”