On February 25, 1964, underdog Cassius Clay, age 22, defeats champion Sonny Liston in a technical knockout to win the world heavyweight boxing crown. The highly anticipated match took place in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay, who later became known to the world as Muhammad Ali, went on to become the first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times.
Liston was a reserved, feared fighter, a decade older than Cassius Clay, and had been world heavyweight champ since defeating Floyd Patterson in 1962. By contrast, Clay was a mouthy underdog who had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. While training for their fight, Clay, a natural self-promoter, taunted Liston and boasted to reporters that he would win by knockout. Clay came out strong during the fight, using speed and footwork to his advantage against the slower Liston. After the sixth round, Liston, who was suffering from cuts and bruises under his eyes and an apparent injured shoulder, announced he couldn’t continue. Clay won the match by technical knockout and then announced to the world, “I am the greatest!”
On May 25, 1965, the two fighters met in Lewiston, Maine, for a rematch. The bout ended with a highly controversial first-round knockout for Clay, who by then had become a member of the Nation of Islam and taken a Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. Some people claimed Liston threw the fight, possibly because he was controlled by the Mafia or because he feared retaliation from Black Muslim extremists.
In 1967, while America was at war in Vietnam, Ali refused for religious reasons to join the Army. As a result, he was convicted of draft dodging, stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction and Ali reclaimed the heavyweight crown on January 28, 1974, at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire against champion George Foreman.
In February 1978, Ali lost the title to Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks. In a rematch seven months later, Ali defeated Spinks in 15 rounds and to reclaim the heavyweight crown. He then retired. Two years later, he made a brief, unsuccessful comeback before retiring permanently in 1981. Ali’s career record includes 56 wins, 5 losses and 37 knockouts.
Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. It’s believed he could have been dead for a week by that time and the cause of his death remains a mystery. During his career, he recorded 50 wins, 39 knockouts and 4 losses.