The greatness of Muhammad Ali – Part 1

muhammad ali  photoBy John F. McKenna (McJack): Cassius Clay first burst upon the American and international, seen when he won the light heavyweight Gold medal at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam after his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston.

Clay was an instant matinee idol and even early on you had the sense that he would ultimately become a great fighter. He was a fight promoters dream and was blessed with good looks, a quick wit and an abundance of humor. In addition to that he could really fight.

His first difficult fight was against Doug Jones in 1963. Clay won a disputed decision in a fight that was named “Fight of the Year” by boxing writers. In his next fight against Britain’s late Henry Cooper, he came closer to being knocked out than at any other time in his career. Cooper caught Clay at the end of the 4th round with his best weapon, a powerful left hook that left Cassius temporarily senseless. Clay’s wily trainer Angelo Dundee allegedly sliced his glove with a razor. The glove had to be replaced giving Cassius the precious time he needed to recover. Clay went to work in the 5th round on Coopers’ eyes which were prone to cut and the fight had to be stopped.

Clay’s next fight was with the dangerous Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Cassius nicknamed Liston the “Big Ugly Bear”. Very few people including this writer gave Clay a chance against the murderous punching Liston who had KO’d Floyd Patterson in one round to win the heavyweight championship in 1962. Liston was considered unbeatable by boxing insiders and boxing fans alike. The standing joke at the time was that the only one who could beat Liston was the Green Bay Packer’s football team.

The fight took place on February 25, 1964. Clay’s speed was way too much for Liston who seemed to be swinging in slow motion. Clay’s punches were quick and within four rounds Liston’s face and eyes were puffed up. I watched the fight on closed circuit television in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and boxing fans could not believe the unfolding upset they were watching. Always a big fan of Clay and then later Ali, I began to believe he really had a chance. The only time it appeared that Clay might have problems was when a substance on Liston’s gloves got into his eyes and temporarily blinded him, forcing him to spend the 5th round dancing out of harms way while his eyes cleared. In the 6th round Clay again went on the attack and it became clear that Sonny was not going to be able to turn things around. Liston quit on his stool at the end the 6th round complaining of a shoulder injury, a story no one ever really believed.

After the Liston fight Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and announced that he had converted to Islam. His 2nd fight with Liston was on May 25, 1965. Ali wound up landing what has been referred to ever since as “The Phantom Punch”, knocking Liston out in the 1st round. The punch appeared to have nothing on it as Ali was backing up when he threw the punch. There have always been allegations that the fight was fixed due to Liston’s mob ties and his inability to get up after being hit with a punch few people saw.

After the 2nd Liston fight Ali cleaned up the heavyweight division in a fashion that had not been seen since Joe Louis’s twelve year title reign. In this writer’s opinion Ali reached the pinnacle of his fistic prowess against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in November 1966. In that fight Ali exhibited speed of hand and foot that had never been seen before or since in a heavyweight, and because of his blinding speed the power of his punches was deceptive.



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