Tomorrow it will be exactly 50 years since
The emptiness in Liston's eyes, stripped of empathy, as he held up two fingers in prediction at the weigh-in. Ali, temporarily blinded in the fifth round, pawing for his opponent's head as hooks like tsunamis crashed round his head. Liston slumped on his stool in surrender at the finish. And Ali - so young, brilliant and pretty - tumbling towards the ropes above the press seats, demanding his triumph be acknowledged.
But something else has stuck, too: Ali's depiction of Liston as a plodding bear. Liston's first-round defeat in the rematch sent his reputation deeper into a tailspin. Afterwards
History has not forgotten Liston but it has downgraded him. In doing so it also downgrades Ali's victory, one of the finest of his career.
True, one can make a case that Ali's third-round knockout of
Others will cite the Thrilla in Manilla, Ali's third fight against
Then there is the Rumble in the Jungle when Ali - 32 and slowing - showed tremendous bravery to allow
Liston was a bully. And by 1964 he was considered unbeatable. He had lost once in 36 bouts - and that defeat in 1954, during which he suffered a broken jaw but ploughed on, merely added to his reputation. One contemporary profile said he was "surprisingly fast, remarkably quick" and noted his punishing jab while the former heavyweight champion
Liston was tough because he had it tough. Born in a cardboard-walled shack on a plantation, the second youngest of 25, he told Boxing Illustrated in 1964: "On the good days I ate. On the bad ones I told my stomach to forget it." There were plenty of bad days even after he found boxing in jail: he was arrested 18 times between 1950 and 1959 on suspicions of rape, robbery and speeding.
Watching Ali face Liston is to watch him grow into greatness. In the first round he is initially wary but after slipping several jabs he cuts loose with a blurring combination that staggers his opponent. The second round was Liston's but by the third he had been cut under a cheekbone. Some reporters had wondered if Liston could bleed. Now they had their answer.
In the fifth, as liniment on Liston's gloves scorched his eyes and he could see only a foggy outline of the most dangerous fighter in the world, Ali fiddled and survived. In his autobiography, Ali remembered: "I could barely make out his image but I ducked, pedalled and danced away. Then I heard someone scream from ringside: 'Beat that nigger's ass, Sonny' . . . Somehow that made me more determined."
A round later Liston retired on his stool. He had been lured into complacency by Ali's clowning and years of dominance. Such was his power, he had fought only 13 minutes and seven seconds in the previous 3 1/2 years and he expected Ali to wither like the others. He did not train properly, sparred intermittently and consumed hot dogs, popcorn and beer. He had nothing left. His age was also against him. Officially he was 31 but his arrest records suggest he was at least 36.
Ali was not to know any of this. The nerves and fears of his entourage were his nerves and fears too. As Doctor
fights, against Foreman . . . this was the only time I saw him nervous . . . he
had no idea if he could do
what he had been saying he could do."
Soon he knew and the world knew. Afterwards
Most Popular Stories
- Chobani Counters Competition With Expanded Lineup
- Pope Francis, Huge Crowd Joyously Celebrate Easter
- Automakers Turn to China to Fuel Sales Growth
- GM Boosting China Production Capacity
- GOP Making Bold Play for Oregon Senate Seat
- Delay in Ferry Evacuation Puzzles Maritime Experts
- Report: Iran VP Says Row Over Reactor Resolved
- NASA's Space Station Robonaut Finally Getting Legs
- Confusion, Anger as Sunken Ferry's Relatives Wait
- Iran Denounces U.S. Ruling to Sell Property