Muhammad Ali TKO 6 Sonny Liston 60th anniversary: In his greatest performance, Cassius Clay overcomes blindness to win heavyweight boxing title

A crestfallen Sonny Liston had no intention of coming out for round seven. The heavyweight champion of the world had been outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outpunched and outclassed. In the other corner, recognizing his opponent’s plight was a 22-year-old Cassius Clay. He was the first outside of Liston’s team to notice the surrender and shot his hands skyward in celebration while performing the Muhammad Ali shuffle before there was a Muhammad Ali.

Sixty years ago, on February 25, 1964, the most cherished prize in sports changed hands at the Miami Beach Convention Centre. Just over a week later, the newly minted champion announced that he’d accepted the Muslim name of Muhammad Ali and a new era had begun. Boxing would never be the same again.

Despite Ali going on to establish himself as arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, his triumph over Liston is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in the glamour division’s long history. Why? Coming into the fight, the keyword attached to Liston was “invincible”. The ex-con’s fearsome reputation was matched only by his devastating punching power. Before annihilating champion Floyd Patterson inside a single round, Liston had virtually cleaned out the entire division. In a direct rematch, Patterson lasted just four seconds longer than he had the first time around.

Now, complaining of a damaged left shoulder, Liston cut a forlorn figure as he sat despondently on his stool as a loser.

What happened in the first fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali?

Clay (19-0, 15 KOs) weighed in at 210½ pounds, while Liston (35-1, 24 KOs) came in at 218. The referee was Barney Felix.

Before the introductions, former five-time middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson was introduced to the Miami crowd as “the greatest fighter, pound for pound.” When the legendary ex-champ reached Clay to wish him luck, the challenger bowed twice to his idol while holding his hand – a pseudo passing of the torch.

In round one, Clay was the heavyweight Sugar Ray. Liston tried in vain to get off the power shots that had decimated Patterson but fell ludicrously short time after time. The challenger’s foot speed was incredible and his left jab found the mark throughout the entire session. In the final minute of the round, Clay released the right hand and followed with a sharp combination to the head.

“Clay completely outclassed Sonny Liston in this round,” said former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. “I hope Clay doesn’t get too confident or he’ll get knocked out,” cautioned “The Brown Bomber” before resuming blow-by-blow commentary.

Liston boxed well in round two and may have won the round, but it was nothing resembling a breakthrough. Clay avoided the worst of the champion’s artillery by moving laterally and, again, he kept Liston at bay with the jab. By this time, “The Louisville Lip”, as he’d become known, had exceeded all expectations and he was just getting started.

The first punch of round three was another jolting jab to the face of Liston and it opened a cut under the champ’s left eye. Noticing the blood running down his opponent’s cheek, Clay hit him with a right and drifted out of range with the grace of a ballet dancer. As quickly as he’d left, the challenger returned with a multi-punch combination that rocked Liston to his heels. With the wounded champ now trapped in a neutral corner in shock, Clay yelled for him to fight back. Throughout the session, Liston was used for target practice although one solid right uppercut troubled Clay on the inside.

The fourth was a battle of jabs, which was won by Clay, but then disaster struck. When he returned to his corner, the challenger’s eyes were burning and he had next to no vision. Clay’s chief second, Angelo Dundee, rinsed a sponge of ice water into his fighter’s face and wiped the area in desperation. However, when the one-minute rest period ended and the bell rang for round five, Liston was still a blur.

Muhammad Ali taunts Sonny Liston during weigh in

If ever the champion had a chance it was now. Liston went after Clay in a frenzy, battering his blinded foe with over a dozen brutal shots to the midsection. Those who claim that Liston threw this fight should watch the opening 30 seconds of round five. If you can fool yourself into believing that Liston was pulling his punches here, then you don’t know what you’re watching.

The legend of Muhammad Ali grew exponentially due to many heroic exploits in the ring. Only “The Greatest” could have risen from Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s killer left hook knockdown in the final round of “The Fight of the Century”. It was Ali who won “The Rumble in the Jungle” by shocking George Foreman with the audacious “rope-a-dope” strategy. With nothing left but willpower, a faded version of the great champ closed out the Earnie Shavers fight with one of the gutsiest stands in heavyweight history. Ali was the creator of miracles and surviving three minutes against Liston without being able to see was another one.

The bad news for Liston was that Clay’s eyes were clearing by the sixth and normal service resumed. The jab was poetry, the one-two crashed home flush, and a series of multi-punch combinations had the champion bewildered. Liston was beaten to a pulp and it was only going to get worse.

What caused Muhammad Ali to go blind during the Sonny Liston fight?

Many believe that Liston’s corner smeared the champion’s gloves with a foreign substance in a bid to blind Clay and rescue the title. While this can never be proven, the late boxing sage Bert Sugar once told ESPN that top contenders Zora Folley and Eddie Machen had complained that their eyes were burning just before their knockout defeats at the hands of Liston.

Why did Muhammad Ali change his name?

Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship

A young Cassius Clay attended Nation of Islam meetings during the early sixties and made his conversion to the religion official following the first Liston fight. His leader and teacher, Elijah Muhammad, gifted the new champion with the name Muhammad Ali on March 6, 1964.

Aware that Cassius Clay was a slave name in Kentucky during the nineteenth century, Ali told a phalanx of reporters that Clay meant “dirt with no ingredients.”

Malcolm X is also credited with being very influential in Ali’s conversion to Islam.

What happened to Sonny Liston?

Heavyweight champ Sonny Liston trains for Muhammad Ali

Following the loss to Clay in Miami, Liston signed on for a direct rematch in November 1964. However, just days away from the bout, Ali suffered an acute hernia that required surgery and the fight was postponed.

Rumor has it that Liston was in the best shape of his life for the original date and he never regained that level of conditioning again. When the fight was rescheduled for May 25, 1965, Ali stopped the ex-champ in a single round with a right hand that’s become known as “The Phantom Punch”. In truth, a right-hand shot connected, but Liston appears to make a meal of it when he’s on the canvas.

Following his second defeat to Ali, Liston went on a 14-fight unbeaten streak. Only one of his opponents, Billy Joiner, managed to last the distance. However, a devastating knockout defeat at the hand of Leotis Martin ended Liston’s world title aspirations. His final fight was a gory ninth-round stoppage win over Chuck Wepner.

Liston died in suspicious circumstances at his home in Las Vegas on December 30, 1970. Officially, the cause of death was ruled as heart disease and lung congestion. However, heroin was found in the former champion’s kitchen and there were fresh needle marks on his arms. His widow and friends have frequently stated that Liston was terrified of needles and would never have used heroin. This has led many to speculate that he was murdered, a theory supported by his ties to undeniable ties to the mob. Documents state that Liston was 40 years old when he died, but his true date of birth has never been confirmed.


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