“A Total Eclipse Of The Sonny”

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Dressed like mod young cornermen, the Beatles arrived at Miami’s Fifth Street Gym in February 1964 for a publicity meeting with a boxer whose euphonious name meant little to them. Cassius Marcellus Clay was freshly turned 22 years old and (as a 7-to-1 betting underdog) showed a certain presumption in challenging for Sonny Liston’s heavyweight title; on this afternoon he kept the world’s greatest pop band waiting for 15 minutes. After greeting his guests with a “Hello there, Beatles,” and posing for a photo in which his gloved fist knocked the group’s Mop Tops together, the fighter concluded with one of his rhyming predictions, imagining Liston angrily reading news of the Beatles’ visit.

Clay was then widely considered a talented but overmatched boxer with a graceful, evasive style and freakish speed for a big man; he had only 19 professional fights behind him. Athletes, boxers especially, still didn’t speak much for themselves in 1964, but Clay had already cut an album of his poems and patter, and for the big Liston match he had prepared a 33-line poetic prediction, delivered in his rising tone of self-astonishment: “Clay comes out to meet Liston / And Liston starts to retreat / If Liston backs any further / He’ll end up in a ringside seat.” Some 43 out of 46 sportswriters polled had predicted he wouldn’t leave the Miami ring of his own power, but Clay concluded: “Yes, the crowd did not dream / When they laid down their money / That they would see / A total eclipse of the Sonny.” Clay’s bizarre, almost supernatural confidence predated his short professional career and his winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. As a boy he had run beside the bus as a way to get people talking about him; as a teenage amateur he once told his coach, Joe Martin, he’d make quick work of his opponent if Martin wanted to have an early dinner.

The man Clay was now facing was an ex-convict and former Mob enforcer. He had wrecked a series of terrified heavyweights, including the popular two-time champion Floyd Patterson, whom he’d thumped into unconsciousness in just over two minutes on two separate occasions. The press already considered Liston among the sport’s all-time punchers, the “invincible one.” Jackie Gleason said that “Sonny Liston will win in eighteen seconds of the first round, and my estimate includes the three seconds Blabber Mouth will bring into the ring with him.”

The man Clay was facing was an ex-con who had wrecked a series of terrified heavyweights.

Clay began his psychological attack before the two had even signed to fight each other, at three o’clock on a morning in 1963, when he pulled into Sonny Liston’s Denver driveway in a red-and-white bus emblazoned with the messages “World’s Most Colorful Fighter” and “Sonny Liston Will Go in Eight.” He had sized up Liston early as a bully who depended heavily on intimidation for his victories. Clay’s plan, he later told the writer Alex Haley, was to convince Liston that he was crazy, “work on his nerves so bad that I would have him beat before he even stepped in the ring with me.” If the entire sportswriting corps also concluded Clay was a nut or a harmless clown, all the better. They were the men who’d built up Liston as invincible in the first place. As Clay hoped, Liston underestimated his challenger, predicting a two-round fight and adding, “I’ll kiss your feet if you make it to the fourth round.”

Despite all of Clay’s antics, the bout at the Miami Beach Convention Hall had a disappointing gate, blamed chiefly on its lack of a “good guy”; an ex-convict was matched with a rumored member of the then-feared Nation of Islam. At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, February 25, Clay staged a very convincing impersonation of a young man having a nervous breakdown, wrestling with his handlers to get to Liston, bugging his eyes, and willing his pulse from a normal 54 beats a minute up to 120, so that the attending physician declared him “nervous and scared to death.” That afternoon the fight press followed radio reports that he had fled the country in terror.

A ringside reporter wisecracked that night, “It’s even money Clay won’t last the national anthem.” Then came the stare-down at the center of the ring, where Clay repeated, “I’ve got you now, chump.” When the bell rang,the overmatched kid suddenly became the perfect dancing, jabbing antidote to Liston, who crudely chased and swung. Clay’s style, later admired by the ballet choreographer George Balanchine, was almost too beautiful to exist in the same ring where Liston made his living, and yet he coolly mastered him; the fourth round passed without any kissing of feet. The biggest tension came in the fifth, when some caustic liniment on Liston’s gloves or body temporarily blinded Clay, who grabbed and danced until his eyes could clear. When they did, Liston’s last, best chance was gone. After another frustrating round, the bruised old champion quit on his stool, later blaming the loss on an injured shoulder.

“Eat your words!” Clay shouted, pointing from the ring at the sportswriters. The writers were not all delighted by the boyish new champion crowing: “You must listen to me. I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” In fact, the world shaking had only begun. Ten years later, as Muhammad Ali, he would dethrone another invincible bully, George Foreman, in Zaire, using much of the old Miami script.

—Nathan Ward wrote “Brooklyn Rising” in the August/September 2005 issue.