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The fights that made “The Greatest.” - Volume 1, Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston: The Fights That Shook the World

two fighters squaring off in a boxing ring


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Today marks the beginning of a new blog series about the G.O.A.T, we will be taking an in depth look at the fights, trials and tribulations of Muhammad Ali. From the beginning of Ali’s career and his road to becoming heavyweight champ, to the draft evasion that elevated him above the sport and the final rounds of his career, we will be covering it all. Without further ado, lets get started…


Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, became interested in boxing at the age of 12 after his bicycle was stolen. He expressed a desire to find and punish the thief, a police officer named Joe Martin, [who happened to be a boxing coach at a local gym], suggested that young Cassius should first learn how to fight. Clay took up the offer and began training at the Columbia Gym in Louisville, under the guidance of Martin. Clay quickly showed promise as a boxer, He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, and an Amateur Athletic Union national title. At the age of only 18 years old, Clay went on to beat 3 time European champ Zbigniew Pietrzykowskiwin. After securing a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali turned his attention to the professional ranks.

Clay  made his professional debut on October 29, 1960, winning a six-round decision against Tunney Hunsaker. Ali was known for his unusual speed and agility for a heavyweight. His ability to "dance" around opponents, coupled with his quick, precise jabs, set him apart from more traditionally heavy, powerful punchers of his time and redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight boxer. Stylistically, Ali was very regarded as very awkward, he received a lot of criticism for keeping his hands down, leaning away from punches and moving like a ballerina. His mentor and trainer Angelo Dundee was quoted saying "There was never a heavyweight like him before. A big man, but he moved like a lightweight,” and in response to the criticism of his proteges style. “He does everything wrong but it comes out right.”

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston 1 “Ali shocks the world.”

Sonny Liston, born Charles L. Liston on May 8, 1932, in Sand Slough, Arkansas, was a formidable heavyweight boxer known for his powerful punching, intimidating presence, and tumultuous life both inside and outside the ring. Liston's early life was characterised by poverty, limited education, and a troubled family environment. He was one of 25 children and endured a harsh upbringing, including physical abuse and labor-intensive work from a young age. Seeking escape, Liston moved to St. Louis as a teenager, where he became involved in a life of petty crime, leading to multiple run-ins with the law and prison sentences. It was during his time in prison that Liston's boxing talents were discovered. His formidable size, strength, and natural ability quickly made him a standout in prison boxing tournaments. After his release, he pursued a professional boxing career, making his debut in 1953. Liston quickly climbed the ranks with his overwhelming power and ferocious style, earning him the nickname "The Big Bear." Liston's career reached its zenith when he challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship on September 25, 1962. Liston's devastating first-round knockout of Patterson earned him the title, and he successfully defended it in a rematch with Patterson, winning again by knockout in the first round.

Leading up to their first fight on February 25, 1964, in Miami, Florida, the public perception heavily favoured Sonny Liston to defeat Cassius Clay (who would soon be known as Muhammad Ali). This belief was rooted in several factors that painted Liston as an unbeatable force within the boxing world and cast doubt on Clay's chances. The overwhelming consensus among boxing writers, experts, and former fighters was that Liston would not only win but do so decisively. The narrative was so pervasive that Clay was seen as little more than a speed bump on Liston's path of destruction. The media often portrayed Clay's chances as slim to none, with predictions of a quick and brutal finish by Liston dominating the pre-fight coverage. As recalled by Ali’s brother “the odds were 7-1, very big odds for a heavyweight championship fight.”

Despite the public's overwhelming belief in his imminent defeat, Clay remained defiant, using his underdog status to engage in psychological warfare against Liston. His relentless taunting, bold predictions of a victory, and theatrical antics served to unsettle Liston and draw media attention, but they did little to sway the public perception that he was heading for a certain defeat. In one of the more theatrical stunts, Clay drove a bus to Liston's home in Denver, Colorado, dubbing it the "Bear Hunt" to taunt Liston. Clay created a spectacle by shouting for Liston to come out and fight him then and there, attracting local media and creating a scene that made national news. This stunt was indicative of Clay's efforts to invade Liston's personal space and establish dominance even before stepping into the ring. Clay frequently used rhymes to insult and belittle Liston, calling him "the big, ugly bear" and saying, "Liston even smells like a bear. After I beat him, I'm going to donate him to the zoo." These catchy, insulting rhymes were widely reported in the media, increasing the fight's visibility and adding to Liston's annoyance.

The pre-fight weigh-in was perhaps the pinnacle of Clay's psychological assault. He arrived loud and seemingly out of control, shouting and ranting at Liston, which was a stark departure from the usually solemn occasion. Clay's behaviour was so extreme that his heart rate was recorded at 120 beats per minute, leading some to believe he was terrified. However, many, including those in Clay's camp, believed it was all an act designed to intimidate Liston and make him question Clay's mental state. Clay famously shouted, "Someone is going to die at ringside tonight!" His antics were so convincing that Liston, who was used to being the intimidator, was visibly unsettled by the display. Clay's pre-fight psychological warfare was a key component of the buildup to his first fight with Liston. His antics and verbal jabs not only helped to promote the fight but also played a significant role in the outcome, as they contributed to Liston's frustration and eventual defeat. Clay's ability to dominate the psychological battle before the physical one had even begun was a testament to his genius as a fighter and a showman.

The Fight

Round 1: The Feeling-Out Process

The fight began with Clay utilising his superior speed and footwork, dancing around Liston and keeping his distance. Contrary to expectations, Clay was not intimidated by Liston's power and aggressively took the fight to the champion. He landed several quick, sharp jabs to Liston's head, setting the tone early that he was not going to be an easy target. Liston, for his part, seemed surprised by Clay's speed and had difficulty landing his powerful punches.

Rounds 2-4: Clay's Dominance

As the fight progressed into the second, third, and fourth rounds, Clay's confidence grew. He continued to outmanoeuvre Liston, landing combinations and avoiding Liston's counterattacks. Clay's strategy to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was evident as he effectively used his footwork and quick jabs to control the pace and direction of the fight. Liston, known for his ability to overpower opponents, found himself unable to close the distance and land his signature punches.

Round 5: The Blinding Incident

The most dramatic moment of the fight occurred at the beginning of the fifth round. Clay came out of his corner complaining that he couldn't see, blinking and backpedaling as Liston pressed the attack for the first time in the fight. It's widely believed that a substance from Liston's gloves got into Clay's eyes, causing temporary blindness. Despite his impaired vision, Clay managed to survive the round by using his reach to keep Liston at bay and relying on his corner to guide him verbally.

Round 6: The Tide Turns

By the sixth round, Clay's vision had cleared, and he returned to his previous form, taking control of the fight once again. He landed multiple combinations, visibly shaking Liston and opening cuts under Liston's eyes and a gash under his left eye. Liston was slowing down, and his punches, which had seemed so formidable before the fight, were now missing their mark.

The End of the Fight

The fight took a shocking turn when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, citing a shoulder injury that made it impossible for him to continue. Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout, becoming the new heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 22. The victory was met with disbelief by many who had expected Liston to dominate; instead, Clay's performance was a masterful display of speed, strategy, and resilience.

Post-Fight Analysis

In the euphoria following his victory over Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) was not only exuberant but also emphatic about his achievement and his future. In the ring, amidst the chaos of his victory celebration, he also declared:

"I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I'm the king of the world. I feel great I don't have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest." Further regarding “I’m pretty, I’m a bad man, I shook up the world, I shook up the world, I SHOOK UP THE WORLD.”

This quote encapsulates Ali's surprise victory, his self-belief, and his charismatic ability to capture the moment in words. It was a declaration of his arrival as not just a boxing champion but as a global sporting icon and a figure whose impact would extend far beyond the confines of the ring. His proclamation of being "the greatest" was not just a boast; it became a central part of his identity, both in and out of the ring, and a mantra that would inspire millions worldwide.

Ali vs Liston 2 - “The phantom punch.”

The Lead-up to the Rematch

The interval between the first and the second Liston fights was marked by significant events that not only shaped Ali's career but also his legacy. One of the most consequential developments following the first Liston fight was Clay's announcement of his conversion to Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali. This decision was influenced by his association with the Nation of Islam, a move that was controversial at the time and led to a complex reaction from the public and media. This period was crucial in defining Ali's identity outside the ring, intertwining his athletic achievements with his personal beliefs and social activism.

Preparing for the rematch, Ali was aware of the need to adapt his physical condition to match Liston's power and to prepare for a potentially longer, more gruelling fight. Ali's training regimen intensified, focusing on increasing his strength and endurance while maintaining his signature speed and agility. Reports from his training camp indicated that Ali had bulked up, adding lean muscle to his frame to better absorb punishment and to deliver more powerful punches. His workouts were rigorous, including long-distance running, sparring sessions against larger opponents, and exercises to enhance his already impressive footwork and hand speed.

Liston on the other hand, was having arguably the most tumultuous time of his career. The unexpected loss to Clay, especially under the circumstances of Liston quitting on his stool, severely damaged Liston's fearsome reputation. Many in the boxing community and the general public were shocked by the outcome, and there was widespread speculation about the legitimacy of his injury and rumours of the fight being fixed, which tarnished Liston's image further. The first fight's surprising end led to various investigations and a lot of media speculation. Theories abounded regarding Liston's associations with organised crime and whether these connections had influenced the fight's outcome.

Physically, Liston had to recover from the shoulder injury that he claimed caused him to quit the fight. The extent and nature of the injury were subjects of skepticism, but Liston spent part of the time between the fights recuperating and then getting back into training. He was determined to reclaim his title and worked to prepare himself for the rematch, focusing on regaining his physical condition and addressing the tactical issues exposed by the first fight. However, Liston's loss to Clay was not just a physical defeat but also a psychological one. Clay's pre-fight antics and superior speed in the ring had clearly unsettled Liston, who was used to intimidating his opponents into defeat. In preparation for the rematch, Liston needed to mentally adjust his approach to dealing with not only Clay's physical agility but also his psychological warfare.

The Fight

The rematch, originally scheduled for November 1964, faced several delays, including a hernia injury to Ali that postponed the fight until May 25, 1965. The delays added to the tension and anticipation surrounding the bout, with Ali using the extra time to further hone his skills and to continue his verbal assault on Liston. The lead-up to the rematch was fraught with controversies, including debates over the fight's location and concerns about potential mob influence, adding layers of intrigue to what was already one of the most anticipated rematches in boxing history. The fight was eventually held in Lewiston, Maine, after several other locations were considered and discarded for various reasons, including fears of mob influence and licensing issues. The choice of Lewiston, a small town with a limited boxing pedigree, was seen as an odd one and added to the surreal atmosphere surrounding the rematch. The bout itself was brief and ended in quick and dramatic fashion:

First Round Knockout:

The fight ended with a first-round knockout by Ali, but the nature of the knockout punch led to widespread debate and controversy.

The "Phantom Punch":

Ali threw a quick right hand that connected with Liston's jaw as Liston was moving forward, attempting a left jab. Liston fell to the canvas, and the nature of the punch led many observers at the time and since to question whether it was powerful enough to result in a knockout. This moment gave birth to the term "Phantom Punch," with some spectators claiming they did not see the punch land.

Confusion in the Ring:

The aftermath of the punch was marked by confusion. Liston fell to the canvas, and Ali initially stood over him, gesturing for him to get up. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former heavyweight champion himself, seemed unsure of how to proceed. Ali did not go to a neutral corner immediately, and the count was delayed and muddled.

Official Decision:

Amid the confusion, Walcott received confirmation from the ringside officials that Liston had been down for more than ten seconds, officially making Ali the winner by knockout. The delayed and chaotic count contributed to the controversies surrounding the fight's legitimacy.

Analysis of the Knockout

Experts and boxers have analysed the "Phantom Punch" extensively:

Mechanics of the Punch:

Slow-motion replays show that Ali's punch did indeed connect, and the angle and timing of the punch, combined with Liston's forward momentum, could plausibly have generated enough force to knock him down. Ali's speed and ability to generate power with short, quick punches were well-documented aspects of his fighting style.

Liston's Reaction:

Some argue that Liston's fall and failure to rise were not consistent with a genuine knockout. Critics of the fight's legitimacy suggest that Liston's reactions were exaggerated or that he stayed down deliberately.

Legacy and Controversy

The aftermath of the Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston rematch was marked by significant controversy and speculation, particularly regarding potential mob ties and the legitimacy of the fight's outcome. The involvement of organised crime in boxing during that era was well-documented, and the Ali-Liston rematch was no exception to the scrutiny surrounding such connections.

Following Ali's unexpected victory via first-round knockout, questions arose about the circumstances surrounding Liston's defeat. Rumours circulated suggesting that Liston had taken a dive, meaning he had deliberately lost the fight, possibly under the influence of mob figures who had a vested interest in the outcome. Liston's association with underworld figures, coupled with his troubled past and the suspicious nature of the knockout punch, fuelled these speculations. The choice of venue for the rematch, Lewiston, Maine, added to the intrigue. Lewiston was not known for hosting high-profile boxing events, and its selection raised eyebrows within the boxing community. Some speculated that Lewiston was chosen as a venue due to its remoteness and lack of scrutiny, providing an environment where potential irregularities could occur without as much attention.

Moreover, the confusion and chaos surrounding the end of the fight, particularly the delayed and muddled count by referee Jersey Joe Walcott, further fuelled suspicions of foul play. Critics pointed to the unusual circumstances and inconsistencies in Liston's reaction to the knockout punch as evidence that something nefarious may have occurred. While there is no concrete evidence to prove any wrongdoing, the shadow of mob influence loomed large over the aftermath of the Ali-Liston rematch. The fight's controversial nature added to the lore of boxing's darker side during that era, where the sport intersected with organised crime and corruption.

Despite the speculation and controversy, Muhammad Ali's victory in the rematch solidified his status as a boxing legend and propelled him further into the global spotlight. The iconic imagery of Ali standing over Liston, captured in Neil Leifer's famous photograph, remains etched in sports history, symbolising Ali's dominance and charisma, regardless of the surrounding controversies. Ali's victory in the rematch solidified his position as one of the greatest boxers of all time. Despite the controversy surrounding the fight, Ali's ability to outmanoeuvre Liston, land the decisive punch, and secure a first-round knockout showcased his exceptional skill, speed, and strategic prowess. It demonstrated that Ali's unorthodox fighting style, characterised by his speed, footwork, and quick jabs, was effective even against formidable opponents like Liston. This victory cemented Ali's reputation as a masterful tactician in the ring and validated his innovative approach to boxing.

The Ali-Liston rematch continues to be a subject of debate and fascination among boxing enthusiasts, historians, and fans. The controversy surrounding the fight, including questions about its legitimacy and potential mob ties, adds layers of intrigue to Ali's legacy. However, regardless of the lingering uncertainties, the rematch remains a pivotal moment in Ali's career, contributing to his enduring legacy as a sports icon, cultural figure, and symbol of resilience, courage, and defiance..


The epic battles between these two titans of valour serve as a powerful testament to the indomitable spirit of self-belief. It's a reminder that, even when the odds are stacked against you and the entire world seems to be in doubt, holding fast to your convictions with unshakable faith can lead you to achieve the impossible.

Finally, thank you to each and every one of you in the Asylum Army for your unwavering support. It's your enthusiasm and engagement that drive us to keep bringing our best to the table. Don't forget to follow us on all our socials @asylumcombat and subscribe to our newsletter, to stay in the loop with everything combat sports, motivation, and mental health. If you enjoyed this blog please like and comment. Until next time, Asylum Army, keep fighting the good fight.

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