Clay vs Liston 1

Will We Ever Know What Really Happened?

By Bobby Franklin

On February 25, 1964 the young upstart Cassius Clay stepped into the ring in Miami Beach, Florida to take on Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The fight took place just three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, like the Kennedy assassination, it has sparked many theories about what really happened.

Clay went into the fight undefeated but as a 7 to 1 underdog which was no surprise, Liston had won the title with a devastating knock out of Floyd Patterson and just a year later he had repeated the victory in the same manner.

MIAMI, FL – FEBRUARY 25, 1964: Sonny Liston (L) throws a punch at Cassius Clay (R) in a World Heavyweight Title fight February 25, 1964 at Convention Hall in Miami, Florida.(Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

In Clay’s two previous fights leading up to the title shot he had won a very close decision over Doug Jones and stopped Henry Cooper on cuts. In the Cooper fight Clay was dropped by a left hook thrown by Henry and if the bell had not rung just as he got up may have been kayoed. Neither of these two opponents would have ever been confused with Sonny Liston.

There were some sportswriters who not only didn’t give Cassius a chance, they feared he could be killed by Sonny. But then the unthinkable happened; Cassius Clay “Shook up the world” when Liston quit while sitting on his stool after the 6th round. This was stunnung, and immediately the cries of the fight being fixed rang out.

How on Earth could this loudmouth 22 year kid have made the unbeatable Sonny Liston give up the title by quitting? You have to remember, Liston was not only the Heavyweight Champion but also the scariest and meanest man on the planet. His awesome power and baleful stare sent chills down the spines of not only his opponents but of almost anyone who was in his presence. To the public in1964 this outcome just didn’t make sense.

Why would Sonny Liston quit and give up the most valuable prize in all of sports? Nobody could know for sure and Sonny wasn’t talking other than to say he hurt his shoulder.


One theory has it that Liston had bet a huge amount of money on himself and had planned to lose a fifteen round decision to Clay, but when it appeared Clay was going to quit after the fifth round Liston figured he had better hang it up first or he was going to lose his bet. Liston also knew there was a clause calling for a rematch in the event he lost.

It seems unlikely Liston could have wagered enough money on himself that it would have benefited him more than having the heavyweight title. Perhaps the mob had gotten to him and pressured him to quit. That’s possible too, but it doesn’t explain one thing, the reason Clay wanted to quit.

After the 4th round Cassius came back to his corner and complained to his trainer Angelo Dundee that he had something in his eyes that was burning and he couldn’t see. He told Angelo to cut off the gloves. Dundee washed his eyes out and pushed Clay out for the 5th round. Clay, still not able to see, got on his bicycle and danced around the ring keeping his distance from Sonny. Sonny couldn’t or wouldn’t lay a glove on him. Cassius survived the round and in the fifth he was back on track and was hitting Sonny with beautiful left jabs that were causing Liston’s face to swell.

The fact that Sonny’s corner may have put a substance on the champion’s gloves should dispel the theory that Liston went into the fight planning to lose. I recently spoke to boxing historian Mike Silver about this. Mike has written a very good article about the controversy over the gloves entitled “Foul Play In Philly” where he compares what happened in Miami in 1964 to a similar situation that occurred when Rocky Marciano was fighting Jersey Joe Walcott for the title. Marciano was also blinded for a number of rounds during that fight. Rocky was always convinced Walcott’s cornermen had put a substance on his gloves. It is also believed the same thing happened when Liston fought Eddie Machen. It is called juicing the gloves.

I told Mike his article proves once and for all Liston did not throw throw the fight. “Not necessarily” Mike responded, “What if the people in Liston’s corner didn’t know Sonny was throwing the fight?” This would be the “Lone Gunman Theory”. Liston could have made a deal on his own with the mob, and the less people who know about such a deal, the less likely it would be found out. Knowing Sonny’s background this is very plausible.

Another camp posits that Liston quit because he had been threatened by the Black Muslims and he feared he would be shot if he won. This one could be listed as the “Grassy Knoll Theory” where a gunman is hiding somewhere in the crowd waiting to assassinate Sonny if things don’t turn out as planned. Again, given Sonny’s background dealing with mobsters, this also is somewhat believable.

So, what do I think happened? I used to believe the theory that Liston was going to planning on losing a 15 decision to Clay but then quit when he thought Cassius was going to. I no longer agree with that. The way the fight was going I doubt Liston would have made it the full fifteen rounds. He was tiring and the swelling under his left eye was getting worse. Liston had only a total of less than six rounds of action in the ring since 1961 and only less then two rounds since 1962. He was also confident he could easily beat Clay so he did not train hard for the fight. Meanwhile, Cassius Clay was in superb shape and he had been very active. He had 17 fights since 1961 and a total of 91 rounds of action. Quite a difference.

Clay was also pumped for this fight while Liston wasn’t. Clay’s confidence, or possibly fear, put all of his defensive mechanisms on high alert. His adrenalin was flowing and that made his already amazing reflexes all that much sharper. Put this all together and the outcome does not seem as implausible as many believed. Sonny was ripe for the taking that night and Clay had the tools to do it.

I’ll save the Magic Bullet Theory for when I write about the rematch.