But Can He Take A Punch?

A Young Cassius Clay Answered

That Question Early In His Career

by Bobby Franklin

When Cassius Clay exploded on the professional boxing scene after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic games in 1960, the public knew they were witnessing the rise of not just a very talented young boxer but also seeing a figure who was going to make boxing interesting and colorful again. This was in his pre Black Muslim days when he was known for his braggadocio rather than his political views.

Young Cassius had watched how professional wrestlers would attract crowds by putting on a show before the matches. They would brag about what they were going to do to their opponents, and in the case of one who had a particular influence on Clay, Gorgeous George would talk about how pretty he was. Cassius, with his outgoing personality, good looks, and gift of gab was a natural for this approach. It also didn’t hurt that he was an extremely talented boxer.

Of course, this bragging didn’t sit well with all boxing fans. Some did, as he knew would happen, pay to see him get beaten. They felt the loudmouth deserved to have his big trap shut by a knockout blow.

Another thing that irked those rooting against him was the fact that he moved fast and was very difficult to hit with a solid shot. Cassius played on that as well by saying

“I am just too pretty to be hit.”

Those who wanted to see him take a licking came to believe that if he was finally tagged he would not be able to take a punch, and that he really wasn’t tough enough to deal with being in a serious slugfest. They questioned his heart. If only an opponent could reach his jaw this big mouth would be finished. He was just talk but would never be able to back it up in a real fight.

This question about Clay’s ability to take a punch lingered for years, but he proved his mettle in only his 11th fight against the hard punching Sonny Banks. Not only could he take a punch, but he also showed he could fire right back when hurt.

Sonny Banks came into the fight with a record of 10 wins and 2 losses with 10 his wins coming via knockout. He was another young prospect and, even this early in his career, was known for his punching power.

The two met on February 10, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in a ten round main event. Clay had predicted he would stop Banks in the 4th round, but the fight almost ended much earlier then that and not in Clay’s favor.

In the opening round Cassius came out dancing. He was circling Banks and throwing jabs. As was his usual form, Clay had his hands down and was avoiding punches by moving his head and staying mobile.

Banks Drops Clay
Banks Drops Clay

Not long into the round Cassius back Sonny into a corner. Clay squared up with Banks and Banks fired a solid left hook that caught Clay flush on the jaw dropping him. It was a sold punch and Cassius went down on his back. It should also be mentioned that shortly before the hook was landed Clay was also on the receiving end of a solid right hand.

It can be argued that Clay went down because he was somewhat off balance when he was hit, but make no mistake about it, this was a hard left hook to the jaw.

So, how did Clay react now that he had finally been tagged? He got to his feet at the count of two. He took the mandatory 8 count and then he changed his style. There was no quit in him at all, quite the contrary. When the action resumed Clay steadied down and began throwing very hard shots at Banks. Sure, he was still circling, but he was more flat footed now and throwing hard punches with great accuracy. He was also throwing them with tremendous speed. He was angry that he had been decked and was now taking that anger out on Sonny.

Clay Stops Banks
Clay Stops Banks

In the second round he dropped Banks with a lightening fast right/left combination. He then battered him constantly and referee Ruby Goldstein was about to step in and stop the bout when the bell rang ending the third round. The doctor was called in to examine Banks before the start of the fourth and allowed the fight to continue. It didn’t last much longer as Cassius unloaded a fusillade of punches causing Goldstein to jump in and stop the fight at 26 seconds of the round.

For those paying attention at the time, they would have seen a number of things in young Cassius that had champion written all over them. He was able to take a great shot to the chin and survive it, and not only survive but not even be flustered by it. His first thought when hitting the canvas was to get right back up again and get back into the fight. He also showed the heart of a champion by fighting back with an intense fury. He adapted his game plan and would not be hit another good shot for the remainder of the bout.

Any talk about Cassius Clay’s heart and ability to take a punch should have ended that night in Madison Square Garden, but many were so blinded by their dislike of the brash youngster they would not give him the credit he earned in that fight. He would go on to prove the critics wrong time and time again.

Looking back on that February night in 1962 I would say Cassius answered his critics and the smart money should have been on him after that.