Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida

Public press conference announcing the fight between Clay and Sonny Liston

Cassius Clay performing his pre-fight skit predicting the round in which Sonny Liston would fall


Cassius Clay's first title match against Charles "Sonny" Liston was, no doubt, the event that would forever change his destiny. Not only did it lead to the creation of his identity as "King of the World," but it also began a process of maturation that would help transform Clay into a more experienced and polished boxer.

Clay simultaneously brought a new style and added new meaning to the sport of boxing. Although he was six-foot-three and 215 pounds, his explosive jabs and light movements were a shallow strategy for many critics. In fact, many believed that Clay's tactics against the sturdy and impenetrable Liston would ultimately fail. Of the 46 sports writers covering the fight, only three of them had predicted that the match against Liston would fall in favor of the brash youngster.

In the third round, however, people's attitudes began to change. According to Robert Lipsyte's account in the New York Times, "...a strange murmur began to ripple through the half-empty arena and people on blue metal chairs began to look at one another. Something like human electricity dance and flowed as the spectators suddenly realized that even if Cassius lost, he was no fraud. His style was unorthodox, but..."


Liston's body jabs were no match for Clay's blinding quickness


The once 7-1 underdog had come out and danced rings around the slower and much older Liston. Clay had opened a gash up under Liston's left eye, and had the reigning champ desperate for a solid scoring round. Near the end of the fourth round, Clay had developed a searing pain in both his eyes (some say Liston's corner had rubbed a burning substance on Liston's gloves that would make it hard for Clay to see) that had pushed the cocky challenger to the brink of quitting. Yet, Clay's corner man Angelo Dundee buckled down on his young fighter, and pushed the scrambling Clay back into the ring for the fifth. This would signal the final momentum swing of the fight as the substance's effect wore off while the persistent Clay simultaneously wore down Liston for the shocking seventh round TKO.

Malcolm X was present in the front row at the match. Soon after his victory, Clay, who had developed a friendship with the controversial Malcolm, announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. As a result of this he had changed his name to Cassius X, as many of his fellow members had done to protest the enslavement of their ancestors (Ali went on to label his former namesake, Cassius Clay, as a ''slave name''). Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam sect, later honored Clay by giving him the title Muhammad Ali, calling it "his true name." His new title came to represent Ali’s new identity as a Muslim.

The Nation of Islam believed in the separation between blacks and whites, a concept, which had resulted from a deep-rooted sense of dislike for whites, who had discriminated against blacks in America for centuries. Clay had used the first Liston fight not only as an opportunity to win his first championship bout as a professional, but to use also as an opportunity to promote the beliefs and ideals of the Nation of Islam on a broader and national stage. When a battered Sonny Liston refused to rise from his corner stool following the sixth round, little did he know that he had launched perhaps the greatest phenomenon in the history of sports in the form of Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay.


November 22, 1965 in Las Vegas, Nevada

''Fighting is just a sport, a game, to me. But Patterson I would want to beat to the floor for the way he rushed out of hiding after his last whipping, announcing that he wanted to fight me because no Muslim deserved to be champ. I never had no concern about his having the Catholic religion. But he was going to jump up to fight me to be the white man's champion.''

- Muhammad Ali, excerpt from a Playboy
interview (with Alex Haley), 1964

Muhammad Ali was on top of his game. He had just beaten Sonny Liston for a second time. Instead of this fight lasting seven rounds, however, it barely took one. In front of a small and gathering crowd in Lewiston, Maine, Ali threw a short, chopping overhand right that barely glanced Liston's temple, but enough to send him sprawling to the canvas. Controversy and questions have since surrounded this ''phantom'' punch (did Liston really get hurt by the blow?), but nonetheless, Ali had successfully completed his first title defense. With Liston down and out, Ali shifted his attention to one of his former idols and now foremost critic, Floyd Patterson.

In 1960, Floyd Patterson defeated Ingemar Johansson to take back the heavyweight belt that he had first won four years earlier. A young, Olympic-bound Cassius Clay rejoiced at the victory of his boyhood hero and went so far as to compose his own poem detailing the improbable win (Patterson became the first heavyweight to hold the title after first losing it). While spending time in the Olympic Village, Patterson decided to pay the athletes, among them Clay, a visit. When Clay finally met his idol, he was more slighted than impressed. Clay went on to say, ''Floyd congratulated me with a milquetoast handshake.
It hurt me. That cat insulted me and someday he'll have to pay for it''.

The budding of an intense rivalry began on that day in the Olympic Village between a young and cocky 18-year-old fresh off Olympic gold, and an established and respected heavyweight champion of the world, a man the majority of America looked up too. It was a fight waiting to happen, because there couldn't have been two more contrasting personalities than those of Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson. While Ali would join the Black Muslims and preach separation from the white race altogether, Patterson was all for unity and togetherness between whites and blacks. Patterson felt that Ali, as a Black Muslim full of hatred, had no right owning the heavyweight title. The former champ went on to say in Sports Illustrated, ''I say it, and I say it flatly, that the image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation. Cassius Clay must be beaten and the Black Muslims' scourge removed from boxing.'' Patterson
refused to use Ali's new name, and instead called him Clay, purposely failing to recognize his religion and beliefs.

Muhammad Ali had not taken all this talk lightly. Ali, as was his custom, spat back with venom. The champ went on to say, ''If you don't believe the title already is in America, just see who I pay taxes to...Does he think I'm going to be ignorant enough to attack his religion? And who's me to be an authority on the Catholic religion? Why should I act like a fool?’’ Both fighters trained hard, and were confident before the match. Yet when the bell rang, it was clear the man once known, as Cassius Clay would come out on top once again.

In the first round, the quicker and younger Ali danced around his opponent, playing with him, dodging Patterson's futile punches. ''Come on, American! Come on, white American!'' chanted the relentless and merciless Ali. As the fight wore on, the superior fighter snapped off his jab anytime Patterson came close, and humiliated his challenger by refusing to end the pain by just knocking him out. Right lead, left hook, and gone. Ali pounded Patterson to the point where the two-time champ felt happy after a barrage of punches, because he knew the end was near. When the lopsided match was thankfully halted in the 12th round, a hail of boos rained down on Ali for his obvious torture of Patterson in the ring, holding him from what should have been an early knockout. Muhammad Ali went in the ring with a point to prove, and with every stinging punch, that point was made. After the fight, Patterson and Ali would reconcile, and at long last, Floyd Patterson called Muhammad Ali by his new identity.