Song for Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston
“I was used to excitement. I was made for excitement,” Pacheco told me. “But that night was something else, something beyond excitement…”
On February 25, 1964, a half century ago today, Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, turned the sports world topsy-turvy when he forced Charles “Sonny” Liston to retire before the seventh round to become the new heavyweight champion of the world.
At the time, Clay was a brash 22-year-old with a ledger of 19-0. Liston was 35-1 and, like the early Mike Tyson but even more so, he seemed invincible. As Mark Knopfler’s plangent “Song for Sonny Liston” goes:
He had a left
Like Henry’s hammer
A right like Betty Bamalam
To be a little more specific, Liston had one of the most powerful jabs in the annals of boxing history. A.J. Liebling described the Liston jab as “a long left that resembled a thick bodied snake with a darting head.”
By the night of the Liston matchup, Clay had visited the canvas twice—once courtesy of Sonny Banks and then again, driven by Henry Cooper’s hammer. Both times, it was the left hook that caught him—the same punch that Frazier would connect with in the epic 15th round of their first fight. In other terms, Ali was vulnerable to the left hook, and Liston had one that could crack cement.
The odds on that night in Miami Beach were around 7-1 against Clay. Ninety percent of the sports scribes were believed that Liston would gobble up the Louisville Lip. But fate and history had other things in mind.
Ali was a comet and in time his impact on the world would reverberate on millions of lives around the world. But that was in time, in the time after he “shocked the world” by taming the Bear in Miami Beach.
This week there will be panel discussions and mini-documentaries of the first Clay-Liston fight. But Ali aside, the last man standing from the Clay and Liston boxing teams is Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. I recently reached out to him by phone, asking him to look in the rearview mirror and describe what he saw.
At first the Fight Doctor moaned and grumbled, “Oh come on! I have written six books. I have nothing more to say about that night. You are asking me to talk about my life—that fight changed my life.”
A few ticks of the clock later, Pacheco’s generosity took over and he invited, “Okay fire away.”
I pecked and pawed. Pacheco recalled: “Liston was really scary. He was tremendously powerful. And he was a real thug. Murderous. He was an enforcer in prison—and that is no joke. But Ali wasn’t frightened in the least. He knew he could beat him. And so did Angelo.”
I mentioned that Ali did not look so hot in his tussle with Doug Jones and so his stock must have been down a little by 1964. Pacheco grumbled, “Listen, Ali won that fight going away. Five of us, Chris and Angelo, and a couple of other people sat in a room and watched that fight with the sound off—and Jones won one or two at most. It was the press that created the controversy about that fight.”
I asked Pacheco about that fateful fourth round, when Clay came back to his corner complaining that he couldn’t see. There are some who insist that Liston’s gloves were juiced, others that the coagulant used on his cut was the culprit. But Pacheco is adamant, “When they were in close Ali put his head on Liston. Liston had a sore shoulder and his corner had put some strong liniment on it to increase the circulation. One drop of that stuff is enough to make you go momentarily blind.”
Pacheco continued, “Angelo Dundee won that fight because when Ali came back to the corner and couldn’t see, he was screaming, ‘Cut of the gloves! Cut off the gloves.’ But Angelo wouldn’t hear anything about quitting. So there was this little guy, Angelo, yelling at this big heavyweight. It was a sight to see. Ang pushed him out for the next round hollering, ‘Stay away from him. Stay away.’”
I asked the doc if it were true that Angelo washed his eyes out with the same water he was using to clean Ali’s, all in an effort to let the Black Muslims know he was not in bed with the mob and trying to sabotage his man’s chances.
Pacheco recalled that there was a great deal of tension. The mob was behind Liston and with Angelo being Italian—well you get the picture, there were unwarranted suspicions amongst the members of the Nation of Islam. But Pacheco said that the image of Angelo washing out his own eyes with the same sponge that he used on Clay was just mythology, “It didn’t happen.”
Jimmy Dundee, Angelo’s son, told me, “Dad said at that time the FBI kept bugging him, showing him pictures and asking him to identify the Black Muslims.” Jimmy laughed, “But dad, who did not have a prejudiced bone his body, would study the photos look up and say—they all look the same to me!”
I mentioned that when Liston quit, he was ahead on one card and even on another, Pacheco growled, “No way, that was only because the judges were in the pockets of the mob.”
And yet, Pacheco confirmed that Clay did in fact take a number of Liston’s very hard shots. The Bear just could not put them together in sequence. The one guy who had beaten Liston, Marty Marshall, and another who had given him a little bit of a run for his money, Eddie Machen, were both fighters who moved around and used the entire ring. And in terms of movement, Clay was in another universe.
Liston did not know how to cut off the ring on a dance master. As though on tracks, he rolled forward like a steam locomotive. When he did manage to get his man on the ropes, Clay would grab, and using a tactic that would become part of his bag of tricks, he would pull Liston’s head down and spin out center ring and out of danger.
After Clay’s eyes cleared he attacked with a fury, pounding Liston with rapid combinations. When under assault, Liston would dip to the left and leave his head open. Again and again, Clay smashed his right to the target. Unlike few heavyweights, Clay also possessed a terrific left uppercut and he slammed it into Liston’s mailbox again and again.
I queried Pacheco about the end of the night. Pacheco reached into his memory, “You know I am a doctor and have often ridden in ambulances with people dying. I was used to excitement. I was made for excitement. But that night was something else, something beyond excitement.”
Asked about the victory parties, Pacheco chortled, “There were none. Maybe over in Overton. But Angelo and Chris just went home. And I just went home. But when I got there I got into bed and told my wife, I saw something amazing tonight. Something that it will take me a long, long time to understand.”
A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. His The Quotable Kierkegaard was recently published by Princeton University Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @GordonMarino.