Song for Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston

By Gordon Marino on February 25, 2014
Song for Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston
“Ali wasn't frightened in the least. He knew he could beat Liston. And so did Angelo.”

“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.

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Sonny Liston vs Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) Boxing Match

Mark Knopfler - Song For Sonny Liston + lyrics

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  1. Gordon Marino 08:24pm, 02/26/2014

    He sure did take too many shots. The money aside, he really enjoyed fighting/boxing. I wish he would have listened to Pacheco and quit after the third Frazier fight.

    Now, get back to your 1000 pound squats!

  2. Ted 07:46pm, 02/26/2014

    He took way too many.  Shavers, Norton, Foreman, Cooper, and then Holmes.

  3. Gordon Marino 02:58pm, 02/26/2014

    The way he beat Foreman was much different than the way he dealt with Norton. But man the man could take a punch - he could see them coming when you were thinking about them - and turn with them… but the shots he took from George - mamma mia.

  4. bikermike 06:59pm, 02/25/2014

    Hey Ted…when it came to being ‘captivated’ by Clay..and then Ali’s style….I was on your bench…

    I never liked that ‘cutie’ style….still don’t…

    I was very frustrated how his style beat my guys…Liston…Noton and Foreman…pisses me off to this day

  5. Ted 06:52pm, 02/25/2014

    OK Mate, Time for me to check in. pleasant exchanging with you.

  6. Ted 06:51pm, 02/25/2014

    Yes, I think you are right. They wanted to make an example out of him. But the religious argument he held onto turned out to be the right one.

    And it wasn’t about fighting because he would have gone on a tour to entertain the troops, Many overlooked that point. Had nothing to do with combat and everything to do with conscription..

  7. bikermike 06:44pm, 02/25/2014

    ....I just got the feeling that ....bringing down ALI…for not going to Viet Nam…kinda had a JOE McCARTHY days…aroma to it

    I mean..look at Dempsey..and ..Louis…both who ‘skated’ around the battles of thier days….Ali refused to go..and that was all to say about that…he didn’t do the world tour ...aka Jack Johnson…

    Stood his ground (no relation to zimmerman)

  8. Ted 06:42pm, 02/25/2014

    For some strange reason, I was never captivated by Ali’s boxing.

  9. Ted 06:40pm, 02/25/2014

    “Gord” lmfao. Thai’s a Canadian name

  10. bikermike 06:37pm, 02/25/2014 to tell you Gord…..your article was like a shot of daniels to a beer drinker…..

    perks a guy up

  11. bikermike 06:34pm, 02/25/2014


    Too true that about Frazier…and I’ll say no more

    I am a I have no say about Viet Nam ....other than it wasn’t stated why ..and for how long…and the issue was never presented clearly….and this was troubled by conscription to ...provide the cannon fodder for the ‘non war’ in Viet Nam..and of course..NOT CAMBODIA

  12. bikermike 06:28pm, 02/25/2014

    My three biggest heroes a kd…as what I pictured as Heavy Weight Champion of the WOrld…

    ...couldn’t claim to know much about THE ROCK…but knew about the aftermath..

    Old and ancient Archie Moore lost to Floyd Patterson…in a ‘box off ’ of sorts(respects to Cus DeMatto and Marciano’s manager)

    ...Anyway…a very skilled and quick Patterson could take anybody .....right….somebody forgot to tell Liston….Liston ..who may well have been some twelve yrs Patterson’s sr….just walked right through him and blasted him outta the fight…..BOTH TIMES

    Talk about INVINCIBLE…even Ed Sullivan believed it !!!ffs

  13. Ted 06:12pm, 02/25/2014

    Biker, whenever Ali is discussed, controversy reigns, but time has mellowed his critics. At one time, I was totally furious about his stand on Viet Nam, but then I was finally able to reconcile the logic behind it and forgave him. I even have gotten through the racist stuff per the Black Muslims because he was duped and used as a pawn. No big deal there.

    The only thing I have not forgiven totally is the manner in which he treated Frazier, Terrell, and a few others.

    On balance it’s hard not to like him—warts and all. Do I idolize, hell no. But he was the right person for the right time.

  14. bikermike 06:02pm, 02/25/2014 it just me….or was this post becoming a ‘kis fest’

    wdf…Clay beat Liston..and ..Ali beat Liston….and Professional Boxing BLASTED OUT OF THE BASEMENTS….and became as popular as Baseball..Basketball.BOXING became a very big industry..and remains so to this day

  15. bikermike 05:54pm, 02/25/2014

    .....ok…I was a bit harsh about dr pache..whatever….

    But all medical reports are that the Champ suffers from Parkinson’s SYNDROM…..not the other similar named issue
    Further..Ali could arrest…and even reverse the symptoms…...were he to consider treatment ...evolved from use of ‘fetus ’ research

    He didn’t go to Viet Nam..and he won’t take those materials

    I’m not so sure I could make either of those choices he made…guy’s got balls

  16. bikermike 05:46pm, 02/25/2014

    ...from when Clay became HW Champion….that was the beginning of the START/END ...of how Professional Boxing was conducted…........Unfortunately….torch was passed from gangsters to ‘promoters’

  17. bikermike 05:41pm, 02/25/2014

    ...and ...btw…..

    That Doug Jones ..vs Cassius Clay match…..damned near as tuff and close as that Larry Holmes vs Ken Norton thing…c’ept Jones Clay ...weren’t no Title thing….

    To this day….Ali will say that that Doug Jones thing was his toughest fight ...up to that point…...Big Gut Check time…...if Clay ..Ali was to continue…it would be against guys as good or better than DOUG JONES

  18. bikermike 05:34pm, 02/25/2014

    I bow to the microscopic knowledge….......of many a poster

    Liston/Clay….Liston/Ali….started with a fire…..only Ali could put that out….he ducked NOBODY

    ..and this is from a fight guy that hated Ali…...over the yrs…..but ..eventually…facts are facts

  19. bikermike 05:26pm, 02/25/2014

    Clay…who became Ali….doubled his audience….those who cheered for him…and those who hoped to see him faulter…

    Cassius Clay…and ..his legitimate conversion to Muslim Faith…and from that point…..Muhammad Ali….

    To this day….he believes in his faith


  20. bikermike 05:15pm, 02/25/2014

    Sonny Liston was my hero

    He was (as far as I knew at the time…a young lad who saw Liston on the Ed Sullivan Show….Night ..something

    When Clay refused to FIGHT my guy….I was furious….but ...he beat my guy least once

    still…..the smell of three day old relatives continued to stay….and of them
    ..those Clay Liston things didn’t ring….maybe the first one…maybe….but the next one…..worse than pbf doing the twelve ...thirty million dollar thing with that biological experiment…..

    it still stinks

  21. bikermike 05:06pm, 02/25/2014

    in 1964…that guy pacheco…with a doctor in front of his ‘64…that doctor was happy to get to get called to do the weigh ins….

    Pacheco….or whatever ....made a fortune off Ali…..and even as much and more so….after he left

    ..and continues to do so

  22. Gordon Marino 12:47pm, 02/25/2014

    yeah like a heavyweight macho camacho

  23. Koolz 12:43pm, 02/25/2014

    I am lucky I am eating right now.

    It’s always amazing see a Heavyweight dance on his feet and have such fast hands!

  24. Gordon Marino 12:32pm, 02/25/2014

    Thanks Mike! Me too. Listened to it on the radio. I didn’t like Liston because he beat up my hero Floyd. Hope all is well with you amigo.

  25. Mike Casey 12:22pm, 02/25/2014

    Remember this vividly from my boyhood, Gordon. It was a stunner. Liston was perceived as unbeatable at that time. Nicely written reminder of one of the great sporting events in history.

  26. Clarence George 08:36am, 02/25/2014

    Refulgent…yes!  I’m reminded of Shelley Duvall in “Annie Hall,” who refers to the Maharishi as “transcendent.”  She thinks he’s god, and Woody Allen says something like, “Oh look, there’s god coming out of the bathroom.”

    She also refers to her sexual experience with Allen as “Kafkaesque.”

    I’d love some pork chops, but I think I’ll have to settle for a wurst or two from the German cart on 54th and Fifth.

  27. Gordon Marino 08:16am, 02/25/2014

    I thought the mood Knopfler created was nothing short of REFULGENT. Go eat some pork chops amigo!

  28. Clarence George 08:13am, 02/25/2014

    Gordon:  Now you got me thinking of breaded pork chops, a favorite of mine.

    I listened to the song.  Well done by Mark Knopfler…who I at first thought was John Ritter!

  29. Gordon Marino 07:24am, 02/25/2014

    Clarence busting my chops - i like the mushroom cap image—mamma mia oh and Ted there tag teaming with you..tell him to get back to the weight room! But if you haven’t check out that song - soulful -

  30. Clarence George 07:14am, 02/25/2014

    Ha!  Thank you, Ted.  Your post reminds me that my brother and I were on file at Mrs. Herbst’s Bakery in Yorkville (long gone, sadly).  I got chocolate cake on my birthday, and my brother got rum cake on his.  The icing on the rum was pink.  Your post brought that to mind, and I thank you.

  31. Ted 06:51am, 02/25/2014

    CG’s post is the wet frosting on top of Gordon’s Italian Rum Cake of an article.

  32. Clarence George 04:18am, 02/25/2014

    Plangent…only on, and probably only in a Gordon Marino article, will one find such a word.  The cherry on top of a hot fudge sundae of an article.  Or the mushroom cap atop a filet mignon.  Whatever food imagery you like.  Hmmm, I’m peckish.  Notice how I used “peckish” rather than the pedestrian “hungry”—that’s the Marino Effect.

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