On Tuesday of last week we plowed past the 50th anniversary of the first Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight, in which Ali, then Cassius Clay, not only became heavyweight champion of the world but before terribly long, the single most recognizable person on earth.
History’s thick file of indelible images from Feb. 25, 1964 retains a solid familiarity, but there’s an image of Ali from that era only a handful have seen or even know of, and thanks to an old friend, I can’t get it out of my head.
It’s the image of three people in the back seat of a second-hand Cadillac, rolling through the streets of Louisville toward the Clay-Willi Besmanoff fight Nov. 29, 1961. They are Clay himself, the late, great Myron Cope and Roy McHugh.
“When he saw his name on the marquee,” McHugh was remembering the other day “He said, ‘Momma I told you my name would be on that sign.’ Then he improvised a poem: ‘Hey, hey, look at the lights; everybody comes here when Cassius fights.’
“When we got out of the car and started walking across the parking lot to the arena, Cassius said to us, ‘Ok, you guys get up close to me like you’re my body guards.’
“Neither one of us came up to his shoulders.”
The man who would become The Greatest joking with two of the greatest Pittsburgh writers of all time is something of a comforting image from an era of convulsive cultural turbulence. It is sad that Myron is gone and that Ali might not even remember Ali the way America knew him, but what a blessing it is to be able to chat with McHugh about it a half-century later.
Now 98, McHugh’s sight might be compromised but his mind remains sharp as an Ali jab, his memory fully functional.
“Nobody gave Clay a chance, especially the New York writers, they didn’t think much of him at all,” he said about the first Liston fight. “Everybody thought that fight was fixed. Liston was connected with the racket guys. The boxing commission tried to get him disentangled from that, but when the fight happened, the mob connection was still there. Nobody thought Clay could fight. So everybody thought it was a fake.”
A 7-1 underdog to a seasoned champion with a gaze like thunder and fists to match, Clay won on a technical knockout when Liston would not get off his stool for Round 7, the first heavyweight champion to take a loss sitting down in nearly a quarter century.
The official reason was a shoulder injury, but it wasn’t just the audience and the scribes who suspected some flim flam. The FBI investigated as well, eventually turning up a sinister conversation between known gamblers. Had Liston bet on himself to lose so as to cover previous mob obligations? No one would have been surprised.
“When they started talking about a rematch, nobody wanted it,” Roy said. “New York didn’t want it. Everybody expected the second fight to be fixed in advance. Finally it came off 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine. It was in a skating rink. Crowd was under 2,500.”
Late in the first round at the Central Maine Youth Center, the now Muhammad Ali dropped Liston with a right hand that, as per the commentary of the day, just about nobody saw.
“That’s right, most people didn’t even see,” Roy said, “but I saw it; I was in the second row. It was a short right-hand chop. Liston went down. Ali stood over him.”
If the first episode ended in chaos, it was a mere tune-up for what would happen in the next few minutes of May 25, 1965. Roy didn’t write about it for the Pittsburgh Press, which didn’t care to send him because the first fight left such an odor and only unpleasantness was coming downwind from the second.
Malcolm X had been assassinated. Clay had proclaimed himself a Black Muslim. The FBI was in Lewiston to protect Ali from being killed by forces loyal to Malcolm X who thought he’d been whacked by the Nation of Islam. Meanwhile Liston thought it would be he who’d be the target if the fight wound up being remembered for someone’s murder.
“They didn’t think it was worth covering, because of all that, but I thought that made it more interesting than ever,” Roy said. “I just took a few days off and went.”
So he saw Ali standing over Liston, screaming down at him in one of most iconic images in this history of sports, then he saw the befuddled referee Jersey Joe Walcott trying unsuccessfully to get Ali to a neutral corner, saw the timekeeper start the count three or four seconds before Walcott, saw the timekeeper trying (and somehow failing!) to ring the bell to signify that he’d reached the count of 10, saw the timekeeper and the writers pounding on the ring apron to get Walcott’s attention and tell him the fight was over.
While all that was going on, Ali and Liston had begun to fight again.
Walcott finally got between them and stopped it. Ali had won, apparently, again. Apparently.
“When it was over the crowd yelled, ‘Fake, fake, fake!’” Roy said.
So that’s the way Muhammad Ali came to mass culture. The whole thing was crazy, sinister, and at the same time marvelous and compelling. Fifty years out, most of The Greatest’s greatest chroniclers are gone.
But Roy still floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.