Fifty years ago today (February 25, 1964), Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston (aka, “the Big Bear”) to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was “the Scowl” versus “the Mouth” in Miami.
Muhammad Ali and me: Iowa City, 1968:
When I read that today was the 50-year anniversary of the Clay/Liston fight (Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, what he called his “slave name,” until after the fight), I remembered the day Muhammad Ali visited Iowa City, Iowa and spoke at the Iowa Memorial Union. I was there. I was one of many students crowded into the room.
His anti-war message against the war in Vietnam was what drew me to his speech. At the time, it did not make Muhammad Ali popular, just as the student protests at Berkeley had made student protest leader Mario Savio much reviled in 1965, three years earlier, when I was a student on campus at the University of California at Berkeley. Today, there is a statue of the (now-deceased) Mario Savio on the campus grounds, and Muhammad Ali’s name is known and revered around the world. And, yes, perhaps reviled by some for being “mouthy” and proving he was as “good” and as “pretty” and as “fast” and as “great” as he always claimed to be. [It’s amazing the insights that time gives to events happening in the immediacy of the present.]
Like many young people of the sixties, I thought it was unfair that speaking out against the war might land the heavyweight champ in prison. (He was facing 5 years in jail and a $10,000 fine for refusing to serve in Vietnam). Ali was also denied the opportunity to do what he did best—box— and 4 of his prime athletic years were taken from him. He was stripped of his title and banned from fighting from age 25 until he was 29. (March of 1967 until October of 1970). Many sports experts have speculated about how that might have affected his legacy, since he did mount a comeback and fought well past his prime, winning the coveted heavyweight boxing crown three times.
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay)
Ali’s standing up and speaking out on principle emboldened even Martin Luther King, Jr. to push more strenuously for human rights and racial justice and equality for African-American citizens. Ultimately, the Supreme Court overthrew the previous court decision that denied Ali conscientious objector status, and he was able to return to boxing in 1970, beating Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970. But when I heard him speak, “live,” his future was very much up in the air. Soon after his return to the ring, Ali lost to Joe Frazier in what has been dubbed the Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. I still remember my husband’s excitement when he came home from the closed circuit grainy televised match.
Time frame of Ali’s Iowa City Speech
Ali’s speech on campus happened between March of 1967 and March of 1968, although the University archives say it was 1969. I am fairly certain this is wrong. (I was married and living in the Quad Cities by March of 1968. Ali’s appearance in Iowa City had to have taken place during the first semester of 1967-1968 when I was still on campus and living at 229 Iowa Avenue. I remember being present. I am certain I didn’t drive BACK to campus from East Moline, so it was in the fall semester of school year 1967-1968). I always tried to take in speeches and concerts by any Big Name speaking on campus, which led me to hear Saul Bellow speak, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio play, and Booker T and the MGs perform “Green Onions” and Johnny Mathis (remember him?) sing in the Union. Many years later, I did drive back, to hear former President Bill Clinton speak and to hear Ben Folds (without the Ben Folds Five).
I remember Ali’s message, which was characteristic of the anti-war message he was delivering at a number of colleges across the nation during the time he was not allowed to fight in the ring, but was fighting in court to stay out of jail, be allowed to resume his career, and urging equality for citizens of color. His rhetoric, which sounded very anti-white, was scary to his elders, but the students of the sixties on campus at Iowa, anyway, embraced his message of liberty and justice for all, just as our forefathers had embraced such radical notions in 1776. It’s unclear whether Ali’s reception was as warm and fuzzy in the South, but I can tell you that it was a very closely packed, interested, respectful and enthusiastic crowd that listened to him speak at the Iowa Memorial Union that day. I remember the room was crowded with students who turned out en masse to see the fighter we saw on television “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
Young Cassius Clay, later to be renamed Muhammad Ali.
His strong suit not being humility, Ali had self-described himself as “the Greatest.” He wasn’t far off in this early self-assessment of his own boxing prowess. Muhammad Ali was named one of the most recognizable sports figures of the past 100 years, with only Babe Ruth coming close to the universal recognition that Muhammad Ali earned. Ali was also crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated magazine and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It’s safe to say that boxing will never see a fighter so good who was so controversial, entertaining and larger-than-life than Mohammed Ali/Cassius Clay, and whose stance on so many important issues of the day resonated in such important ways. He was a showman. The sport will not see his equal and, in fact, seems to have withered and died in favor of WWC and cage matches and other televised fare.
History changed forever when the 6’ 2” good-looking, outspoken fighter with the 80 inch reach bested the rough-and-tough gangster-related Sonny Liston [who would later be found dead from a possible heroin drug overdose on December 30, 1970.] The intimidating Liston was heavily favored to knock Cassius Clay’s block off. I remember thinking that Clay probably didn’t have a chance against a thug like Liston and hoping he wouldn’t get hurt too badly. Some even wondered if the brash youngster would even show up for the fight. Clay took pride in his good looks; the general feeling going into the fight was that Clay might have a hard time preserving his handsome good looks against the brutal beating Liston was about to administer.
Liston was a 7 to 1 favorite. Clay had not really beaten any professional boxers of note, but, instead, had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Rome Olympics. In his 1975 autobiography, Ali claimed he threw the gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service in a white diner in Louisville. Others dispute that version of events, saying he merely lost the medal. [Ali was issued a replacement medal 36 years after the fact, and it was presented to him during a basketball intermission at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an Olympics where Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch. Talk about a national change of heart!].
Clay, prior to the fight that would launch his career as the only heavyweight to win 3 lineal World Heavyweight Championships (1964, 1974, 1978) on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the world, in a typical display of the psychological trash talk for which he became known, said that Liston “smelled like a bear” and that he was “going to donate him to a zoo” after defeating him In the ring. Prior to the fight, he recited this poem: “Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat. If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat…”
At the time, nobody thought the good-looking 22-year-old kid from Louisville, Kentucky, had a chance against the hardened ex-con, who learned to write his name while in a Missouri prison— a career criminal who had been arrested at least 19 times. Liston told Sports Illustrated, “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother, and a father who didn’t care about any of us. We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”
Ali’s pattern of confidence and taunting his opponents before fights would continue in his career as he took on other fighters, like George Foreman. Ali was also confident and colorful before the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. He told interviewer David Frost, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!” He told the press, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Ali was wildly popular in Zaire, with crowds chanting “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) wherever he went.
The Boxer and the Beatles
When Liston was offered a chance to pose with a new British band touring the United States at the time (and causing a sensation) Liston refused to pose with “those sissies,” meaning John, Paul, George and Ringo, who were appearing on Ed Sullivan’s TV show on February 16th and February 23rd. Cassius Clay (who would change his religious affiliation and his name to Muhammad Ali after the fight) DID accept boxing promoter Harold Conrad’s offer to pose with the Beatles, bursting through the door of his 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach and shouting to the mop-topped group, “Come on, Beatles! Let’s go make some money!”
The Conscientious Objector Issue
Then came the difficult years. As an outspoken black man advocating black pride and opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam, Muhammed Ali’s topics of choice were not popular. He spoke at the Memorial Union, attired in a suit. He had just been denied status as a conscientious objector and stripped of his heavyweight title (1967). He did not fight between March 22 of 1967 and October of 1970, years when he was 26 to 29 years old. That was the period of time when I heard him speak at the Iowa Memorial Union. Every state denied him a license to fight.
After his title defense against Zora Folley on March 22, Ali’s title was stripped following his refusal to be drafted into Army service (on April 28, 1967). His boxing license was immediately suspended by the state of New York and he was convicted on June 20, 1967 (by an all-white jury) and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for draft evasion. While his case was on appeal, he was free on posted bond, traveling the country giving speeches like the one I attended, in which he made statements against the Vietnam War and urged that blacks be given racial equality in America. Ali’s conviction was overturned on appeal and, (as he was out on bond despite the threat of 5 years in jail), he served no jail time. He did, however, lose 4 crucial years of boxing eligibility during his athletic prime.
Among statements Muhammad Ali made, woven into his college addresses, were these:
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” (He would add that no Vietnamese had ever called him the “n” word)…No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people simply to continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end…Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?..My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong…You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America because of my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, when you won’t stand up for my religious beliefs at home?”
In 2014, fifty years later, when the film Twelve Years a Slave is a major Oscar contender for Best Picture at the March 2nd Academy Awards, these words ring as true as ever.
Ali probably had the fastest hand and foot speed ever for a big fighter. Jimmy Jacobs, who co-managed Mike Tyson, measured young Ali’s punching speed (using a synchronizer) versus Sugar Ray Robinson, a welter/middleweight often considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in history. Ali was 25% faster than Robinson, even though Ali was 45 to 50 pounds heavier. (Ali had once asked Sugar Ray to manage him, but the former champion declined.) “No matter what his opponents heard about him, they didn’t realize how fast he was until they got in the ring with him,” Jacobs said.
The effect of Ali’s punches was cumulative. “Ali would rub you out,” said Floyd Patterson, who fought Ali on November 22, 1965, right after his two fights with Liston. “He would hit you 14,000 times and he wouldn’t knock you out; he rubbed you out. It’s very hard to hit a moving target, and (Ali) moved all the time, with such grace: three minutes of every round for fifteen rounds. He never stopped. It was extraordinary.”
Of his later career, Arthur Mercante, (boxing announcer), said: “Ali knew all the tricks. He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching. Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out. Ali was so smart. Most guys are just in there fighting, but Ali had a sense of everything that was happening, almost as though he was sitting at ringside analyzing the fight while he fought it.”
Taunting: the Louisville Lip
Speaking of how Ali stoked Liston’s anger and overconfidence before their first fight, a sports writer commented that “the most brilliant fight strategy in boxing history was devised by a teenager who had graduated 376 in a class of 391.” Ali knew that what he said outside the ring, taunting his opponents as “ignorant” (Frazier) or comparing them to an animal (Liston) did psychological damage to his opponents when they were in the ring. Ai got under their skin, and that was his intention. When Ali referred to Joe Frazier as “ignorant” on national TV, Frasier wrestled Ali to the ground while live television cameras broadcast the unexpected outburst. The animosity towards Ali, from Frasier, lasted until Frazier’s death on November 7, 2011.
Considering that I’m a small-town Iowa girl from a hometown of not quite 5,000 people, I’ve had the good fortune to be in several places when events were taking place that would turn out to be turning points in history—or, at least, important historic events that one might even call a milestone. Among them were events such as the beginning of the Free Speech movement on campus at Berkeley in 1965 and the student riots that year; Ted Kennedy’s last speech inside the DNC in Denver in 2008 nominating Barack Obama; in Grant Park in 2008 when Obama spoke to a cheering crowd on election night; at Invesco Field in Denver when Obama accepted the nomination for president from his party; at the very beginnings of the Tea Party movement inside Ron Paul’s Rally for America in Minneapolis in 2008; at a concert at the Savoy Hotel in Birmingham, England by a band (using a light show) which would go on to become Pink Floyd; in the 7th row of the Beatles concert at the Cow Palace near San Francisco in 1964; at a concert in Paris given by James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1965; at the Howard Dean Scream Heard ‘Round the World at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines in 2004; at concerts by the Rolling Stones, Prince, Dave Matthews Band, John Cougar Mellencamp, U2, and a host of other memorable live acts, including Taylor Swift on May 8, 2010, at the IWireless Center (formerly the Mark of the Quad Cities) when my daughter worked for 13 Management, Ms. Swift’s organization.
And I was also at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, when Muhammed Ali stood up and spoke out for his beliefs in 1968.