Three Great Fights of Muhammad Ali: Part One, Ali v. Sonny Liston (1964)

Most people identify Muhammad Ali by his famous achievements as a boxer, but there is so much more to him that should be remembered beyond that. An examination of his life and his effort to live with truth and meaning behind his actions reveals a depth of character beyond his showmanship in and out of the boxing ring. Muhammad Ali was a great patriot and an example for us all about what patriotism should mean.

In three installments the fights of Ali will reveal how he was important as more than just a fighter, but as a man and a patriot. The fights provide good context to see Ali at his best, when the world was watching him. He shone in, and soaked in, every spotlight.

The first fight against Sonny Liston reveals that Ali had an authentic character, and was much more than just his bravado. He could talk a good game, but he also delivered on all his boasting.

Ali burst onto the fight scene when he defeated the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in February of 1964. Liston was the odds on favorite to win the fight, having earned a notorious reputation as a “bad negro” with a punishing jab and immense strength in both hands.

Ali defeated Sonny Liston twice, first in February of 1964 and again in May of 1965. The second match between these two legendary fighters is iconic for the first round knock out Ali delivered to Liston, and the unforgettable photo of Ali standing over Liston, threatening him and snarling.

Sports-Muhammad_Ali_vs._Sonny_Liston-1

Ali had shown that all his bravado and trash talk, a new element of sports that he pioneered, was legitimate. By defeating Liston twice, Ali showed that he was all talk and all walk. Ali could back up his claims to be the fastest, the greatest and the most beautiful.

It was before his fight with Sonny Liston that Ali made one of his most famous boasts:

“Float Like a Butterfly, sting like a bee…”

The second fight between Ali and Liston is significant, because it starts to reveal more of the man we would see as a great hero. Ali is a great Patriot because of his moral adherence to right, even in the face of public scorn.

The second fight between the man known as Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston was arranged to take place in Lewiston, Maine, not the center of the boxing world by any stretch of the imagination.

The choice of Lewiston, Maine is curious, as it reveals how Ali had become something of an outside to his own nation, as well as to the sport he would come to rule.

According to Chicago Times reporter Allen Barra,

“Lewiston got the fight because Ali’s association with the Black Muslims scared off boxing officials in New York, Boston and Chicago — Ali/Clay had won the championship from Liston in Miami Beach the previous year — so none of those venues would take the rematch.”  [1]

The alien nature of Ali’s adopted religion meant that he had to defend his heavyweight title in a town far from anywhere. His celebration would not be the spectacle that it was for others, because he did not embrace the cultural norms expected of a heavyweight fighter, nor of an American citizen in the 1960’s.

Ali’s independence from this oppressive conformity would come to define him as a person and as a great American.

Barra explains,

“Clay, a huge underdog, could have emerged from the upset victory as a fan favorite, but, after joining the Black Muslims and changing his name, he was regarded as a bigger pariah than Liston. “Despite all the negative press and prophesies of doom” — journalists predicted that both boxers were being threatened by everyone from the Mafia to the Muslims — the bout finally came off.” [2]

The press even refused to call Ali by his adopted name, a name given to him by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Ali having a last name marked him as different from other Black Muslim, who traditionally took a number and the letter X as a surname, pointing out that their ancestors had their true names erased when whites enslaved them and stole them from Africa.

In response to the refusal of the press to call him by his new adopted name, Ali started ignoring questions from reporters if they did not use his real, new name. In a later pre-fight interview with opponent Ernie Terrell, Ali angrily confronts the fighter for bowing to white normative that denied his right to name himself.

See the amazing standoff in the following video:

It is an amazing example of self definition, something inherent to the American character. The United States is a place of created identity. Much of the problems faced by the country come from this created identity.

Ali is a great American because he transformed himself in a public manner, risking public rejection and financial disaster to do so. He fought for independence for himself and others, and was not afraid to back up his words with actions.

His coming out fight in November of 1964 against Sonny Liston is just one of three amazing fights that reveal Ali to be a great American hero.


[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-phantom-punch-muhammad-ali-sonny-liston-20151203-story.html

[2] ibid.

I recommend that you read Ali: A Life, by Johnathan Eig. It is a well crafted story of Ali’s life, in a first unauthorized biography of the fighter and the citizen. Use the link below to get yourself a copy and to support Historydojo.


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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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