February 24, 2014

Boxing fans recall the fight that changed the sport

Cassius Clay’s upset win over Sonny Liston 50 years ago still reverberates today.

Fort Worth’s boxing community recalled with fondness the signature moment that ushered in the most glorious era of their sport: Cassius Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston 50 years ago Tuesday in Miami Beach, Fla.

It was one of what turned out to be many pivotal moments in the year 1964.

“I watched it,” said Johnny Prince, the Fort Worth Golden Gloves tournament director. “I was in shock. In fact, I told my buddy I’d take Liston and give him Ali and 5-to-1 odds. He said, ‘I’ll take it.’

“I took one on that fight.”

Clay, who shortly afterward would convert to the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali, was a young 22-year-old gold medalist in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome who guaranteed his victory in a way that might even make Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman blush.

The fight was stopped when a bruised Liston, who was 10 years older than Clay and had held the title since defeating Floyd Patterson in 1962, said he couldn’t come out for the seventh round.

“I am the greatest,” the brash Clay told the world as he was crowned heavyweight champion.

Could you imagine such a thing in those days, considering how social media lit up in fury when Sherman declared himself the best cornerback in the NFL after the NFC Championship Game, asked Todd Kerstetter, a TCU history professor whose curriculum includes sports history.

“Nothing that [Sherman] said was particularly shocking and to think that that still registered with us today, think of how remarkable for someone like Cassius Clay in 1964 to say the stuff he said about Sonny Liston,” said Kerstetter, recalling Clay’s disparaging promotional remarks that Liston was a “big, ugly bear,” a reference to the champion’s nickname.

“It’s really kind of shocking. Ali was a different character and went about things in a different and shocking way.”

It was the mouth that attracted a then-13-year-old T.R. Sartor, a Fort Worth resident, but repulsed his father. There was quite a bit “of back and forth” between the two leading up to the Liston-Clay showdown.

“I liked Ali,” Sartor said from his ringside seat at last week’s Golden Gloves Regional Tournament. “I don’t know if I was shocked by the outcome; I thought he was pretty good.

“The reason my dad didn’t like him was because of his mouth.”

For many other youngsters of that age, Clay/Ali would become an inspiring sports figure.

Phil Sawyer, 52, was too young to remember the Liston fight of 1964, but he soon became a student of the fight game as his championship-caliber Golden Gloves career evolved.

“I had a heavy bag that I had in the carport,” Sawyer said of his pre-teen years. “I would talk like him, and then start bobbing and weaving. I had seen the Liston tapes.”

And then in his best Ali impression, Sawyer continued: “Sonny Liston, the big, ugly bear. Joe Frazier is in trouble … bring me Joe Frazier.”

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