Fifty years ago, no one gave 22-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. a chance against the heavyweight champion, Charles “Sonny” Liston. Even Clay’s own corner pre-emptively mapped out the quickest route from the hospital from the arena. Their fear was rooted in reality. Liston had an arrest record that could fill a file cabinet and in previous lives had been employed by the mob as a strike breaker and enforcer. The recently deceased poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) called Liston “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world.”
Before Liston’s championship fight when he won the title against Floyd Patterson, President Kennedy took the time to call Patterson and express that it would not be in “the negroes best interest” if Liston won. As one writer noted dryly, “The fight definitely was not in Patterson’s best interest.” Liston destroyed Patterso, setting the stage for his fight against Clay.
The great James Baldwin was sent to cover Liston before the fight. He wrote, in a brilliant essay, “[Liston] is far from stupid; if not, in fact, stupid at all. And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sensed no cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have know who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren’t hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy.” Baldwin also pointed that Liston had moved seamlessly in the white-sports media from villain to hero, as they were counting on him to shut the mouth of the young Olympic gold medalist they called “the Lousiville Lip” and “Gaseous Cassius.”
Clay had a gift for gab that made a sportswriter’s job easy. He had also been keeping close company with Malcolm X, and rumors flew through the boxing world that Clay was going to join the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, himself, was a fixture at Clay’s Miami training facility and took great joy in tweaking the sportswriters’ assumptions about the fight. While everyone was predicting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm said, “Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero…. Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although the clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown.” Although the verdict was out on whether he was wise or a clown, no one gave him a chance against Liston. But Ali, quicker, stronger and bolder than anyone knew, shocked the nation and beat Liston. He then famously shouted to the heavens and over a reporter’s questions, “I shook up the world!”