When Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee on February 25, 1964, the man at the other end of his sturdy stinger was reigning world heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.
Liston—a heavy puncher who had served two years of a five-year sentence for robbery—entered the fight with Ali at Convention Hall in Miami Beach having won 35 of his 36 professional bouts. One of the most intimidating athletes in any sport at the time, Liston was installed as a heavy favorite to win at most sportsbooks (7-1 or 8-1).
His opponent, a 22-year-old from Kentucky who was nicknamed the “Louisville Lip” thanks to what his mouth could do outside of the ring, had gone undefeated in his first 19 pro bouts, but was still only picked to win by just three of the 46 sportswriters who were covering the fight.
And, to the 43 who picked wrong, it isn’t all that hard to see why.
At the weigh-in ceremonies before the fight, Ali stomped his feet, shouted threats, and even recited original poetry about the upcoming match. His behavior was so outrageous that the Miami Beach Commission ended up fining him $2,500.
Afterward, Dr. Alexander Robbins, the commission’s chief doctor, reported Ali’s pulse had more than doubled from its normal 54 to 120. “This is a man who is scared to death,” Robbins said. “He is living in mortal fear. He is emotionally unbalanced and burning energy at a furious rate. He acted like a man off the beaten path.”
During the fight, Liston was very much the man on the beaten path and it was Ali who was doing the beating. Throughout the bout, the challenger was able to stick to one of his lines from the weigh-in: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Time and again, Ali was able to use his jab effectively, relying on his speed to avoid heavy punches from his bigger opponent. When Liston would try to get in close, Ali would move out of range, forcing the champ to chase him, which opened the champ up to numerous left hooks to the face.
It was Ali’s dancing and backpedaling that ultimately proved to be Liston’s undoing, as one of the champ’s wild punches at his elusive target failed to land, badly hurting his shoulder. The injury, which was later revealed to be a torn shoulder muscle, was severe enough that Liston was only able to finish the sixth round and did not answer the bell for the seventh. As a result, Ali became the youngest heavyweight champion in history to win via TKO.
“He never let Liston tie him up for short, brutal body punches, and although he faltered several times, he refused to allow himself to be cornered,” sweet science scribe Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times following the fight. “His long left jab kept bouncing off Liston’s face. From the beginning, it was hard to believe … All those interminable refrains of ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ had been more than foolish songs. The kid was floating. He leaned back from Liston’s jabs and hooks, backed into the ropes, then spun out and away. He moved clockwise around Liston, taunting that terrible left hook, his hands still low.”
Following his victory, a jubilant Ali told the ringside reporters, “Eat your words” and then went on to shout “I am the greatest” and “I am king of the world.”
When a then-unheralded Howard Cosell, who was covering the fight on ABC Radio with Les Keiter, caught up with the new champion, he asked what made the difference in the fight. “I’m too fast and he was slow,” Ali answered.
“The crowd did not dream when they put up the money,” Ali later added. “That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
To celebrate the surprise win, Ali attended a private party at a Miami hotel that also included his friend, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, on the guest list.
Two days later, Ali announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that he was changing his name to Cassius X.
After he became less involved with Malcolm X and more aligned with the sect’s leader, Elijiah Muhammad, Ali formally changed to the full name we know him by today.
But had it not been for Ali’s (56-5, 37 KOs) improbable win over Liston 55 years ago, history would never have been the same.