Remembering the fight that made Muhammad Ali, 50 years later

Cassius Clay jabs at Sonny Liston, in a fight that began the legend of the man who would soon become Muhammad Ali.

Fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, was young, beautiful and brashly magnetic. But some in the young boxer’s corner, like his doctor Ferdie Pacheco, were troubled by what his opponent, a brutal ex-convict named Sonny Liston, might do.

Were they worried Liston would hurt Clay? 

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Cassius Clay's doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, was worried about his opponent, a brutal ex-convict named Sonny Liston.
 “Not hurt him,” Pacheco told CBS News. “Kill. He was a killer.”

Nevertheless, Clay was unfazed, antagonizing Liston at every turn, and acting unhinged at the weigh-in.  

“I said what was that about? He said, ‘Oh I wanted him to think I'm crazy,’” recalled Pacheco. “‘He doesn't know what to expect of me. That's where I got him.’”

When the bell rang, it turned out Clay knew exactly what he was doing.

“By the third round, he began cutting Liston with that jab -- Pow! Bang! Bang! Bang!” said Pacheco. 

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Clay was unfazed by his opponent, antagonizing Liston at every turn, and acting unhinged at the weigh-in.
 “Cutting Liston. Nobody's ever cut Liston.”

But the liquid Liston’s corner used to close the cuts Clay created, somehow got in Clay’s eyes, blinding him.

“Ali comes to the corner -- does this,” Pacheco said, putting his hands out. “Cut 'em off!”

“The only time I ever saw him ready to quit.”

Clay’s cornerman Angelo Dundee refused, pushing him back in the ring with one instruction: “Run.” Clay’s vision cleared.

Had Dundee not sent Clay back into the fight, said Pacheco, there may never have been a Muhammad Ali.

“He would have been disgraced… It would have been the end of Ali.” 

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Cassius Clay jabs at Sonny Liston, in a fight that began the legend of the man who would soon become Muhammad Ali.
 Clay opened up Liston’s face again. Two rounds later, Liston was done.

It was a historic night. And, as the archival footage shows, a gripping event.

“I believe that's the moment the 1960's began,” said Robert Lipsyte, who covered the fight for The New York Times. “Here was this confluence of what would be race, religion, politics, the Civil Rights struggle… and it all exploded from there.”

“It was a terrific birth of something great,” Lipsyte continued. “Ali was born… It was a memorable night. It’s now 50 years. Well, it’s still thrilling to me.”

The next day, he announced he was a black muslim. Cassius Clay had climbed into the ring. Muhammad Ali had climbed out.
  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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