Sonny wasn’t funny. Ali, nee Clay, certainly was.
There was no bigger sporting event than the night Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston in 1964 in Miami Beach. In those days the heavyweight title fight was the biggest thing in sports. Forget the Super Bowl. Forget the World Series. Forget the Masters. This was it.
In those days, Rocky Marciano was the biggest thing in Boston sports. Ted Williams was great, of course. But Marciano was Italian. He was undefeated. He was the only person of note that ever came out of Brockton, other than Bob Levine. He was the heavyweight champion of the world.
“There’s not a man alive who can whup me. I’m too fast. I’m too smart. I’m too pretty. I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.”
Liston had come out of nowhere and pounded poor Floyd Patterson twice for the heavyweight crown. Patterson was so scared at the second fight that he brought a disguise to wear out of town. Honest to God. We knew “Clay” a little bit from the 1960 Olympics and then saw him fight favorite Archie Moore in 1962. That fight was a closed-circuit broadcast — probably the first of its kind. Clay killed old Archie. Clay was too fast, too agile. Moore hardly touched him.
We feared for Clay against Liston, a fearsome fighter with a traditional scowl. But Clay laughed at Liston and called him a “big bear.” The doctor at the weigh-in said Clay’s heartbeat was so high that the poor boy was “scared to death.” Many doubted he would show up for the fight. I was working at the Prudential Center at the time, and I jumped when the odds went to 18-1. No one is 18-1, not even Patterson against Liston. I bet as heavily as my meager paycheck would allow.
“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale, only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
But in the fight, Clay “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee” around Liston, who (supposedly) threw out his shoulder from so many missed jabs. In an upset of the ages, Liston quit in the sixth round and I made a (small) fortune. “I shocked the world,” crowed Clay, and he did. I collected my bets and decided this new guy, only 22, was all right. Many said Liston took a dive in the Lewiston rematch in May of 1965.
In those days, heavyweight champs had never bothered to develop a personality and said the same old things before and after each fight. But Clay was a country wit, a brash one. He even had his own “shuffle,” which brought us to our feet, again and again. Some despised his admittedly outrageous boasting and poetry. But some of us loved it and couldn’t wait for more.
“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”
It seemed like the next day, Clay became Muhammad Ali and a Muslim. I was taken aback for a few days, like the rest of the country. But he was so fast, so beautiful and so funny that it made very little difference. When he refused induction for the Vietnam War, I was with him in spirit. I had attended several anti-war marches in Washington, D.C.
“My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese,” he said. “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
Sorry. Can’t argue with that. I always considered him like a family member and took his losses personally.
They took away his fighter’s license for nearly four years of his prime until the Supreme Court said enough and granted him the right to work. Ali wailed through a few pretenders, then faced his ultimate foe: Philadelphia tough guy Joe Frazier. Frazier might not have been as scary as Liston but was close enough. In March of 1971, we drove to Bangor to watch “The Fight of the Century” on closed-circuit television. Ali hit Frazier a thousand times, but “Smokin’ Joe” kept on coming and knocked Ali on his ass in the last round. Many people in the Bangor crowd cheered. I was shocked. Frazier left the ring and went straight to the hospital. But he won. Ali won a rematch in Madison Square Garden in 1974.
I was against it, but Ali took a match with George Foreman in October of 1974 in Zaire. Foreman, another Olympic champion, was knocking his opponents out left and right. He hit Frazier so hard that “Smokin’ Joe” actually ran away before Foreman hit him again and knocked him cold. If Foreman could do that to Frazier, he would annihilate Ali, right? Ali never feared.
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
I feared for Ali so much that I refused to watch or listen to the “Rumble in the Jungle.” I didn’t want to see him die. When it was over, I turned on the radio to find out that Ali had used the “rope-a-dope” to tire the formidable Foreman then knocked him out, to the amazement of the entire world. Including me.
That set the stage for the nightmarish 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” Ali-Frazier rematch, when temperatures flirted with 100 degrees. Frazier never wanted to quit, but his manager threw in the towel after both of Frazier’s eyes were punched swollen and closed.
“It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”
I found it hard to watch Ali’s final bouts against Earnie Shavers in 1977, then Larry Holmes in 1979. They both pounded Ali, but he refused to go down, taking titanic shots that must have contributed to his Parkinson’s disease and his eventual death. But even when he lost much of his ability to speak, he always managed a line or two to amuse us.
“If you dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”
He was the best fighter that ever was, and I wish him the very best in whatever happens to us after death. He will be cracking up the crowd, wherever he is.
Emmet Meara lives in Camden in blissful retirement after working as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland for 30 years.