Jelani Scott | Sports Editor
“I am the king of the world!…I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
February 25, 1964, a 22-year-old boxer from Louisville, Kentucky named Cassius Marcellus Clay uttered these words after winning the biggest fight of his life and, in the process, earned the love, respect, support and criticism of fans worldwide.
By late 1963, Clay became the number one contender to fight world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. The fight was set for the Miami Beach Convention Hall in Miami Beach, Florida.
The older Liston built a reputation as a quiet, punishing bruiser, winning 35 of his 36 fights, mostly by knockout, since turning pro in 1953.
“The Louisville Lip”, the nickname Clay was known by at the time, was the complete opposite.
The clean and confident Clay was fresh off a gold medal victory at the 1960 Summer Olympics and was 19-0 since turning pro upon his return.
Aside from studying film to learn Liston’s in-ring style, Clay’s pre-fight tactics were rather unorthodox and began immediately after they agreed to fight.
He purchased a bus and drove to Liston’s home on the day of the contract signing, with a sign that read, “Liston Must Go In Eight” and woke the champion at 3:00 a.m. to call him out.
According to the 1971 Ali biography, “Sting Like a Bee”, he correctly predicted the round he would stop an opponent 12 times by 1963, which made his predictions far from a fluke.
Clay also used Liston’s nickname, “The Big Bear”, as a way to insult the champion multiple occasions when he was training, once saying, “After the fight, I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug.”
Some in Liston’s camp suspected that Clay’s acting was a sign of fear but many believed it was meant to rattle Liston.
Not all of the press, however, liked his antics. Murray Kempton, the editor for the magazine “The New Republic,” who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, wrote, “Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.”
In a pre-fight poll, only three of 46 writers and columnists picked Clay, who was a 7-1 betting underdog, to win.
Several reporters dismissed the fight and said it would be a huge mismatch.
At the weigh-in on the morning of the fight, Clay wore a jacket that read “Bear Huntin’” on the back and heavily taunted Liston.
He was fined $2,500 by the Miami Boxing Commission for his actions.
In front of a crowd of 8,297, slightly more than half the venue’s capacity, Clay went onto to defeat Liston by technical knockout and win the title when he refused to come out of his corner at the beginning of Round 7.
“I’m so great, I don’t have a mark on my face. And I upset Sonny Liston and I just turned 22-years-old. I must be the greatest. I told the world I talk to God every day. If God’s with me, can’t nobody be against me,” he exclaimed in the ring.
Although Clay’s win was huge, the post-fight interview would become one of the most pivotal moments in sports history and position him as a cultural and political icon for years to come.
He would join the Nation of Islam two days later and change his name to Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali.
Liston would fight 16 more times after the loss, losing only once before retiring in 1970.
For Ali, his career would reach incredible heights and harsh lows in the following years.
After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali, a man known for dominating his opponents in the boxing ring with grace and amazing accuracy, is still battling his greatest obstacle in 2016 at age 74..
His illness may have taken away his voice, the strongest weapon he had that was not inside of a glove, but the living legend still possesses his vibrant spirit and will to win.
And if you need further evidence, look at his April 2015 tweet, posted shortly after fellow retirees Floyd Mayweather Jr. and George Foreman publicly questioned his legitimacy, with a picture of him and a caption that read, “Don’t you forget, I am the greatest!”