Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.
An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.
Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with the fastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible Liston. Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.
Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”. Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera. “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”
I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven. I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.
With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.
Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.
THE INCREDIBLE UPSET
The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.
Only once in a fight had he been been bested.
The Louisville Lip had no more chance
To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.
But came that decisive night in Miami,
Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.
For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.
He proved he could box, as well as talk long.
In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,
He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.
With a continual jab and by dancing around,
The man with the mouth survived that tough round.
The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.
The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.
For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,
And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.
He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.
Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,
But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?
— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)
Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.
It was one of the great epic battles of that long-ago time. From there, Cassius Clay went on to become Muhammad Ali and perhaps the most famous, admired athlete of all time. My friend was one of the few to see his greatness ahead of time, in 1964.