Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Liston-Clay fight in Miami Beach, a star is born

Ali in 1978, Courtesy of the Maryland Stater
By Jane Feehan

It was announced in December, 1963 that a matchup between boxing champ Sonny Liston and the brash Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) would be held at the Miami Beach Convention Hall in February, 1964. 

The attorney representing Liston was Martha Jefferson Louis, wife of famed boxer Joe Louis. Miami millionaire Bill MacDonald and boxing promoter Chris Dundee were instrumental in bringing the historic fight to Miami Beach.

MacDonald guaranteed the pugilists $625,000 for the “live gate,” revenue derived from the sale of seats that sold for $20-$250. With 16,000 seats in the hall, a sellout would garner $1.1 million. Liston would get 40 percent, Clay, 22 ½.  MacDonald needed $800,000 to break even. Closed circuit TV would generate even more money after Theater Network Television took its 15 percent.

MacDonald’s expectations merged with differing expectations for the outcome of the fight.

Some thought the pairing a mismatch; Clay, at 22, was thought to be too young—not ready—to beat the powerful and ferocious Liston, nicknamed “Big Bear.” About 30 years old (he was not sure of his birth date), Liston had a 35-1 record with 24 knockouts.

“No one could ever convince me that anyone could beat Sonny Liston,” said Dick Cami, one-time boxing manager and owner of Miami Beach’s Peppermint Lounge. “He had it all—the weight, the jaw, the punch and the reach ... he had unusually long arms.”

The Associated Press reported Liston stood to earn $1.6 million in a fight that may not last three rounds. Liston had anticipated no more than three rounds. Others mused it would be a good fight because Clay, “the Louisville Lip,” had already won 19 fights, 15 by knockouts. He was fast on his feet and fast with the punches.   Clay, 1960 Olympic Games light heavyweight gold medalist, already known for his dramatic outbursts (and poetry), claimed he would win in eight, five or three rounds. In any case, he planned to “upset the whole world.”

Sparring for the Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1964 fight began immediately. The two snarled at each other when meeting up accidentally at Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym where Clay was training with Angelo Dundee. Messages were exchanged before the big event with Liston claiming Clay was “his million dollar baby.” Clay’s poetic yet taunting prediction began with: Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat; If Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

Liston and Clay knew how to display both sides of their personalities. The Big Bear, a guest at the Casablanca Hotel on Miami Beach, played unofficial entertainment director, shaking hands and hamming it up by the pool lifting women into the air while husbands snapped pictures with their Brownie cameras. Ed Sullivan introduced Liston and Joe Louis sitting together in the audience at the Deauville Hotel for the Beatles' appearance on his show.*

Clay worked just as hard to let the world know who he was.

“To know Cassius, like the saying goes, was to love him,” Cami said.  Before the fight, Clay came into the Peppermint Lounge to visit (but never drink) with singer Dee Dee Sharp who had recently recorded the hit Mashed Potatoes. “He was in every sense of the word a gentleman and definitely not a womanizer,” remembered Cami.  One night the young fighter asked Cami if he could park his bus outside the lounge.

“He had a bus with a giant picture of him on each side and the 79th Street Causeway (where the Peppermint Lounge was located) was a perfect place for it to be seen," Cami said.

Clay’s public relations campaign continued. A few days after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles stopped by the Fifth Street Gym where he playfully lifted one or two of them off their feet for the press.

The days for playing hard and training harder quickly slipped away as the main event approached.

During weigh-in the morning of the big day, the two continued the taunting. Clay’s outbursts were so wild that he was later fined by the Miami Boxing Commission. They eventually got down to business. Clay, at 6’3” weighed 210 pounds while 6’ 1” Liston weighed in at 218 pounds. The reach of the Louisville Lip was two inches shorter than that of the Big Bear. The fight was on.

Liston, a 7-1 favorite, came out like a bear for the first three rounds, but suddenly lost advantage to the younger Clay. The Louisville Lip landed a punch that left a deep gash beneath Liston’s eye. It bled heavily and later needed eight stitches. When the bell rang for the seventh round, Liston remained in the corner; his shoulder was reportedly injured. Clay was declared heavyweight champ of the world.  “I am the greatest,” the 22-year-old yelled. He had indeed upset the world. He was the greatest.

The outcome did not prove as pleasant for Bill MacDonald. Only 6,297 seats were sold out of the 16,000 in the hall. A news story reporting Cassius Clay had joined ranks with the Black Muslims turned spectators away who took a dim view of the group. Others reported seeing Clay with Malcolm X. Whatever the reasons, the live gate brought in only $402,000; Liston (who died in 1970) reportedly received $367,000. MacDonald was mentioned as a defendant the following year in a law suit resulting from the fight.

After the historic fight, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. According to Cami, Angelo Dundee told him efforts by the Black Muslims to fire him and hire one of their own were spurned by Ali. The young fighter was smart; he remained loyal to the trainer who helped him earn his title.

Ali fought his last match in 1981. Today the fighter who took control over his own image from the beginning is as mellow and majestic as an aging lion. One of the most recognized faces on the globe, Muhammad Ali still captures the hearts of millions around the world. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
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* It was a banner year for Miami Beach: the Beatles, the Liston-Clay fight and then the Jackie Gleason Show announced its plans to broadcast from the city.

Miami News, Dec. 6, 1963
Miami News, Dec. 10, 1963
Palm Beach Post, Feb. 23, 1964
Palm Beach Daily News, Jan. 7, 1965
Kleinberg, Howard. Miami Beach: A History. Miami. Centennial Press (1994)



Tags: Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Liston-Clay fight 1964, Miami Beach in the 1960s, Dick Cami, Peppermint Lounge, film researcher, boxing history

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