Throughout boxing history, the transition of heavyweight champions usually symbolized the fighters’ respective eras.
Jack Dempsey symbolized the 1920s and Joe Louis followed with the height of the Great Depression and World War II. When Louis faded from the scene, the 1950s and TVs Golden Age also introduced Rocky Marciano.
No one defined the 1960s and the transition from the Marciano era better than Muhammad Ali. Emerging in a turbulent decade — chronicled by war, political assassinations and social upheaval — Ali became more than the next in line of cross-over heavyweight champions.
The event that changed Ali’s life and eventually morphed him into iconic status was remembered Tuesday night at HistoryMiami Museum 50 years to the night when Ali, then Cassius Clay, dethroned Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
A panel with links to the Clay-Liston fight detailed the event during a two-hour symposium. The discussion coincided with the museum’s month-long exhibit of photos and art commemorating the historic bout.
“Once you saw Ali train you knew he was going to beat Liston,” said Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the lone surviving member of Ali’s training team. “No one was faster or stronger. Never was there a heavyweight champion built by God like Muhammad Ali.”
Panelist Suzanne Dundee Bonner, daughter of the fight’s promoter, Chris Dundee, reflected how Clay wanted to reveal his name change and conversion to Islam before the fight. She detailed how her father finally convinced him to refrain until after the fight. Such a change in early 1960s America could have severely affected the attendance and closed circuit television viewership.
“Chris didn’t care what religion Ali practiced, but any controversy would hurt the gate,” Dundee Bonner said. “Ali was adamant that this was his opportunity to make a statement. They finally reached an agreement that the name change announcement would come after the fight.”
Footage was shown of Clay’s antics toward Liston during the prefight weigh-in. Pacheco said the histrionics were Clay playing mind games with the feared Liston, who was a prohibitive favorite to retain his title.
“There were 46 writers who covered the fight and 43 predicted Liston would win,” said Miami historian and writer Howard Kleinberg, who covered the fight for The Miami News. “Of the three who picked Clay, one said he was joking. No one gave him a chance.”
But Clay proved the doubters wrong and backed his words as Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, earning the brash challenger the technical knockout win.
“My dad was always confident in his fighters, and especially when it came to Muhammad,” said panelist Jim Dundee, the son of Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee. “The
morning of the fight before he left the house, he told me and my sister, ‘tomorrow morning you will have a new heavyweight champion of the world.’”