In Ramiro Ortiz’s eyes, it was the most important sporting event in Miami’s history.
The city has hosted numerous championship moments, from Super Bowl 2 to the Heat’s latest run of championships. Yet the boxing historian and president of HistoryMiami said the fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, was the biggest because of who it spawned.
The NFL did not award a franchise to Miami until 1965, and the Dolphins didn’t begin play until 1966. South Florida didn’t host its first Super Bowl until 1969, when Joe Namath guaranteed the Jets would beat the heavily favored Colts.
Professional basketball was a distant dream. The Heat and LeBron James reign now, but the NBA didn’t award a franchise until 1988. Major League Baseball and the NHL followed five years later with the birth of the Marlins and Panthers.
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But the mystique of South Florida (as a big-time sporting venue) and Cassius Clay started in 1964.
After winning the fight, Clay shouted “I shook up the world.”
He shook up South Florida, too.
“That’s the fight that created Muhammad Ali,” Ortiz said. “Muhammad Ali transcended sports and is still to this day and has been for 40 years, the most recognizable face on Planet Earth. That was born in Miami [on] February 25, 1964.”
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the fight, Ortiz has curated an exhibit at HistoryMiami that showcases never-published photographs and other memorabilia from the event.
The bout announced Clay’s arrival on the scene when he stunned the bigger, more experienced Liston. Before the fight, the experts were arguing about how long Clay would last in the ring with Liston and the thought of the young, brash fighter beating the larger bully was comical.
Yet for six rounds Clay executed his strategy to perfection, starting out with defensive jabs before creeping closer as the bout wore on. The jabs turned into combinations and Clay became less afraid of getting hit by Liston’s punches. When the bell sounded to end Round 6, Liston quit because of a shoulder injury and Clay asserted himself as the heavyweight champion of the world.
Many boxing historians rank this as one of the most important fights of all time partially because it re-established the sport’s popularity in the United States. Clay’s charismatic character made him very likable, a stark contrast to the champions who had held the heavyweight title since Rocky Marciano’s retirement in 1956.
Suzanne Dundee Bonner, the daughter of the late legendary promoter Chris Dundee, called Clay “the promoter’s dream” for his inherent understanding of public relations despite the fact he was at the center of controversy. She said her father never considered silencing the boxer while he was at the forefront of many of the social struggles in American society, most notably race relations and the Vietnam War.
Boxing historian Enrique Encinosa, who was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010, argued the fight was one of the many catalysts which led to an era of protest and upheaval. He said the contest created a figure that connected with the sentiments of many Americans at that time.
“It marks the beginning of an era in U.S. history,” Encinosa said. “There was a lot of revolt and a lot of rebellion [in the 60’s]. … [Clay] became a symbol for Americans, both black and white.”
However, this contest was a car accident away from being postponed.
At the time, Clay was facing significant pressure from the Muslim community to announce his conversion to the world before the contest. Chris Dundee wanted Clay to wait until after the bout as to not hurt ticket and the closed circuit sales.
Although the common misconception is the promoters were going to postpone the event if Clay announced his conversion, Bonner said it was the fighter who threatened to back away from the bout.
“We did not have breakdown insurance, we never ever would have canceled a fight because of a fighter’s religious beliefs,” Bonner said. “He was the one who was going to cancel the fight because he said ‘if I can’t do this, I’m pulling out.’”
What ultimately saved the fight was Dundee’s decision to drive to Clay’s Miami home to speak with the fighter. The promoter saw his client driving toward Dundee’s office and ran Clay off the road. The two had a conversation about the negative publicity that would surround the fight if Clay were to announce his new religion, and the crisis was averted.
“You didn’t have to coach him,” Bonner said. “He could go on stage and every time that camera turned on he was up for it. … Did he understand what it meant when we said you’re going to blow all this prefight publicity? You bet he did.
“He knew it right then and at that time he said ‘I understand, we’ll let it go.’”
In Ortiz’s mind, there is no modern comparison to what the fight accomplished.
“There are very few sports events where the winner transcends the sport and becomes a world figure who uses the platform that they create with the win to bring about not just credibility and promotion to the sport but also uses that platform to promote social change,” he said. “Ali used that platform for a lot of other things besides boxing. He just happened to be the greatest fighter who ever lived.”