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A Shout From The Attic: Return To Zin - 7

Ronnie Bray recalls one of the fights of the century.

The Poet is the Peasant

Having returned from Southampton to Huddersfield, I settled down to write poetry, as I thought, and regenerate myself. I had a bedroom in Ma’s house. She lived at Ernest Knowle’s house at number 34, where she became the substitute mother to his late wife’s seven children. My brother, Arthur, also lived at number 28.

It was a strange time. Something happened that should not have happened and set the world ablaze. Arthur and I set our alarm clocks to wake us up in the early hours of February 26 1964. It was still the 25th in the Miami Beach, Florida, where the upstart, Cassius Clay, stepped into the ring with Sonny “Bear” Liston, then heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Clay had upset many people with what we thought were his mad rantings. Liston was impressive as a hard-hitting manstopping machine. Arthur had a downstairs bedroom and I had an upstairs one. We listened on our own radios.

Cassius Clay was 22 years old when he faced the undisputed heavyweight champion Sonny Liston the first time and had been pro for just four years. Before the contract had been signed, Clay travelled around the states with his bus "Big Red" on which he had painted provocative slogans.

With this Clay had increased the pressure on Sonny and his management until a championship bout was unavoidable. Clay who then had a fight record of 19 wins with an average of five rounds also used to call his opponent an "ugly, brown bear" appearing in public wearing shirts with the slogan "bear huntin’".

Clay did not stop ridiculing Liston even when the title bout was secured. He drove to Liston's house at 3 in the morning, creating a commotion to which Liston responded by dashing out of the house with a poker, smashing one of the Clay’s Bus windows.

Liston also had to deal with sardonic poems that told how Clay would knock him out. At the weigh-in Clay seemed to go completely crazy. He shouted, "I’m ready to rumble!" and "I’m gonna eat you alive!" and it looked as if Clay's handlers had to fight hard hold him from attacking Liston.

The doctor counted Cassius’ pulse rate as 120 and declared Clay "emotionally unbalanced and scared to death" But Clay had fooled everyone. He wasn't crazy but he wanted to make Liston think he was. Forty three out of forty-six sportswriters thought Liston, the seven to one favourite, to win easily. The Convention Hall was only half sold out. A crown of only 8,000 people watched the fight.

At the beginning, Liston attacked Clay as if he wanted to finish him like he had finished Floyd Patterson twice - with a first round knockout. But the challenger didn't let him get close enough to land one of his crushing blows. He danced around the flat-footed champion the whole time. Liston didn't reach the continuously moving Clay. He himself had to take straight lefts again and again. In the third round he had a bleeding cut under his left eye.

But suddenly Clay's victory was questioned because of an incident never totally cleared up. After the fourth round Clay couldn't see. "Cut the gloves off. We’re going home!” he told his trainer Angelo Dundee. But Dundee Clay pushed him back into the fight before the referee could stop it. He shouted at Clay, "This is the big one, daddy. Stay away from him. Run!” This made Clay mad enough to win.

Clay got through round five somehow by concentrating on avoiding Liston's punches he hardly saw. At the end of the round Clay's eyes cleared and he dominated Liston again in the sixth. When the gong for the beginning of the seventh round came, Liston stayed on the stool. Clay couldn't believe it. He ran around the ring shouting "I must be the greatest - I shook up the world!” He had turned the boxing scene upside down, having beaten an opponent who was supposed to be invincible and won the heavyweight crown.

I could not believe that Liston had not eaten Clay. The result was impossible and I joined in the sceptics who smelled a rat and it was years before I appreciated what a fine boxer Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali as he became known, really was. Something comes to mind about judging prematurely. Good thing to get all the facts before making up your mind.


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