An Epic Rematch

Why Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston remains one of the most anticipated, watched and controversial bouts in boxing history

LEWISTON, MAINE, was not the first place that boxers Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston faced off across a ring. When their first bout took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion. He had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery, and his boxing career was managed by a one-time hit man who ran boxing interests for the Mafia.

Cassius Clay was a fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. The signatures of Clay’s style – constant movement and a tendency to keep his hands low and lean away from punches – were viewed as fundamental flaws that would be quickly exploited by an experienced, hard-hitting heavyweight like Liston.

At the opening bell of the Liston-Clay fight in Miami, an angry Liston charged Clay, looking to end the fight quickly and decisively. Clay’s superior speed and movement were immediately evident, as he slipped most of Liston’s lunging punches, making the champion look awkward. After six rounds, Liston refused to leave his corner when the bell sounded, and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout.

There were allegations of a fix as soon as the fight ended, but a month-long investigation brought no evidence to support the claim. The unexpected ending of the bout took on even more suspicious overtones when it was discovered that the two fighters had a rematch clause in their contract. Many argued that Liston had more to gain financially from losing the first bout and fighting a rematch than he did from winning.

On February 27, 1964, just days after the first Liston-Clay fight, Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. Clay began going by the name Cassius X until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali.

State boxing commissions were reluctant to license the controversial rematch, but it was decided that the fight would take place November 16, 1964, in Boston. However, the bout was delayed, rescheduled and moved, until finally it landed on May 25, 1965, in a small city in Maine, located 35 miles north of Portland.

The atmosphere surrounding the second fight was tense, largely due to the repercussions of Ali’s public embrace of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, who had a public falling out with Elijah Muhammad, had been assassinated several months before the fight; the men arrested for his murder were members of the Nation of Islam. Rumors circulated that Ali might be killed by Malcolm’s supporters in retaliation. The FBI took the threats seriously enough to post a guard around Ali. Liston’s camp claimed he had received death threats from the Nation of Islam. Security for the fight was unprecedented.

Due to the remote location and the fear of violence, only 2,434 fans were present in the 4,900-seat arena, a community ice-hockey rink, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. Fetch Clay, Make Man begins just days before their epic rematch.