The Louisville Lip stuns the world, claims first Heavyweight Championship!1964 Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) Fight Worn Gloves from First Liston Bout.
If there was a single emotion that Sonny Liston inspired in the boxing world, that was it, simple and raw. Liston had learned to box while incarcerated on an armed robbery conviction in the Missouri State Penitentiary, but the meanness was a lifetime in the making, and the power a pure gift of genetics. It was widely reported that he broke bones for the Mafia figures who held the majority stake in his professional contract. Trainer Johnny Tocco, who worked with George Foreman and Mike Tyson as well, picked Liston as the most devastating puncher. British Champion Henry Cooper, slated to meet the winner of the bout, notified promoters that he would only face the underdog. "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street," said Cooper's manager Jim Wicks.
Cooper had already, in fact, faced Liston's challenger, a year earlier in a non-title bout at Wembley Arena in London. Though the brash-talking American had ultimately claimed victory when he opened an ugly cut on the Brit that caused the referee to end the contest, Clay was rescued from a loss after being dropped in final seconds of the fourth round when trainer Angelo Dundee illegally used smelling salts and stalled for time to allow his fighter to recover. A knockdown at the hands of journeyman Sonny Banks and a controversial decision over Doug Jones likewise appeared to suggest that the Olympic Gold Medalist was not quite ready for the prize ring. Even the most optimistic sportswriters predicted a one-sided affair, with New York World-Telegram boxing man Lester Bromberg writing, "It will last longer than the Liston/Patterson fight-almost the entire first round."
Clay himself remained a paradigm of self-confidence nonetheless, his braggadocio doing little to endear himself to the boxing community. Polled at ringside prior to the start of the fight, forty-three of forty-six boxing writers picked Liston by knockout. "The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary," wrote Los Angeles Times journalist Jim Murray. With the Champion serving as the embodiment of the "dangerous Negro" in the deep seated white prejudice of the 1960's, and the challenger likewise threatening to the status quo in his brash, arrogant demeanor, Murray joked that the faceoff between the two men would be "the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin-180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout."
An antagonistic performance by Clay at the morning's weigh-ins nearly precipitated an early start to the violence. He had entered the room in a denim jacket with the words "Bear Huntin'" on the back (in reference to Liston's "Big Bear" nickname), an African walking stick in his hand. "I'm the Champ," he yelled. "Tell Sonny I'm here. Bring that big ugly bear on." Liston emerged and charged at the challenger. "Someone is gonna die at ringside tonight!" he shouted. "You're scared, chump!" The terrifying Liston had to be restrained by his entourage, with Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times reporting that the scene resembled "a police action, with an enormous amount of movement and noise exploding in a densely packed room." The Miami Boxing Commission would fine Clay $2,500 for his behavior.
Clay tipped the scales at 210 pounds, with Liston eight pounds heavier and a decade older. Fans at ringside that evening were surprised to discover that Clay was considerably taller that Liston, and as the Champion glared at the underdog, Clay lifted onto his toes to appear even taller. Later, in a rare moment of humility, Clay would admit, "I won't lie. I was scared. It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn't have no choice but to go out and fight."
Liston charged at the opening bell with a single-minded determination for destruction, but Clay proved maddeningly elusive, his deft footwork and superior speed making Liston's lunging haymakers appear awkward and amateurish. Clay played the matador to Liston's angry bull, sticking and moving as Liston grew more frustrated at his inability to land anything of consequence. The crowd volume surged to such a level that the first round went twenty seconds long, referee Barney Felix unable to hear the ringing of the bell. As Liston returned to his corner after the worst round of his career, Clay turned to the press box and opened his mouth widely in pantomime of a roar.
Round two saw some improvement from the Champion, who was able to trap the slippery Clay against the ropes and deliver a punishing left hook. Clay would later admit the punch had hurt him, but Liston had not capitalized on his advantage. Two judges gave the round to Liston.
It was in the third that Clay started to take control, peppering the Big Bear's face with lightning-fast combinations that bruised his right eye and opened a cut under the left. At one point Liston's knees appeared to buckle as he was driven to the ropes, broadcaster Les Keiter screaming over the crowd noise into his microphone, "this could be the upset of the century!"
It was during the fourth round that the fight's great controversy came to light, Clay failing to engage as he had earlier in the bout and returning to his stool to report that his eyes were burning and he couldn't see. He implored his legendary trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves, but Dundee rinsed his eyes with a sponge and commanded him to "get out there and run!" The cause of this irritation has never been definitively established, with most believing the culprit to be Monsel's solution used to treat Liston's cuts finding its way, either accidentally or intentionally, onto his gloves. But Clay ably heeded Dundee's advice, dodging the dark and dangerous mass that stalked him around the ring.
By the sixth round Clay's sight had cleared and he took firm control of the fight, landing combinations at will. "I got back to my stool at the end of the sixth round," Clay would later report, "and under me I could hear the press like they had gone wild. I twisted round and hollered down at the reporters, 'I'm gonna upset the world!'"
A few moments later, his prophecy was realized. Across the ring, Liston had spit out his mouth guard, becoming the first Heavyweight Champion since 1919 to quit on his stool.
"I'm the greatest!" Clay bellowed, as he held his arms aloft and flashed the shuffling footwork that would become his trademark. "I shook up the world!"
Nobody could have known, not even Clay himself, that the world had only just begun to shake in his world-beating hands. Only Jackie Robinson could compete with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali for the title of most influential figure in American sports history. Where Robinson had been the strong, silent type in his fight for equality, Ali loudly demanded his respect, and in so doing forever changed the course of not only American athletics, but American culture at large. Once its most controversial figure, Muhammad Ali is now counted among its most beloved, as strong a testament as any to his bravery both inside and outside the prize ring.
And so we at Heritage Auctions are humbled and honored to present the most important boxing gloves that exist, relics not only of one of sport's great David and Goliath tales, but also instruments that changed the course of American history. Had Liston proved the pundits correct, we might never have seen the brash kid from Kentucky again--no Rumble in the Jungle, no Thrilla in Manila, no controversy over a man's right to his own name, no principled stand against an unjust war.
The gloves emerge from the personal collection of Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee, the most unimpeachable source possible, and hold his handwritten notation at each interior wrist, "Clay Feb. 25 KO Liston." Each bears the label of manufacturer, "Sammy Frager" at the wrist and perfectly match all fight footage. A marvelous image of the young Champion leaning on the ropes shows the wrist tape perfectly matching the pale outline left behind after its removal. Dundee has autographed each interior wrist for further validation. Original lacing remains, and the leather of the gloves remains soft and supple.
While we have already assigned the title of "most significant article of sports memorabilia that exists" to Babe Ruth's 1923 New York Yankees Championship pocket watch in this Platinum Night auction, those who would instead hang the title on these gloves would be able to formulate a compelling defense. In such rarefied air, there's hardly enough oxygen to make such a distinction. Each selection is truly priceless, a fact that an eventual hammer price will not belie. Letter of provenance from Angelo Dundee (with photographs). Letter of provenance from Jim Dundee (son). LOA from Craig Hamilton / JO Sports.
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