And as we know, Clay's Titanic went on to beat Liston's iceberg in seven rounds. Miracles happen, then, as the defending World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion, the eminently God-fearing Evander Holyfield believes only too deeply.
Opinions can become fashionable in boxing. And suddenly it has become the thing to say that Henry Akinwande can beat Holyfield in Madison Square Garden early on Sunday morning. The line goes that the London-born Nigerian has the style and physical attributes to spring what would be an enormous upset. He has an effective jab and spoil technique and stands 6ft 7in and 230lb.
But boxing, like any other high-pressure sport, is about more than physical things. Ali psyched out Liston all those years ago, Holyfield was not intimidated by Mike Tyson, and Akinwande froze when he challenged Lennox Lewis for the World Boxing Council version of the title last summer.
Akinwande's disgrace that hot night in Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California border was absolute: thrown out by the referee Mills Lane for persistent, insistent holding. Lewis broke his will and all that Akinwande could do afterwards was mutter a few incoherent, inconsistent sentences that seemed to suggest he had no real comprehension of what had happened.
He has had 10 months for it to sink in. Time enough for him to come back with a dull, efficient points win over a slow, old, blown-up cruiserweight Orlin Norris in December. Time enough to understand that he cannot afford another failure.
What happened against Lewis was fairly simple. Akinwande is, has always been, a deceptively strong heavyweight. He looks wiry and easy to push around, but has surprised a string of heavyweights by dominating them on the inside as well as using his height, reach and genuine skill to outbox them at long distance. Against Lewis, for the first time he met a man who could dominate him.
He broke up, not physically, but psychologically. He stopped wanting to fight, was warned repeatedly, even taken to his corner to have the situation clarified with the help of his trainer, Don Turner. Nothing worked. He was still clinging on when Lane disqualified him.
Since then, circumstances have changed. By coincidence, Turner also trains Holyfield who, as a major player, demanded his services. Akinwande eventually called in Emanuel Steward, whose main job is training Lewis.
Akinwande, who lives in Florida, took himself off to Steward's notorious fighting pit, the Kronk Gym in Detroit, to prepare. The Kronk is tough, and sparring is x-rated. Steward is past the point where he will encourage for the sake of it. "I wish I'd had Henry for two months longer," he said. "I needed more time to get him ready. I told him every day, 'You are the only fighter that has ever in history been disqualified in a championship fight for cowardice'."
The Kronk could have broken him. Steward insists that with more time there it would make him. "He has been one of the roughest, dirtiest fighters we have had there. He has been a totally different person."
Akinwande, always quietly spoken and usually reticent, badly wants to prove his critics wrong, but knows that whatever he says now will make little difference. We will listen to him, some of us will sneer and mutter, some will dislocate what he says to fit their own version of what is about to happen. He knows this week's press conferences are there to sell tickets and increase pay-per-view sales. Nothing really matters until he steps into the 24-feet square cauldron that will be the Garden ring.
The "Akinwande wins" lobby say it is the very fact that he failed so dismally against Lewis that will inspire him this time. They also say Holyfield, 6ft 21/2in and 218lb, cannot dominate him physically in the way that Lewis did. And they point out that Holyfield, so erratic in the past, is due a bad night.
This last point makes some sense. Holyfield retired after losing to Riddick Bowe in 1992. He looked sick when he lost to Moorer in 1994. He looked old when he lost the third fight with Bowe in 1995. And before he pulled off his own miracle in the first fight with Tyson, he was jaded against Bobby Czyz. Akinwande's best chance is that Holyfield will be out of sorts once again here.
Nevertheless, we can really only go on what we know. And the fact is that, for all the theorising, Holyfield is too accomplished a ring general and too natural a fighter for Akinwande.
There is an outside possibility that Akinwande will freeze again, but I suggest that instead he may fight like a crazy man, until Holyfield's better all-round technique and ice-cold ring brain begin to get to him.
Then, by about the eighth round, three things could happen. He could fold and be stopped. He could lose his will, but not his determination to survive, and hang in to the end. Or he could lose his cool completely and get thrown out again.
But win the fight? Absolutely not. Believe me, icebergs beat Titanics... don't they?Reuse content