Ken Jones: The night when a young boxer opened the world's eyes

Click to follow

Forty years ago yesterday, Red Smith, the best and most graceful of American sportswriters, wrote this for the Herald Tribune: "Cassius Marcellus Clay fought his way out of the horde that swarmed and leaped and shouted in the ring, climbed like a squirrel on to the red velvet ropes and brandished his still-gloved hand aloft. 'Eat your words,' he howled to the working press rows. 'Eat your words.' "

For Smith and many of his companions at ringside in Miami Beach, Florida when Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round against Clay for the heavyweight championship, the words were hard to swallow. It wasn't merely that they had expected Clay, a 9-1 underdog, to be crushed like a bug by the brooding, grim-faced champion. Their worst fears, implicitly racist, were contained in the nervous prediction of the New York Times columnist Arthur Daley. "The loudmouth from Louisville is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a ham-like fist belonging to Sonny Liston."

A barely literate convicted felon with mob connections, Liston was no hero. But better him than a braggart whose rumoured conversion to the Nation of Islam was confirmed in the echo of victory when he took the name Muhammad Ali.

While Smith graciously held up his hands, giving Clay four of the six completed rounds, some reflections on the contest seethed with resentment. "If Cassius wants me to say he's the greatest, all right, I'll say it," the acerbic Dick Young groused in a column for the New York Post. "But I'll also say he scored the greatest retreating victory since the Russians suckered Napoleon into a snowbank. I never saw Joe Louis run away and win, or Rocky Marciano, and I'm sure my father never saw Jack Dempsey run away and win, and my grandfather never saw John L Sullivan run away and win. So, if Cassius wants to be rated, he'd better stand still long enough."

Pat Putnam covered the fight for the Miami Herald. A decorated veteran of the Korean war, who had been held prisoner by the Chinese, he had grown close to Clay and his trainer, Angelo Dundee. "There is no question at all that a lot of those guys at ringside saw Clay as an 'uppity nigger'," he said when we spoke this week. "They wanted the humility of Joe Louis but Clay wasn't prepared to give it to them. In time they would come to admire his courage and independence. But that night in Miami they were afraid of what he might become in the civil rights movement."

It was Putnam who nailed the story of Clay's intention to join the Muslims. With the help of Dundee's brother Chris, who had a share in the promotion, he met Cassius Clay Snr, who angrily confirmed the rumours and denounced the Muslims, claiming they were stealing money from his son and exploiting his name.

After publishing his scoop 18 days before the fight, Putnam received threatening telephone calls. "I went to the black section of town where Clay was living and told him about what was happening," he said. "I knew him very well by that time. And he said, 'Pat, don't worry about it. You'll never get another call. And he was right. That was the end of that."

A couple of days ago, I attended an informal lunch in Brighton to celebrate the 90th birthday of the former Sunday Express sports columnist Alan Hoby. One of the assembled company, Frank Butler, who gave distinguished service to the Daily Express and News Of The World as sports editor and columnist, himself in his 88th year, has vivid memories of events in Miami.

"Since I wasn't up against a deadline I agreed to work as a summariser with Eammon Andrews, who was commentating for BBC radio," he said. "Eammon leapt into the ring as soon as he realised the fight was over and couldn't get back to the microphone. I was frantically told to keep talking. I remember saying that there were cries of 'fake' but that in my view Liston had gone the way of all bullies. I hadn't given Clay a prayer but Liston couldn't handle him. Even during the two rounds when Clay was fighting half-blind because something had got into his eyes, Liston couldn't lay a glove him. I've never believed that story about Liston having a damaged shoulder. He quit."

One of the things Putnam remembers is a call from Chris Dundee berating him for the story of Clay's impending conversion. " 'You mother, you've ruined the gate,' Dundee raged. I put the phone down on him," Putnam said. "I guess it was right, though. For whatever reason - hatred of Clay; perhaps because people felt it was a foregone conclusion - the fight didn't sell."

Putnam agrees that Liston's fate was probably sealed by Clay's wild behaviour at the weigh-in when his pulse rate soared along with his blood pressure. "It was mostly an act," he said. "But it scared the hell out of Liston. He thought Clay was a lunatic."

Most people have come to believe, with passionate sincerity, that Ali is the greatest sports figure in history. That night in Miami, a young man's vision of the future opened wide.