Fifty years ago this week, the world of sport changed forever.
A lippy teenager from Louisville, Kentucky, named Cassius Marcellus Clay arrived in Rome as light-heavyweight representative in the United States Olympic boxing team in 1960. Even before he pulled on his headguard and gloves he was prophetically proclaiming: "I am The Greatest."
Within a couple of weeks he was the Olympic champion, giving us a taste of the mouthy magic that was to come just under four years later when, at 22, as he had forecast, he "shook up the world" by psychologically disheartening and physically dismantling the bullying ogre that was Charles "Sonny" Liston to became the heavyweight champion of the world, as well as the word.
As an Olympian, Clay was already exhibiting some of the outrageous sauciness and sleight-of-fists-and-feet that was to become his inimitable trademark. In his semi-final he out-pointed the 30-year-old Aussie Tony Madigan, who was at his third Olympics. The final saw another decisive victory, a 5-0 points shut-out of seasoned 26-year-old Polish southpaw Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
Clay, brought up as a Baptist, used the Olympics to launch himself towards the global celebrity he was to become as Muhammad Ali after his conversion to Islam. But I confess that when he fought Liston for the first time at Miami Beach in February 1964 I did not give him a prayer.
Liston was the most terrifying individual I have ever encountered in boxing. He made Mike Tyson seem a pussycat. There was nothing sunny about Sonny: a sullen, brooding brute from the cotton fields of Arkansas who had served time for armed robbery and who had clubbed a string of opponents senseless, including another great Olympic champion, Floyd Patterson, from whom he snatched the title in less than a round in 1962. A victory that was to be repeated with equally violent swiftness the following year.
I thought the 7-1-on Liston would annihilate young Cassius, and I was not alone. The monster they called "Old Stoneface" was run by racketeers, his manager having close association with two of the Mafia's most notorious figures, Frankie Carbo and "Blinky" Palermo who, at the time, had their claws into boxing and had been known to profit from betting coups on big fights. The crowd scenes at Liston's work-outs were like something from The Untouchables.
Their two-fight saga and its aftermath are diligently researched and recaptured by the boxing historian Bob Mee in the first book to dissect and debate two of the most controversial heavyweight title fights in history, Liston & Ali – The Ugly Bear and the Boy Who Would Be King (Mainstream, £10.99). Mee tells how the late Harold Conrad, the fight publicist, said of the first encounter: "Liston had scared the shit out of Patterson just by looking at him and here comes this big-mouth kid. He [Liston] didn't train at all for that fight. He worked out a little and went to the gym. He would hang out at a beauty parlour, banging on some of the chicks. I'd tell him, 'This kid is big and strong, he's fast and he can hit'. Sonny would just answer, 'Ah, you're kidding. I'll scare the shit out of that nigger faggot ... I'll put the eye on him'."
But it was Clay who put the eye on Liston. Learning that Sonny, who claimed to be 32 but was probably nudging 40, had a phobia about madness, he put on an astonishing act at the weigh-in, foaming at the mouth and screaming like a dervish. It seemed to scare Liston witless. By the end of the sixth round of a baffling fight he quit on his stool, battered and bemused, complaining of a shoulder injury.
The crowd screamed "Fix" but I have always believed that Ali, as he was to become after the fight, psyched him out of it and did so again in the even more bizarre return at Lewiston, Maine, when Liston fell in the first from Ali's so-called "phantom punch" and was eventually stopped after a confused count that lasted 17 seconds.
Again they said it was bent. But I do not agree with the conspiracy theorists. Was Liston told to take a dive by his mob paymasters? I think not. Why would the Mafia want to surrender the richest prize in sport, their most lucrative meal ticket, to the Muslims?
I think that Liston, knowing he would be cut to pieces by the arrogant youngster hovering over him and yelling "Get up, you bum! Get up, you bum and fight!" simply bottled it, fearing he was again going to be badly hurt and humiliated. Like all bullies Liston was a coward at heart and in those 15 months following their first meeting Ali had grown up while Liston had simply grown old.
Six years later, Liston was found dead in mysterious circumstances at his Las Vegas home. The autopsy said natural causes despite syringe marks on his body and heroin in his blood. Whether he was deliberately injected by the Mob as a belated reprisal for his abject performances against Clay/Ali we will never know.
As for Ali, he has always maintained both fights were on the level. He is 68 now, and the lips that once spoke volumes are sadly silenced, his muscles wracked by the effects of Parkinson's and 10 fights too many. The last time we spoke was at ringside in Las Vegas over a decade ago. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see the shuffling, shaking figure of Muhammad. He bent and whispered in my ear: "It ain't the same any more, is it?"
"No, champ," I replied. "It ain't."
Sadly, it never will be again.
The 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay's Olympic debut is marked by an exhibition by award-winning photographer Michael Gaffney. Muhammad Ali: The Champ is at Proud Chelsea from 3 September to 3 October. Visit www.proud.co.ukReuse content