The 50th Anniversary of Clay vs. Liston and the Search for MMA Transcendence

If the world were a just place, there are a few dates in fighting history that would be national holidays. Kids would say home from school and adults would stay home from work, and the entire family would gather around the television to watch reruns of old fights on ESPN Classic. Songs would be sung and boxing gloves would be handed out as gifts and combination drills would be run through like church rituals. We would all fast, like it was Yom Kippur, not out of contrition for our sins but because we would have to make weight by evening, and throttling our siblings would not only be condoned but encouraged.

There aren’t many fighting dates that would make the cut, but the few that could are seminal moments in our national history. Like June 22, 1938, when Joe Louis blasted Max Schmeling and Nazi hopes all to pieces. On that day we’d celebrate the joys of racial pluralism. Or like Feb. 11, 1990, the night Buster Douglas shocked the world by beating Mike Tyson. We would spend that day celebrating the triumph of the underdog. But the biggest holiday in the fighting year would undoubtedly be Feb. 25, 1964, the day Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston . Today is the 50th anniversary of that great moment in sporting history, and from this point forward children should be forced to recite this poem, written by Clay before the fight, in front of all their relatives:

                                    Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
                                If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat.

                                                             Clay swings with a left,
                                                            Clay swings with a right,
                                                Just look at young Cassius carry the fight.

                                         Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room,
                                             It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom.

                                          Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
                                           And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring.

                                                Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown,
                                          But he can't start counting until Sonny comes down.

                                   Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
                          But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic.

                                         Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight,
                                   That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.

                               Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,
                                               That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

Cassius Clay’s victory signaled the birth of a new generation, not just in boxing but in the culture. Like JFK’s election in 1960 or the arrival of the Beatles at Kennedy Airport just three weeks before Clay’s victory, Ali’s (for he was to declare himself Ali just after the fight) win over Liston represented a seismic shift in the American landscape. The significance of the fight transcended mere boxing. It signaled the start of a new, conscious era of cultural liberation—the 60s—and Ali represented that era as a new kind of cultural hero: a brash, divisive, thrilling, unapologetic black man who refused to play nice or beg for his rights. In the process he transcended commonly and dearly held notions of how black fighters were supposed to act (like Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson) and, as a consequence, who black people were suppose to be to stay in the (barely) good graces of white America. As soon as Ali became champion he began his long walk to cultural hero, ideological martyr, and transformative figure. He changed his name, he announced his conversion to Islam, he refused to serve in Vietnam, he knocked out George Foreman in Zaire, and he carried the Olympic torch as the perfect embodiment of the transformative power of sports. But no one would have cared if he hadn’t beaten Sonny Liston 50 years ago today.

At this point, MMA fans can only hope for those kinds of transcendent moments, the moments that call for the shutting of schools and the singing of songs,. Doubtless the arrival of Ronda Rousey in the UFC was an important step, and there are any number of fights that are important markers in the evolution of the sport. But MMA is still looking for those transformative moments that  go beyond the sport and spread out into the greater culture, dragging it kicking and screaming into a new world. 

Check out these related stories:

Nelson Mandela: The Fighter's Fighter

World Heavyweight Boxing Champ Vitali Klitschko Is Leading the Opposition Party in Ukraine