Why Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston remains the most anticipated, watched and controversial bout in boxing history
By Margot Melcon, Dramaturg
Lewiston, Maine, was not the first place that boxers Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston faced off across a ring. When their first bout took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, Liston was the World Heavyweight Champion. He had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary while serving time for armed robbery, and his boxing career was managed by a one-time hit man who ran boxing interests for the Mafia.
Cassius Clay was a fast-talking 22-year-old challenger who had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. The signatures of Clay’s style – constant movement and a tendency to keep his hands low and lean away from punches – were viewed as fundamental flaws that would be quickly exploited by an experienced, hard-hitting heavyweight like Liston.
At the opening bell of the Liston-Clay fight in Miami, an angry Liston charged Clay, looking to end the fight quickly and decisively. Clay’s superior speed and movement were immediately evident, as he slipped most of Liston’s lunging punches, making the champion look awkward. After six rounds, Liston refused to leave his corner when the bell sounded, and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout.
There were allegations of a fix as soon as the fight ended, but a month-long investigation brought no evidence to support the claim. The unexpected ending of the bout took on even more suspicious overtones when it was discovered that the two fighters had a rematch clause in their contract. Many argued that Liston had more to gain financially from losing the first bout and fighting a rematch than he did from winning.
On February 27, 1964, just days after the first Liston-Clay fight, Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. Clay began going by the name Cassius X until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay would be renamed Muhammad Ali.
State boxing commissions were reluctant to license the controversial rematch, but it was decided that the fight would take place November 16, 1964, in Boston. However, the bout was delayed, rescheduled and moved, until finally it landed on May 25, 1965, in a small city in Maine, located 35 miles north of Portland.
The atmosphere surrounding the second fight was tense, largely due to the repercussions of Ali’s public embrace of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, who had a public falling out with Elijah Muhammad, had been assassinated several months before the fight; the men arrested for his murder were members of the Nation of Islam. Rumors circulated that Ali might be killed by Malcolm’s supporters in retaliation. The FBI took the threats seriously enough to post a guard around Ali. Liston’s camp claimed he had received death threats from the Nation of Islam. Security for the fight was unprecedented.
Due to the remote location and the fear of violence, only 2,434 fans were present in the 4,900-seat arena, a community ice-hockey rink, setting the all-time record for the lowest attendance for a heavyweight championship fight. Fetch Clay, Make Man begins just days before their epic rematch.
The Making of an Icon
Stepin Fetchit and Muhammad Ali
By Margot Melcon, Dramaturg
Lincoln Perry was an American comedian and actor who, in the 1920s and 30s, was one of the highest paid actors working in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was the first black actor to become a millionaire, working alongside some of the most famous early motion picture artists. He was a shrewd negotiator, a brilliant strategist, hard working and deliberate. But he was known throughout his life as the iconic and controversial character he created: the lazy, shiftless, mumbling Stepin Fetchit.
Perry was a master at the creation of his image. The outward persona of Stepin Fetchit very little resembled the man, but was crafted so convincingly that the world believed that Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit were one and the same. In the early part of the 20th century, Perry’s options as a performer were limited by where artists of color were able to perform and by America’s perception of black men. He took those perceptions, used them, exaggerated them, exploited them to his advantage and made a career of playing with image in a way, and in a larger and more accessible medium, than any other black actor had before. For this, Perry was vilified, at the time and for years to come, said by many to embody the negative stereotypes of black men. He was accused of being a tool of white oppression, an Uncle Tom, and of holding black culture back by presenting an unflattering and shallow view of an entire population.
Similarly, when Cassius Clay came out as a boxer in the early 1960s, his outspoken bragging and playful way with words – and his insistence that others recognize his physical prowess and good looks – outraged people across the country. He was loud and proud and an intimidating 6’3,” 215-pound young black man who hit people for a living. But Clay was also fiercely charming, extremely hard working, intelligent, devout, loyal and, in his private life, a modest and thoughtful man.
Clay came of age during the Civil Rights era, a time of great transition that had many people deeply invested in who would represent black Americans. Emerging from the shadows of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Minister Malcolm X, Cassius Clay infamously became Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali; a spokesperson for many black Americans, he perfectly executed the role he played in the public eye.
“Ali cultivated an image that was the warrior and the politician. It seems to be in juxtaposition to what the image that Stepin Fetchit was doing, but they were both doing something that was very important,” commented director Derrick Sanders to the cast and creative team at the first rehearsal for Fetch Clay, Make Man. “How do you keep that core of yourself as you try to cultivate an image to move people forward, whether it’s through laughter or through fighting?”
Both Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit were cultural icons in a shifting America. They both made choices about who they were, as public figures and as private men. Both had people around them who wanted to shape and form their identities, some with righteous motives and some exploitative. Despite manipulation coming from all sides, each man was able to maintain a sense of self as well as a savvy understanding of how the persona they presented was moving society forward.