Black History Month: Cassius Clay’s Metamorphosis

On this final Friday of Black History Month, we honor one of the most celebrated athletes and civil rights icons of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali. Today, February 25, marks the anniversary of the bout that catapulted Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—into worldwide fame.

When 22-year-old Clay stepped into the ring to take on reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, he was an 8-1 underdog. Liston had a deadly left hook with the power of a freight train. However, for this match, Liston had trained minimally and had won his previous three matches by first-round knockout, meaning he had competed less than six total minutes in the previous three years.

The first few rounds were pretty evenly split between Clay and Liston. By the sixth round, Clay landed combination after combination and Liston was quite literally against the ropes. When the bell rang to start the seventh round, Liston spit out his mouthpiece, indicating he could not continue. Clay won by technical knock-out.

Two days after becoming the heavyweight champion, Clay publicly announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam (though in fact he had quietly joined years before). Soon after, he adopted the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali and Liston had a rematch bout in 1965 that became one of the most infamous moments in any sport, both for its Cassius Clay Boxing chaotic finish and the iconic photograph taken by Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer. At the moment Ali knocked Liston down in the first round and defiantly delayed going to a neutral corner, Leifer snapped the picture shown on the right. Many of those in attendance at the Lewiston, Maine, arena had not even taken their seats when the match ended. There was confusion—had Liston taken a dive or had he not heard the referee count him down? Either way, the match was over and Ali retained his title for a time.

The brash, charismatic and supremely skilled Ali dominated heavyweight boxing for the next decade, despite being stripped of his title and suspended from boxing during his peak competitive years for conscientiously objecting to the military draft. Ali’s decision alienated many, but garnered support from unexpected quarters, including Dr. Martin Luther King who described it as an “act of courage.”

Cassius Clay Olympics Though he was sometimes a controversial figure, over the years Ali became a beloved global ambassador for sport. He was at the center of another iconic sports moment at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. There was speculation before the opening ceremony about who would light the torch. When Ali appeared and waved to the crowd, there was a tremor in his hand. He paused, steadied himself and lit the torch, while the world collectively gasped and simultaneously cheered. It was a thrilling moment—the Champ was back.

We have been honored to share these stories during Black History Month and we hope you have enjoyed reading them! Stay tuned for March where we will be celebrating Women’s History Month and highlighting influential Colorado women each week on the blog.

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