Denver, CO

Mohammad Ali shook up the world, starting at Sonny Liston's Denver home

Rick Zand

A legendary career began when newcomer Mohammed Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, fought champion Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. On February 25, 1964, Clay downed 8-1 favorite Liston in seven rounds. Suddenly the new heavyweight champion, Clay ran to the ropes, proclaiming, “I’m king of the world! I’m pretty! I’m a bad man! I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
Cassius Clay, "I shook up the world!"Photo byUnknown

It is the most iconic moment in boxing history, and it all started in Denver, Colorado. The night before the contract for the title match had even been signed, Clay ignited a firestorm by confronting Liston at his Denver home on Monaco Parkway. Liston by then had secured his place as heavyweight champion and lived in a predominantly white neighborhood near the old Stapleton Airport.

Prior to the encounter, when asked what he thought of Clay, Liston had responded, "If he comes to me, I'll kill him. And if he runs, I'll catch him and kill him."

Liston's threat should have been enough to keep Clay clear of the champion fighter. Nicknamed "The Big Bear," he is still considered the toughest, most intimidating boxer of all time. His stare alone was enough to frighten some boxers from even entering the ring. British champion Henry Cooper, who was also eligible for a title fight, stated that he would fight Clay, but not Liston. "We don't even want to meet Liston walking down the same street," Cooper's manager remarked.
Liston defeats Patterson for the heavyweight titlePhoto byScorum

Charles "Sonny" Liston was born to an impoverished sharecropper family in Arkansas somewhere around 1930, although his exact birthdate is not known. Many believe he was older than he claimed, perhaps by several years. One thing is for certain: Liston had a tough upbringing. He worked the fields starting at a young age. His father beat him mercilessly, and when the donkey died, young Sonny was forced to pull the plow in its place. "The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating," Liston once commented. "We hardly had enough food to keep from starving, no shoes, only a few clothes, and nobody to help us escape from the horrible life we lived."

As a young adolescent Liston eventually ran off to St. Louis to be with his mother. Unfortunately, the teenage Liston didn't find much opportunity there. He tried school, but proved illiterate. The menial jobs he could get left him underpaid and exploited. However, working the fields had made him big, strong and tough, and he looked it; the deep scars on his back from his father's beatings would never fade. Also, he could muster a mean stare that would frighten the most hardened thug. Liston soon found himself leading a gang in a string of armed robberies. Arrested in 1950, Liston was sentenced to five years at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Liston mowing the lawn of his Denver home. In Denver, he was hoping to create a normal life.Photo byunknown

In prison, no convict dared get near him. He had already thrashed anyone who tried. He was the meanest man in one of the country's hardest prisons. Spotting his potential, the prison athletic trainer got Liston into boxing. The young fighter showed so much promise that the prison administrators recommended him for early release. Liston was granted parole on October 31, 1952.

As professional boxing did not readily welcome criminals into its ranks, the only backers Liston could find were connected to the mob. For most of his career, his contract was owned by Frankie Carbo, a one-time hit man and senior member of the Lucchese crime family.

Outside of the ring, Liston's trouble with the law continued. On May 5, 1956, Liston assaulted a St. Louis police officer. He broke the cop's knee, cut his face and stole his gun. On another occasion, Liston shoved an officer head-first into a trash can. Sonny was soon given the word that he should leave town or else, so he tried his luck in Philadelphia. While there, he was arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and impersonating a police officer.

Meanwhile, his career had rocketed. Liston didn't lose a fight for ten consecutive years, and from 1960-1962 served up nine knockout punches. Finally, On September 25, 1962, Liston defeated heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in a title bout in Chicago that lasted only two minutes and six seconds. He arrived back in Philly expecting a hero's welcome with hundreds waiting to greet him at the airport. Instead, no one showed up to celebrate the victory, perhaps because the press had constantly trashed the accomplished fighter over his growing rap sheet. So in 1963, Liston moved to Denver, hoping to start a respectable life now that he had money and fame. However, the Denver police surveilled him constantly. "For a while the Denver police pulled him over every day," said Ray Schoeninger, a former sparring partner.
Liston-Patterson rematch. Liston KO'd Patterson in 2:10.Photo byUnknown

Liston won a rematch with Patterson on July 22, 1963, knocking out the champ in two minutes and ten seconds. More than 1,500 people greeted Liston at Denver's Stapleton Airport when he arrived home from defending his heavyweight title. It was the moment of praise and acceptance that Liston had longed for his entire career. Unlike in Philly, Denver fans came out in droves to celebrate his victory.

So Cassius Clay showed a great deal of bravado purchasing a bus and emblazoning on its side, "LISTON WILL GO IN EIGHT!", then driving it from Chicago to Denver to confront the champ. At 3 a.m., with the press in tow, Clay showed up on Liston's front lawn. "Come on out of there. I'm gonna whip you now," he taunted. Liston emerged from his house looking genuinely enraged, and the two argued for an hour while onlookers prevented them from trading blows. As Clay later recalled, "He came out in his robe and he had a big stick. He said, 'You get out of my yard,' and I said, 'You big ugly bear you, I'm going to see you tomorrow at the signing and I'm going to knock you out in eight."
Clay confronts Liston in front of his Denver homePhoto byBettmann Archive/ Getty Images

In downtown Denver the following day, the two fighters signed a contract to fight for Liston's title. The trash talk didn't end there, however. "Sonny might be great, But he'll leave in eight," Clay announced at the press conference that followed. "If he wants to go to heaven, I'll get him in seven. He'll be in a worse fix if I get him in six and if he keeps talking jive, I'll get him in five."
Cassius Clay takes the heavyweight belt from Sonny ListonPhoto byAssociated Press

In Miami, on February 5, 1964, Clay fought Liston for the title. Liston failed to come out for the seventh round and Clay won by technical knockout. The following year, in Lewiston, Maine, Liston fought Clay, now calling himself Mohammad Ali, for a second time. The match did not survive past the first round, as midway through Liston fell to Ali's right hook. Many considered it a flop as it appeared that Ali had barely hit Liston, if at all. "It's fixed," angry fans shouted from the stands. Ali, refusing to return to his corner, stood over his collapsed opponent, yelling, "Get up and fight, sucker!"

Although Ali was declared the winner, the fight remains controversial to this day. Boxing officials violated the rules when they failed to perform a count, instead quickly declaring a it a knockout. Even Ali kept repeating, "Did I hit him?" and "No one's going to believe this!" Years later, Liston told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, "That guy [Ali] was crazy. I didn't want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn't hit."
Liston vs. Ali rematch: Was it a fix?Photo byAgence France Presse/Getty Images

Liston left Denver for Las Vegas shortly after his first loss to Clay. Before leaving the city, Liston had engaged in yet more run-ins with the law. On Christmas Day of 1964, prior to his final bout with Ali, Liston was pulled over for drunken driving and fought off ten Denver police officers before being arrested. It was his third driving violation in Denver that year. One previous arrest in March was for reckless driving, speeding and carrying a concealed weapon--a .22 revolver hidden in his coat pocket. Empty vodka bottles had littered the floor of the car.
The New York Times, December 26, 1964Photo byAssociated Press Wirephoto

Liston was found deceased in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971, by his wife, who was just returning from a trip. Like the rest of his life, Liston's death was mired in controversy. At first, it was thought a heroin overdose, but the coroner determined that there wasn't a lethal amount of it in his system. Officially, his death was attributed to lung congestion and heart failure, but some still believe he was murdered due to his mob connections.

Liston was buried at Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas. Inscribed in the marker, just beneath his name, is the lone dedication: A Man. Sonny Liston led a difficult life and could never overcome his demons. The story of Mohammad Ali continued as he fulfilled his destiny to become "The Greatest." But the end of one of boxing's most epic careers, and the beginning of another, started on a front lawn in northeast Denver.

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Rick Zand is a freelance writer who resides in Denver, Colorado. He has published articles, blogs and fiction for news outlets, newspapers, journals and anthologies.

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