On Feb. 25, 1964, 50 years ago this week, Muhammad Ali won his first heavyweight championship at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.
The champion, Sonny Liston, had a 35-1 record heading into the bout, and had a pre-fight prediction that the contest would last a brief two rounds. Back then, the championship bouts were scheduled for 15 rounds, but that night it ended early. The bout finished with a dazed Liston on his stool in the sixth round unable to continue. Ali’s quick feet, superb lateral movement, and thunderous shots were too much for the champion.
He went on to defend his title 11 times before suffering his first career loss to Joe Frazier in March of 1971. Ali would reclaim the crown four years later against an undefeated George Foreman in their classic “Rumble in the Jungle,” and he would defend the title another 10 times before finally losing it to Leon Spinks in 1978. In a rematch later that year, he would win the title back, but would never successfully defend it again. He lost his next fight to Larry Holmes via 10th round TKO.
Ali is widely considered one of the greatest athletes of the last century, and perhaps the greatest heavyweight of all time. His impact inside the ring was nothing short of legendary, but outside it was even greater. Ali refused to enter the draft, and was subsequently stripped of his boxing license in all states. He would fight again, but not before having his voice heard. He spoke publicly during this time and gained substantial support for his views on such issues as racial justice, the war in Vietnam, and human rights.
It was during those years when Ali cemented his legacy and truly became much bigger than any sports figure. He changed what it meant to be an athlete in the public eye by using his powerful influence to promote what he felt was most important outside of the ring.
Happy Anniversary, Champ!