Feb. 25, 2022

Cassius Clay Becomes Heavyweight Champion of the World

Cassius Clay Becomes Heavyweight Champion of the World

February 25, 1964. A young Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight champion of the world.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s February 6th, 1967 in Houston, Texas.

A record-breaking crowd has filled the Houston Astrodome to watch two powerhouse black athletes go head to head. As he waits for the eighth round to start, Muhammad Ali glares across the ring at his opponent: Ernie Terrell, a 6 foot 6 giant from Chicago’s South side.

Terrell has something that belongs to Ali: the World Boxing Association’s title of heavyweight champion of the world. Ali never lost it to Terrell or anyone else in his 27 previous matches. But last year, the World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his title after he joined a controversial religious and political organization called the Nation of Islam. Today, Ali intends to take the title back.

As the eighth round starts, Ali gets aggressive. He throws a jab. Then another. And another. And each time, he punctuates his punches with the words, “what’s my name?” As he punishes Terrell with his fists, he yells over and over again: “what’s my name?” Ali is in total control of the fight, but Terrell refuses to go down. So for seven more rounds, Ali will make him suffer.

At the pre-fight press conference, Ernie Terrell called Ali by his given name “Cassius Clay”. Ali renounced Cassius Clay as a “slave name” when he joined the Nation of Islam. Many view the Nation as an extremist, anti-white cult. But for Ali, the Nation is unapologetically pro-black at a time when black people are still fighting for basic freedoms in the United States. Before the fight, Alli asked Terrell, “Why do you call me Clay? You know my right name is Muhammad Ali.” Terrell replied, “I met you as Cassius Clay. I’ll leave you as Cassius Clay.” Ali responded by calling Terrell an Uncle Tom.

When the fight is over, the judges unanimously declare Ali the winner, making him the undisputed heavyweight champion once again. But long before he took back the title as Muhammad Ali, he was a young up-and-comer desperate to be the heavyweight champ, a feat that he would achieve for the first time years earlier on February 25th, 1964.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 25th: Cassius Clay Becomes Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Act One: From the Olympics to Heavyweight Contender

It's 1960 in Louisville, Kentucky, almost four years before Cassius Clay’s first title fight. The 18-year-old Clay holds a gold medal in his hand and stares out over the Ohio River.

He recently returned from the Rome Olympics a champion boxer. He was proud to bring the gold home for his country and hoped that honor might finally win him some respect as a Black man in his hometown.

And when he arrived back in Louisville, he recited a poem to a crowd of adoring fans:

"To make America the greatest is my goal,

So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.

And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.

Italians said, ‘You’re better than the Cassius of old."

Cassius was so proud of his medal, he even wore it to bed. But one day, with the medal hanging around his neck, he was refused service at a segregated restaurant, a stark reminder that even winning gold means nothing, that in the eyes of his country, he is still a second-class citizen.

Today, as he stands near the river, Clay looks at the medal in his hands. It no longer fills him with pride, but rather anger and shame. So he walks to the middle of a bridge over the Ohio. Without a word, Clay throws his gold medal into the water. It did not earn him the respect he feels he deserves. So instead, Clay vows to demand respect. 


It’s March 13th, 1963 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, almost one year before Clay’s first title fight.

Clay is now 17-0. He is gaining a reputation for his speed and power. But he’s also earned a nickname, “The Louisville Lip” for his braggadocious swagger. Clay consciously cultivates an arrogant persona, modeling it after an infamous professional wrestler named Gorgeous George. Clay understands that in boxing, the real goal isn't to win fights but to sell out seats, and playing the role of “heel” is one way to do that. Love him or hate him, plenty of people will buy tickets just to see what he does next. So Clay tells anyone who will listen that he is unbeatable, and given his record, it’s starting to look that way. But his undefeated record means nothing to him. What Clay wants is a chance to fight for the heavyweight title.

Tonight, in an effort to prove his readiness, Clay is facing off against Doug Jones. Jones is a veteran boxer with years of pro-fighting under his belt.  But Clay continues his habit of predicting knockouts in early rounds. Before tonight’s fight, Clay told Jones he would knock him out in four. But Jones, the number three ranked fighter, isn’t going down so easy. And as the fight drags on, Jones is standing strong, leaving Clay mentally and physically deflated.

At the end of the seventh round, Clay’s trainer warns him. If he doesn’t pull off a comeback, he can say goodbye to the heavyweight title, and to another goal, Clay has in mind: buying a brand new bright red Cadillac convertible which he plans to call Tomato Red.

So at the start of the 8th round, Clay comes out energized. He thinks to himself, “Goodbye Dougie. Hello Tomato Red.”

In front of a sellout crowd, Clay quickly takes control of the fight. He lands 21 punches in the eighth round. 22 in the ninth. And in the tenth and final round, he unleashes a relentless 101 punches, landing 42.

When the final bell rings, the crowd roars. The judges give the win to Clay in a unanimous decision.

But many of the fans in the arena are furious. They came to see Doug Jones triumph. These angry fans rain beer cups, programs, peanuts, and even a switchblade knife onto the ring.

After the fight, Jones demands a rematch, but Clay says no. He only wants to fight the heavyweight champion saying, “I am gunning for Sonny Liston. I want that big bear bad.”

But that fight will have to wait. The next day, Clay is still exhausted. His right hand is swollen and his ribs are bruised. And on the way to the airport to fly home to Louisville, he begins to ponder opportunities outside of boxing. He is only 21 years old and a rising celebrity. Perhaps there’s a way to achieve fame and fortune, without sacrificing his body in the process.

But Clay is a long way from retirement. And now that he’s beaten Doug Jones, he is a clear contender for the heavyweight title. Quitting now is not an option.

Because not long after Clay’s win over Doug Jones, Sonny Liston’s manager announces that Liston will give Clay the fight he has been yearning for. Clay has been calling himself “The Greatest” to anyone who will listen. Now he will have to prove it.

Act Two: “I Shook the World”

It’s the middle of the night on November 4th, 1963. Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston is awoken by a knock at his door. He then hears the honk of a horn outside and sees headlights flashing on and off through the window. Liston is confused, but he’s not afraid. He’s 6 foot 1 and served time for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer. There’s very little that scares him.

So Liston gets up and goes to his front door. When he opens it, he sees a red and white bus covered with signs that read “The Greatest”, “World’s Most Colorful Fighter,” and “Sonny Liston Will Go In Eight.”

Standing at the curb is Cassius Clay shouting at him. “Come on out of there! I’m going to whip you right now!”

Liston has little patience for Clay’s antics, and the white neighbors of his wealthy neighborhood have even less. Before long, seven police cars arrive and threaten with arrest. Clay boards his bus and drives away.

The next day, the two fighters hold a press conference and officially announce the fight the boxing world has been waiting for.


It’s February 25th, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida.

Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston stand face to face waiting for the bell to start the first round. As the two men stare each other down, Clay feels his heart pounding. But he refuses to show any fear. He puffs up his chest and stands tall. He can hardly believe this moment is real. He only hopes he can pull off the upset he’s been promising for over a year.

Clay is 19-0 with 15 knockouts, but he’s still an underdog in this fight. Liston is 35-1. His last loss was almost twenty years ago. He won his last two matches by first-round knockouts, including against the former heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson. Some sportswriters even worry that Liston’s dominance is so complete, it may be harmful to the sport of boxing. If fans know Liston is going to win, they might stop buying tickets. 

And today, the Convention Hall is only half full. Many fans felt tickets were overpriced, and most assume Clay is no match for Liston. But then there are also others who refuse to watch the fight on principle. 

Clay and Liston are both controversial figures who often speak out about issues related to race in America. Last year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many in the largely black congregation. Not long after, Liston remarked, “I am ashamed to be in America.”

Many white boxing fans bristled. And many more dislike Clay because of his supposed arrogance. And leading up to the fight today, Clay has drawn even more criticism because of his new relationship with the Nation of Islam, and its outspoken minister, Malcolm X.

But outside of the arena, the fight has drawn a historic audience. The match is being broadcast to hundreds of thousands of viewers all across the country, the largest ever for a boxing match. And thanks to the National Aeronautics and Space Association, or NASA, this is also the first sporting event broadcast live across the Atlantic.

When the first round starts, Liston comes charging at Clay, ready to shut him up after months of insults and bragging. The crowd is expecting to see Liston powerfully demolish Clay in seconds. But Clay is quick. He dances and ducks. But then Clay really shocks the crowd when he shows them he can do more than dodge. Clay hits Liston with a left jab and then lands a powerful right cross.

The bell rings ending the first round, and Clay has not only lasted longer than expected, he is winning.

As the fight continues, the press is in shock. Over the last three and a half years, Liston’s fights lasted a total of six rounds combined. Tonight, Clay is making him work.

In the sixth round, Clay runs circles around Liston who looks tired and slow, but Clay doesn't. He hits Liston with a furious flurry of punches, and when the round ends, Liston hobbles slowly back to his corner. His eyes are swollen. He can’t seem to raise his left arm. A minute later, the bell rings to start the seventh round. Clay bursts from his corner, overflowing with confidence. But Liston doesn’t move.

Recognizing Liston is done, the referee lifts Clay’s arm into the air, declaring him the winner. Clay is jubilant, defiant, and cocky as ever. He declares for the TV cameras, “I’m the greatest fighter who ever lived!” and then he shouts over and over, “I shook up the world!”

Many had hoped Liston would have shut Clay up and push him out of the spotlight for good. But instead, Clay won a resounding victory and proved to the world he’s not going anywhere and he’s never shutting up.

In the coming weeks, Clay will reiterate his support for the Nation of Islam. And not long after, he accepts a new name from the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. From that day forward, he declares he will forever be known as Muhammad Ali. Soon after, the World Boxing Association announces they are stripping Ali of his title. But Ali will not be silenced. In 1966, he refuses to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. In 1967, he will take back the heavyweight title that he was stripped of. And over the next decade, he will continue to speak out for racial equality. He will also accrue one of the most dominant records in the history of boxing.

Act Three: Ali’s Decline

It’s October 1st, 1975 in the Philippines.

After a grueling Technical-Knockout win over Joe Frazier, 33-year-old Muhammad Ali faces a crowd of reporters. He tries to put his exhaustion into words, saying “I’m sore all over. My arms, my face, my sides all ache. I’m so, so tired.”

Over the past decade, since his upset win over Sonny Liston, Ali has fought 30 matches. He’s won all but two of them. But his body has absorbed thousands of hits. His family, supporters, and friends have begged him to give up boxing. And tonight, after a draining win, Ali admits it might be time, saying, “There is a great possibility that I will retire. You might have seen the last of me.”

But still, Ali will fight, returning to the sport after several retirement announcements.

On December 11th, 1981, almost 18 years after winning his first heavyweight title, Ali enters the ring for the last time. The fight takes place on the island of Nassau. Because over concerns of Ali’s health, no one will sanction the fight in the United States. And sure enough, Ali struggles throughout the match, and after ten rounds, he loses to Trever Berbick by unanimous decision.

After the fight, Ali tells reporters in a slow and quiet voice, “At least I didn’t go down.”

Sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney will later write that watching the fight was, “like watching a king riding into permanent exile…”

Ali did not suffer injury in the fight, but his body kept the score of his decades-long boxing career. Three years later, in 1984, Muhammad Ali announces that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system. It's widely agreed that the disease is a result of brain damage sustained from boxing.

In 1996, Ali is given the honor of lighting the flame at the Atlanta Olympic Games. And in one of the final medal ceremonies, Ali receives a gold medal to replace the one he threw away decades earlier.

Twenty years later, on June 3rd, 2016, Muhammad Ali passes away. Over the course of his career, Ali went from dismissed underdog to global icon, the only boxer to be a heavyweight champion three times; a journey that began when he won his first title against Sonny Liston on February 25th, 1964.


Next on History Daily.February 28th, 1986, Olof Palme, Swedish prime minister, is assassinated on the streets of Stockholm. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.