“I don’t have a mark on my face and I upset Sonny Liston and I just turned 22 years old; I must be the greatest!”
Those were the immortal words uttered by Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami, Fla., fresh off upsetting a heavily favored Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship of professional boxing.
By dethroning the reigning champion, Clay became the youngest man to win the heavyweight title, a distinction he would own for over twenty years until Mike Tyson burst onto the scene.
Four years removed from winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome as a light heavyweight, Clay became the top contender to Liston’s title by amassing a record of 19-0 with 15 knockouts.
Light on his feet and quick with his hands, Clay was an unconventional heavyweight who brimmed with confidence even after being knocked down in his two fights prior to facing Liston, whose penchant for early-round knockouts had already become legendary.
However, the Louisville, Ky. native defied most boxing experts by confounding the lumbering champion with a dazzling array of blinding combinations and fancy footwork.
By the end of the sixth round, Liston’s right eye was severely swollen and his left eye was significantly compromised due to a cut.
Complaining of a shoulder injury, Liston shockingly failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, giving Clay the victory by technical knockout (TKO), and ushering in a new era in boxing.
The week after the fight, Clay, who had joined the Nation of Islam, would change his name to Muhammad Ali and go on to achieve international superstardom for standing tall in the ring and standing up for what he believed out of it.
After defeating Liston in a rematch via second-round TKO in 1965 and subsequently defending the Heavyweight Championship eight times, Ali was stripped of the title and had his boxing license suspended in 1967 for refusing to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs.
Ali’s refusal to serve in the Army resulted in a jury finding him guilty of a felony that was punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
For this stance, Ali would lose three prime years of his professional boxing career as the appeals process was being litigated.
However, during this period sentiment against the Vietnam War and support for Ali increased proportionately.
With the help of a Georgia senator, Ali was allowed to resume his career in 1970, and it was in this second stage of his career that Ali cemented his status as one of greatest fighters in boxing history.
Ali’s trilogy of fights with Joe Frazier, the first dubbed "The Fight of the Century" and the last "The Thrilla in Manila," as well as his upset victory over George Foreman in a bout famously known as "The Rumble in the Jungle," reestablished Ali’s technical brilliance and transformed him into a global icon who transcended the sport.
When Ali retired in 1981, he had defeated every top heavyweight boxer of his era and was one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
Ali walked away from the squared circle with a career record of 56-5, with 37 of those victories coming by way of knockout.
Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali has remained an active and beloved public figure to this day.
46 years ago, Ali boldly declared he was the greatest after he defeated Sonny Liston when many had doubted he could even go the distance with the feared brawler.
Now, Ali and the nickname "The Greatest" are completely and unequivocally synonymous.