Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

This week (Feb. 25) in 1964, the heavyweight fighter considered the greatest of all time first became heavyweight champ when his opponent, Sonny Liston, called it quits before the seventh round of their historic fight in Miami, Florida. The new champ was Cassius Clay, a 22-year-old African American from Louisville, Kentucky, whose first full day as champion would be his last as Cassius Clay. On February 26th he announced that he had joined the Islamic faith. Not long after he officially became Muhammad Ali, the name by which the world knows him today.

On fight night, Clay was a seven-to-one underdog, and few expected him to last one round against Liston, a huge, menacing man with a powerful punch that had demolished his previous opponents.  Years later, Ali admitted that even he was scared of Liston that night, and this was before he learned that one reporter covering the fight had been instructed by his editors to memorize the route to the nearest hospital so he could be the first reporter there when Clay was rushed into the emergency room.

Yet from the opening round on that muggy Miami night it was clear that Clay was a new kind of fighter.  Minutes into the fight Liston thought he had Clay cut off and threw a left that should have floored his young opponent — except that Clay wasn’t there.  He had easily danced way, causing Liston to miss by two feet. Clay countered with a jab to Liston’s forehead, repeating the dance-and-jab — what he called his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” style — for the next six rounds until Liston, his eyes puffy and his face bloody, couldn’t take anymore. “That’s it,” he told his trainers, ending the fight.

Realizing he had won, Clay jumped up, ran around the ring, and then headed for the reporters sitting at ringside. “Eat your words!” he screamed at the assembled media, which had unanimously predicted he would lose. “I am king of the world!”

He would remain king of the fight world for 16 years, becoming the first boxer to gain the heavyweight title three different times. He also would become the only boxer ever to regain his title after defeating the (huge, menacing) U.S. government, which had attempted to strip him of his title and jail him for refusing induction into the army on religious grounds.  The Supreme Court ruled in Ali’s favor in 1971.

Even today, slowed by age and Parkinson’s disease from so many punches, Ali in a very real sense remains “king of the world.”  His name is arguably the most recognized of any living person on Earth — and it has been 30 years since he last entered the ring.