Sonny Liston never got Muhammad Ali.
Well before Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, the loose-limbed upstart from Louisville, Kentucky, struck Liston as a sideshow act -- a disrespectful youngster who demeaned the ring with his antics.
Of course, it would be Liston who'd go down in history as demeaning the ring thanks to his twin surrenders to Ali -- the first in Miami in 1964, when he gave boxing its first "no mas" moment after six punishing rounds, and again the next year, when he went down a minute and 44 seconds into their rematch in Lewiston, Maine.
Liston would be cursed by those moments until he died in January 1971. Ali, by contrast, would be heroically defined by them -- thanks in no small part to the iconic photo that Neil Leifer snapped of him standing over Liston in Lewiston, yelling, "Get up and fight, sucker."
Liston never played to the crowd, not in his life and not in the nearly fifty years since his death. He was surly, suspicious and conventional in his view of how a champion should act. He molded himself on Joe Louis, an American war icon who visited orphanages when he wasn't quietly shooting heroin. Liston never reached the public plateaus that Louis did. But even when America hated him -- and for the first half of the 1960s, it really did -- he still aspired to be like his idol.
That's why he had such a hard time fathoming Cassius Clay's brand of showmanship. In February 1964, after Clay had gone around taunting Liston as an "ugly bear," he pulled up to Liston's home in Denver past midnight in a bus and blared the horn in an attempt to get a rise out of the champ. When Liston didn't bite, Clay walked up to his windows with a flashlight to peer inside. Seven police cruisers and a K-9 unit had to be called after Liston's neighbors in the mostly white suburb called 911 to complain.
The odds were 7-1 in Liston's favor when the two fought in Miami, but by the beginning of the seventh round, when Sonny spit out his mouthpiece, Clay was the one gaining confidence -- in his skills and his ability to command an audience. Liston was favored again in their 1965 rematch, which was why his first-round fall was met with cries of "fix."
Both wins are viewed today as transformational -- in the generational sense that they ushered in a new era in boxing, and the personal sense that they forever bound the men in those moments. But in Ali's day, those wins were seen as too flawed to be predictive of anything for Ali except, perhaps, an eventual career in professional wrestling.
When Ali came back from a three-year suspension in 1970, Joe Louis' former trainer, Mannie Seamon, wrote in The Ring magazine, "Clay was a fine fighter in his time. But take him out of the field in which he won and defended the heavyweight championship and he has to be flawed. ... A great fighter has to observe certain laws of leverage and balance. Clay won despite ignoring this, in some cases to a great extent."
In light of that, it was even harder to imagine how Ali would globalize boxing in the forthcoming closed-circuit age. In October 1970, before he climbed into the ring against Jerry Quarry, Ali spoke to George Plimpton, who would recall:
"Ali said he was thinking about all the people in Japan and Turkey and Russia, all over the world; how they were beginning to think about the fight and about him; and the television sets being clicked on; and the traffic jams in front of the closed-circuit theaters; and how the big TV trucks out in back of the Atlanta arena, just by the stage door were getting their machinery warmed up to send his image by satellite to all those people; and how he was going to dance for them."
Liston died without getting to see Ali's vision come true. And, right up until the end, he never got Ali.
Sonny's last fight was against Chuck Wepner at the Jersey City Armory in the summer of 1970. He knew his clock was ticking down, and he was savoring the moment in the locker room when he heard a roar go up outside. "It's Muhammad Ali," someone said, and all the reporters around Sonny bolted for the door.
Turning to his friend, the former heavyweight champion of the world dropped his head and growled, "That f---er just won't go away."
Shaun Assael is a member of ESPN's Investigations Unit. His new book, The Murder of Sonny Liston, will be published in October by Blue Rider Press.