A Critical Look at the Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston Fights

Many boxing scholars say that we never saw the best of Muhammad Ali in a fight but this is not necessarily true. In his absolute prime, from 1964-1967, he fought Sonny Liston at the age of 22. In facing Sonny Liston, he was facing a man destroyer with no regard for human life especially when it stepped into the ring. Sonny Liston was everything Mike Tyson wanted to be, but could not be because Tyson just did not have that meanness or lack of care.

With the first Liston fight, Ali used footwork to evade the angry rushes of Liston in a superb manner never seen before. When Liston would get too close, Ali would move his body from side to side to further confuse Liston. Liston had good footwork of his own, and a battering ram jab that was the best ever. His hands were not particularly fast, but he made up for it with good diverse punch placement and combination punches to the head and to the body.

Liston used head movement, not on the same level as Jack Dempsey, but still better than anyone else at the time. His jab and his hook were among the best of all time. And he could hook off his jab, even better than Ali could. That hook was such it was a natural follow-up to the jab. Liston did not have to wind up the hook or telegraph it to hit someone.

To counter the jab, Ali studied film until he realized that Liston’s eyes showed when he would jab. So he would look at his eyes, and would lean back and slightly off the side when Liston threw the left jab to the head. To counter the body jab, Ali would side-step around it quickly and then counter. He had the reflexes to do this and get away with it. Ali would throw 8-10 punch combinations, when Liston was accustomed to slipping and making a fighter miss one or two punches.

So Liston was getting hit, repeatedly, while not connecting with Ali at all.He was hitting air, and this was making him more tired, more frustrated, and more desperate. Therefore, Liston quit at the end of the 6th round, because he probably thought that his only option was to lose by knockout at the hands of the fastest fighter ever. Nat Fleischer, the noted boxing historian, said that the only man who could compare in defense was Jack Johnson, and the only two men who could compare in combination punching were Sugar Ray Robinson and Benny Leonard. So Liston was facing a child prodigy, but failed to realize it!