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Cassius Clay’s victory vs. Sonny Liston meant everything to dispirited teen

For the Sun-Times

I was too wired to sleep when I got home from a basketball game the other night, so I spun the television dial and settled on ESPN Classic.

And there it was, for probably the 12th time: Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, Feb. 25, 1964, from Miami Beach, Florida.

That fight is like ‘‘The Godfather,’’ ‘‘The Sting’’ or ‘‘The Shawshank Redemption’’ to me: I recognize every plot twist, I know how it turns out, I’ve memorized much of the dialogue. But no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I watch every time it pops up on the screen.

Boxing then had lost some of its mainstream stature post-Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, but being heavyweight champ still meant something. Unlike today, when almost nobody knows who the champ is — or cares.

ESPN Classic’s typical boxing offering is grainy black-and-white footage of Gene Fullmer mauling Carmen Basilio with Don Dunphy at ringside, but this program offered more. A panel discussion took place between rounds, and as the pundits assessed each man’s place in boxing history, it dawned on me: 51 years. It was the 51-year anniversary of Clay vowing to shake up the world and doing just that with a stunning stoppage of the fearsome Liston. And he was just getting started.

I watch partly because it’s a joy to see Ali as he was, a brash peacock in a world of dull porcupines. He had style. He had swagger. He could talk. He could dance. And, man, could he fight.

The boxing cognoscenti were late to that realization and gave him no chance against Liston, a brooding thug who had done time for the carnage he had caused as an anti-union leg-breaker before boxing gave him a legal outlet for hammering people. Sonny won the title and retained it with two brutal bombings of gentleman Floyd Patterson that required two rounds total.

The childhood deprivations Liston had endured and overcome might have made him a sympathetic figure in the hyper-mediatized world of today, but his prison record trumped everything else in his background at a time when many black athletes were viewed with suspicion and admiration was grudging at best.

Thus, Sonny was hardly the people’s champion, but he was a national hero when measured against Clay, who would turn white America apoplectic with two acts of defiance unthinkable for an athlete. He announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam — the Black Muslims — and insisted he be known as Muhammad Ali rather than Cassius Clay, his ‘‘slave name.’’ Then he cited religion in refusing to enter military service, risking prison and sacrificing nearly four of his peak career years as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

Those were indefensible positions in the working-class, mostly white world I inhabited as a teenager, but I didn’t care. He’d been my guy as Cassius Clay, and he’d be my guy as Muhammad Ali. I kind of felt I owed him.

I see what boxing has done to Ali, and I can’t justify my affinity. It’s a guilty pleasure, more lethal than smoking or red meat, and passed down from my father, who worked security at various venues to augment his policeman’s salary and got to know some of the fighters.

Patterson was his guy — mostly, I suspect, because he had converted to Catholicism shortly after becoming heavyweight champ. Pops had a cop’s antipathy for Liston’s criminal past, but Clay’s preening braggadocio was just as grating to his working man’s sensibilities. And if a pro such as Patterson couldn’t stand up to Sonny’s thunder, what chance did an arrogant, clueless kid have?

Two weeks before we would find out my father died of a massive stroke. He was 51 and left a wife and seven kids, including a middle child of 13 who was devastated, scared and lost. What would become of us?

I found the fight on the radio and, mindful of the predictions, half-expected a Liston blowout to deepen my gloom. But as I listened to Les Keiter’s dramatic call of Clay’s clever dissection of the ponderous bully, my mood brightened. I wouldn’t say I believed in miracles 16 years before Al Michaels famously asked the question, but I began to feel better just when I’d come to wonder if I ever would.

I’ve been grateful to ‘‘The Champ’’ ever since.

I think my father might have come around on Ali, too. He was like that.