They said time is fleeting. They didn’t commit perjury.
Fifty years can zip by quicker than a hiccup.
The clock is as fleet as Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, was 50 years ago this Tuesday when he shook up the world with an astonishing stoppage of the feared and seemingly invincible Sonny Liston.
I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school back then, a kid who grew up watching boxing on television with my old man.
Who knew that a decade or so later Ali and my paths would cross?
Muhammad moved his training camp to Deer Lake and as a young sportswriter for the then Reading Times, I interviewed Ali multiple times over the years.
He hardly was the bombastic public Ali in his quiet, personal moments. He often would chat with me in his dressing room, giving me a singular audience as if I were the star columnist for the New York Times.
To Ali, a reporter’s note-taking pen was pure magic, no matter how big his market.
How things have changed. The Reading Times is dead. Liston is dead. Ali is locked into the prison of Parkinson’s disease, the loquacious Louisville Lip silenced. Boxing, once such a big deal that Norman Mailer compared being the heavyweight champion of the world to being like the big toe of God, has become marginalized.
Years earlier, I had loved the brash swagger of Clay during his young professional career as he literally talked his way into a bout with Liston, who had a colossally powerful left jab and a right cross that detonated like an atomic bomb.
Liston swatted away challengers as if they were mere moths.
He won the title by dispatching champion Floyd Patterson in the first round and then also starched poor Floyd in the first round in their return bout.
Clay nicknamed Liston “The Big Bear” and stalked him as if the crazy challenger was indeed bear hunting. On one occasion Cassius was literally carrying a bear trap as he baited Liston.
When fight night arrived in Miami Beach, Clay was a 7-1 underdog. There were many people who actually thought Liston would kill him.
Besides being endowed with historic punching power in both hands, Liston was a classically skilled heavyweight with a killer’s instinct for blood.
Clay back then to boxing purists was a caricature of a contender, a mere court jester who did everything wrong.
Clay carried his left hand illogically low, which was considered to be an invitation to be murdered by a crushing Liston right hand. Clay often punched while moving backward, a tactic generally deemed to be pure suicide.
Who then knew that Ali indeed was as much of an artist as a fighter, a man blessed with extraordinary hand speed, foot speed, hand-eye coordination and reflexes — not to mention having the lithe flexibility of a limbo dancer?
Ali created a whole new style of boxing and he painted one magnificent portrait on Feb. 25, 1964.
The red tassels on his boxing shoes made his fleet feet seem even faster, and were the perfect accompaniment to the pop … pop … pop of his flashing, stinging jabs.
Liston kept charging like an angry bull after Clay in a desperate, flailing, futile attempt to gore the cocky challenger.
But Clay was a classic matador who totally controlled the fight, dancing and pivoting and firing a constant blur of punches that streaked faster than bullets.
It ended when a humbled Liston, suddenly aged by a decade or so and definitely now a defanged, shell of a bear, quit on his stool before the seventh round and with Clay racing toward the ropes and bellowing at the ringside reporters: “I fooled you … and you … and you … and you. I must be the greatest!”
Cassius Clay, who the next day would morph into Muhammad Ali, indeed was the greatest then.
And would become the greatest of all time.
Many Ali epic fights with Frazier, Foreman and Norton would ensue.
But for me, the most memorable, magical fight of Ali’s career was the shocking dismantling of Liston.
I listened to the fight on my transistor radio in my bedroom, transfixed and mesmerized … my mind somehow translating the words I was hearing into images dancing across my mind’s eye.
Those images were remarkably similar to what I saw days later when I caught a replay of the transcendent title fight at a local movie theater on Penn Street.
In retrospect, one other aspect of that historic evening strikes me with melodramatic force.
Excited over the enormity of Clay’s victory, I literally jumped down almost an entire flight of stairs to proclaim the news to my astonished father.
If tonight at 64 I tried that, I undoubtedly would end up in traction.
Damn that Father Time!