No matter how impressive the amateur credentials, or how good they look in the gym, you can never know what a prospect is made of before they are forced to confront a capable opponent who is determined to win. Until the young tyro is tested by an adversary with the experience and mettle to push them to the limit, the jury is out.
In the 1930’s, Jack Doyle of Ireland looked like a can’t-miss proposition, a star in the making. A huge heavyweight, a dangerous puncher, and a dashing celebrity who made the girls swoon, he had fourteen wins, all by knockout. But then he met equally huge Buddy Baer, who, in the first round, bounced Doyle off the canvas three times to force a stoppage. Another heavyweight who looked like the real deal was Duane Bobick, a much-decorated amateur champion. By 1977 he was 38-0 and headed for stardom, more than a few lauding him as the best prospect in the game. Then they matched him up with experienced contender Ken Norton; the end came in just 54 seconds, and that was pretty much the end of Bobick too.
Cassius Clay had won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1960 and then wasted no time in launching his pro career. He became a sensation, the boastful boxer that sports fans loved to hate. His ability to consistently predict the round when he would stop his opponents only added to his fame, as did a knockout win over all-time great Archie Moore, the last ring appearance of Moore’s long career. But the undefeated fighter with the fast hands and even faster mouth faced a formidable challenge when he was matched against contender Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden in New York. Clay vs Jones proved a difficult and pivotal bout in the career of the man who called himself “The Greatest,” a test that took all of Cassius’ skill and talent to pass.
Having competed for much of his career at 175 pounds, Jones was a relatively small heavyweight, but he had wins over a number of serious contenders, including Carl “Bobo” Olson, Zora Folley, and a young Bob Foster. Some ranked him as high as number two in the division, and while it appeared certain the undefeated Clay was on the fast track to a chance at Sonny Liston’s world title, insiders saw the Jones fight as a potential road-block. But at the same time, there was no denying Clay’s talent and so the oddsmakers pegged the bout as a 3-to-1 proposition in favor of “The Louisville Lip.”
Clay vs Jones became a hot ticket, the Garden selling out for a boxing match for the first time in over a decade. The big crowd reflected Clay’s rising status as a major attraction, but it was also the result of a concerted effort on the Olympian’s part to promote the fight, with the future champ telling anyone who would listen that Jones was “a bum” who would fall in round four. But these exertions took their toll. On fight night Clay told esteemed scribe Bob Waters, “Man, I’m tired … my mouth is tired.”
And indeed, soon after the bout began, all thoughts of an easy victory for Cassius vanished. In the first round, Jones landed a powerful right to Clay’s jaw that sent the younger man stumbling backwards and made clear to all that Jones was no one’s stepping stone. If Cassius wanted the win and his shot at Sonny Liston, he would have to earn it.
The sell-out crowd became increasingly agitated as the rounds passed, partly because the fight itself was a fast-paced and entertaining duel, but also because spectators sensed the possibility of an upset. Every time Jones landed a solid blow the fans cheered, while they booed Clay when the bell rang to end round four; the man who would soon be known as Muhammad Ali had failed to fulfill his bold prediction.
For seven fast-paced rounds it was a competitive match with Jones constantly moving forward, slipping the jab, counter-punching, and giving Clay more trouble than any of his previous opponents. But as the eighth got underway the future world champion raised his game. He needed to sweep the last three rounds to secure a clear-cut win and that’s exactly what Clay did as he picked up the pace, stinging Jones with sharp jabs and one-two’s and finishing the match strongly.
Make no mistake, Clay vs Jones was a competitive battle and a draw wouldn’t have been outrageous. But the two judges scored it for the undefeated youngster by a 5-4-1 margin, while the referee, clearly partial to the future legend’s flashy style, gave Clay eight rounds. The crowd, however, strongly disagreed and when the verdict was announced they booed and pelted the ring with garbage and peanuts. A defiant Clay saluted the angry mob and then walked to the center of the ring, picked up a couple of peanuts, and proceeded to shell and eat them.
The bout would be deemed “The Fight of the Year” by Ring magazine, and to this day some argue Jones really won it. But for young Clay, the significance of the win was less about how close he came to an upset and more that it proved he was something other than just a talented prospect with a big mouth. He showed he could go ten hard rounds with an experienced opponent, take some good shots, and come back in the late going with his guns blazing. Those who believed in the Olympian’s talent had every right to feel vindicated, to see this victory as solid proof of Clay’s worth. But the expectations were so high at the time that few saw it that way; he had failed to stop Jones, so a win was as good as a loss for many.
No matter: in his very next bout the man who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali stopped Henry Cooper in five rounds and the showdown with Liston was on. Meanwhile, for Jones, this was the pinnacle. He would go on to face other top heavyweights of the era, including Joe Frazier, but this contest defined him as the boxer who almost upset the “The Greatest,” before he was “The Greatest.” Immediately following, Clay gave Jones his props: “He’s a much better fighter than Liston,” he declared. At the time, the comment sounded preposterous, but viewed in the light of the fighters’ respective showings against “The Louisville Lip,” it proved completely accurate.
— Michael Carbert