No matter how talented, how impressive their amateur credentials, or how good they may look in the gym, you can never know for sure what a young boxing prospect is made of until they are truly tested by an opponent with the experience and mettle to push them to their limit. And sometimes, the seeming “sure thing” doesn’t pass the test.
In the 1930’s, Jack Doyle of Ireland looked like a huge star in the making, a dangerous heavyweight puncher and a dashing celebrity who made the girls swoon. He had 14 wins, all by knockout, but in his first serious match, Buddy Baer finished him inside of one round. Another young heavyweight who excited the crowds was Duane Bobick, a much-decorated amateur champion, and in the mid-70’s some saw him as the best prospect in the game. Then they matched him with Ken Norton; the bout was over in just 54 seconds and that was pretty much the end of Bobick.
Cassius Clay had won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1960 and then wasted no time in embarking on a pro career. He became a sensation, the boastful boxer that many sports fans loved to hate, but there was no denying his athletic gifts or the fact he made the turnstiles sing. 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 fight of Moore’s career. But it was at Madison Square Garden in New York that Clay was faced with his first true test as he was matched against experienced contender Doug Jones. It would prove to be a pivotal bout in the career of the man who called himself “The Greatest.”
Having competed for much of his career at 175 pounds, Jones was a relatively small heavyweight, but he owned wins over a number of formidable opponents, including Bob Foster, Carl “Bobo” Olson and Zora Folley. He was ranked by some as high as number two in the division, and while it appeared certain the undefeated Clay would soon get a chance at Sonny Liston’s world title, the boxing insiders saw the Jones fight as a serious test and a potential road-block. At the same time though, there was no denying Clay’s talent and the oddsmakers pegged it as a three-to-one proposition in favour of “The Louisville Lip.”
Despite Clay’s expected dominance, Madison Square Garden was sold out for a boxing match for the first time in over a decade, the big gate reflecting Clay’s rising status as a major attraction. But the dearth of empty seats also reflected a concerted effort on Clay’s part to promote the fight, as he went to every radio station and press conference he could, telling all who would listen that Jones was “a bum” and that he would stop him in four rounds. But these exertions took their toll on the young contender. On fight night he 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, sending the younger man stumbling backwards and making clear to everyone that he was no one’s “stepping stone.” If Cassius wanted the win and his title shot with Sonny Liston, he would have to earn it.
Thus, as the bout progressed, the sold-out crowd became increasingly agitated, partly because the fight was a fast-paced and entertaining duel, but also because the fans sensed the possibility of an upset. Every time Jones landed a solid blow, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered him on, while they booed Clay when the bell ending round four rang; the man who would soon be known as Muhammad Ali had failed to fulfill his fearless 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 when the bell rang for round eight, the future champion of the world got down to business. He needed to sweep the last three stanzas to leave no doubts and secure a points win and that’s exactly what he did, out-working Jones, stinging him with quick jabs, and finishing the match strongly.
Make no mistake, it was a competitive fight and a draw was not out of the question. But the two judges both saw it for Clay by a 5-4-1 margin, while the referee, clearly partial to the future Muhammad Ali’s flashy style, gave him eight rounds. But the crowd did not agree and when the verdict was announced they booed and threw cups, garbage, and peanuts into the ring. A defiant Clay saluted the angry mob and even walked to the center of the ring, picked up a couple of peanuts and proceeded to 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, he proved he was more 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. However, at the time, the expectations for the undefeated Olympian were so high 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 fight 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 the bout, Clay gave Jones his props: “He’s a much better fighter than Liston,” he declared. At the time, the comment sounded insincere, but it was, to the surprise of everyone, completely accurate. — Neil Crane