|The Beatles met Ali before the Liston fight (Time photo)|
Boxing's color barrier had been broken before World War II by Joe Louis, who overcame poverty, racism, and the lack of education to become one of the greatest and most admired heavyweights in history. In 1937
the Brown Bomber, as he came to be known, knocked out the defending champ [Jim Braddock] in the eighth round setting the stage for a 12-year-run as the heavyweight king all the while becoming a sports icon for blacks and white across America.After Joe Louis came seven champions--four African Americans--until 1964 when Cassius Clay wrested the heavyweight championship from the heavily favored Sonny Liston. A few days later he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Part of it could be chalked up to the sheer fact that fans loved a winner. Of Louis' 25 title defenses, only three went the full 15 rounds. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. Louis, who enlisted with the army in 1942, threw his support behind the country's war effort, and went so far as to twice donate his purse money to military relief funds.
He was 22 years old, one of the youngest heavyweight champions of all time, as well as one of the best, the most charismatic and the most controversial. With that triumph over Liston, Clay’s trajectory was set: a hero and a villain, then a principled warrior and, finally, a beatified legend, at once misinterpreted and beloved.Muhammad Ali won the title when the heavyweight champion was one of the most famous people in the world. Unlike his predecessors--or for that matter all other celebrities--he bragged "I am the greatest" and publicly demeaned his rivals.
He was ahead of his time, or maybe he was responsible for the times we live in now.