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#RememberWhensdays: Ali-Liston II

Remember when Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston, then told him to ‘get up, sucker’?

When Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring for his second fight against Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965, the fans who half-filled St. Dominic’s Arena had no idea they would witness a complete makeover of the boxing game, and the total transformation of a man.

Ali was just over a year removed from shocking the world with his stunning 1964 knockout victory over Liston, a ferocious power puncher who was the Mike Tyson of his era and considered by many experts to be one of the best boxers of all time. In the immediate aftermath of that first fight, Ali, known at the time as Cassius Clay, revealed his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

Mainstream American sentiment largely held the Nation of Islam as purveyors of hate, which did attendance for the second fight no favors. Rumors of violence cast a dark cloud over the second bout as Malcolm X was murdered just before the fight (he had split from the Nation of Islam shortly after the first Ali-Liston fight). Fears of unrest resulted in just 2,400 fans attending the fight in an arena with nearly 5,000 seats.

Ali was the underdog for the second fight, despite his resounding win in Miami. Many experts assumed Liston, who barely trained for the first fight, would be more focused in the rematch and easily defeat the champ.

They were wrong. Midway through the first round, Liston threw a jab, and Ali followed with an overhand right. Liston hit the canvas, to everyone’s surprise, including Ali, who stood over him and screamed, “Get up and fight, sucker.”

The image, captured by Neil Leifer, is one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century.

It proved to be one of the most shocking and controversial endings in boxing history. As quickly as Liston was counted out, the accusations of a fix would surface.

But that fight was a launching pad for Ali, who went from charismatic champion to one of the most hated figures in America for his views on race relations and the Vietnam War only then to become, perhaps, the most beloved athlete in American sports history.

Few could have predicted the ensuing 51 years ago today or the reverence with which he is now held, when he was a young, controversial heavyweight champion trying to make his mark on the sport.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.