Alan HubbardTwo of the biggest regrets of my journalistic career are that I never saw Muhammad Ali - then an 18-year-old upstart named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr - win his Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960 and four years later become the then youngest heavyweight champion of the world in Florida's Miami Beach.

I was a cub reporter learning the ropes on local newspapers back in the early sixties but I have been fortunate enough to cover the majority of Ali's subsequent fights, embracing the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila and so many memorable, magical moments in so many places - Kuala Lumpur, Atlanta, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Dublin, Frankfurt and London.

Many highs...and one or two lows. I admit shedding a tear at the ringside in the 18,000 capacity Caesars Palace car park in Las Vegas on October 2 1980 watching an icon disintegrate before our eyes. Ali, a 38-year-old robotic shell of the sublime athlete of his heyday, suffered a savage beating that even his opponent, Larry Holmes, was reluctant to administer, repeatedly beckoning to a dispassionate referee to end his erstwhile idol's agonising humiliation.

It was Ali's career-long cornerman, the late Angelo Dundee who finally did so. "I am the chief second and I stop the fight," he shouted to the referee as a dull-eyed Ali slumped on his stool at the end of the tenth round. It was too late to save Ali's career, but it probably saved his life.

Angelo Dundee (left) probably saved Muhammad Ali's life when he stepped in to stop his fight with Larry Holmes ©Getty ImagesAngelo Dundee (left) probably saved Muhammad Ali's life when he stepped in to stop his fight with Larry Holmes ©Getty Images

But the occasion etched most indelibly in the consciousness came courtesy of television exactly 50 years ago next week (Tuesday February 25) when, aged 22, Ali beat the Mafia-run Sonny Liston, an ageing but seemingly invincible ogre and indeed "shook up the world".

He did so twice, first by forcing Liston to retire at the end of the sixth round and then announcing that Cassius Clay ("my slave name") was no more and that he accepted the teachings of Islam and Malcolm X's influence. "Until then", his late trainer Angelo Dundee said, "I always thought Muslim was a piece of cloth."

I confess when he first fought Liston I did not give him a prayer. Liston was the most terrifying individual I have ever encountered in boxing. Compared to him, Mike Tyson was a pussycat.

There was nothing sunny about Sonny. A sullen, brooding hulk who had served time for armed robbery and who had clubbed most opponents senseless, including another great Olympic champion, Floyd Patterson. I thought Liston would annihilate Cassius and I was not alone.

Liston was a fighter run by racketeers, his manager having close association with two of the mob's most infamous hit men, Frankie Carbo and "Blinky" Palermo who, at the time, had their claws into boxing and had been known to profit from betting coups on fights. He had learned to box while in jail and it was widely reported that he broke bones for the underworld figures who held the majority stake in his professional contract.

Sonny Liston learned to box while in jail ©Getty ImagesSonny Liston learned to box while in jail ©Getty Images

Clay, the loudmouthed braggart was not to America's liking either. It was a fight with no hero but two villains.

The fight publicist, the late Harold Conrad, was to say: "Liston scared Patterson just by looking at him and here comes this big-mouth kid. Liston didn't train at all for that fight. He worked out a little and went to the gym. He would hang out at a beauty parlour, banging on some of the chicks. I'd tell him, 'This kid is big and strong, he's fast and he can hit.'  Sonny would just answer, 'Ah you're kidding.  I'll scare the shit out of that nigger faggot...I'll put the eye on him.'"

But as it happened, it was Clay who put the eye on Liston. Learning that Sonny, said to be 32, but probably nearer 40, had a phobia about madness, he put on an act at the weigh-in, foaming at the mouth and screaming like a dervish.

It seemed to scare Liston witless and by the end of the sixth round of a baffling fight he became the first heavyweight champion since Jess Willard in 1919 to quit on his stool, battered, humiliated and saying he had a shoulder injury.

The crowd screamed "fix" but I have never subscribed to that theory. Fighters who take a dive don't endure the sort of beating that Liston did that night.

Ali, as he was to become after the fight, was already the master of the mind game and he simply psyched Liston out of it, and did so again in the even more bizarre return at Lewiston, Maine, when Liston fell in the first, caught off balance by the so-called "phantom punch".

Again they said it was bent. But I believe Liston, a tired old man knowing he would be cut to pieces by the arrogant youngster hovering over him and famously yelling, "Get up you bum, get up you bum and fight!" simply bottled it, fearing he was again going to be humiliated and probably sliced to pieces. Like all bullies, he was a coward at heart.

Muhammad Ali held the psychological edge over Sonny Liston ©Getty ImagesMuhammad Ali held the psychological edge over Sonny Liston ©Getty Images

Six years later Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home, supposedly from an overdose of heroin. However, the suspicion remains that he was bumped off, curiously one of several of Ali's opponents to die either violently or mysteriously.

It was another old foe, Joe Frazier, who once declared when Ali showed no signs of retiring: "The trouble with him is that he doesn't know how to die."

The irony of that remark is that the septugenarian Ali, ailing as he is, has managed to outlive most of the 53 opponents he faced in his 61 fights, not least Smokin' Joe himself.

Moreover a fistful of foes met brutal endings, like Liston. It was said Sonny died from a drugs overdose but here was a man so scared of needles that when he was training for the second Ali fight and suffering from flu he tried to throw the doctor attempting to inoculate him out of the window.

Many in boxing believe Liston fell victim to loan sharks who had hired him to be one of their debt collectors. "But Sonny wasn't satisfied," publicist Conrad, who was close to Liston, once told us. "He wanted a bigger piece of the action.

"But they weren't going to let anybody cut into their turf. So one night they got him stinking drunk, took him home, jabbed him with an OD and that was the end of Sonny."

Another Ali opponent to die violently was the Argentinean Oscar Bonavena, shot dead outside a Buenos Aires brothel.

Muhammad Ali has outlived many of those he fought in the ring ©Getty ImagesMuhammad Ali has outlived many of those he fought in the ring ©Getty Images

Trevor Berbick, the last man to fight, and beat, Ali in 1981, was clubbed to death at a church in Jamaica by his nephew, Harold, suffering multiple blows to the head from a steel pipe.

Sonny Banks, the first man to knock down Ali, died three days after suffering head injuries in a bout with Leotis Martin in Philadelphia. Zora Folley died at the age of 41 in Tucson after striking his head on the edge of a swimming pool.

Others Ali has outlasted include Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Cleveland Williams, Archie Moore, Buster Mathis, Jimmy Young and of course, his great pugilistic pal, Henry Cooper.

Of the lesser-known earlier opponents I calculate that at least a dozen have passed on and as many more are untraceable, presumed dead. Among those who have died in recent years is his first-ever pro opponent, the former police chief Tunney Hunsaker.

However Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, the Pole defeated by Ali in the Olympic light-heavyweight finals, is still around at 79.

Ali had reigned in an age when boxing crowns were not tawdry bits of bling. He turned it into an art form, making a ballet out of brutality.

Even though the dancing years have ebbed away and the inimitable shuffle is no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble, he remains the most recognised human being on earth, and among the best-loved.

An interesting postscript is that the gloves that "shook up the world" 50 years ago and so abused Liston's lacerated features are now up for auction and expected to fetch at least at half a million dollars.

The gloves that "shook up the world" 50 years ago are now up for auction ©Heritage AuctionsThe gloves that "shook up the world" 50 years ago are now up for auction ©Heritage Auctions

The seller is not revealed but they are from the original personal collection of Angelo Dundee. They will be sold off this weekend in New York as part of Heritage Auctions' Sports Platinum Night. "They are the very gloves Ali wore that night," Chris Ivy, director of Sports Collectibles at the auctioneers assures us.

Golden gloves indeed. Happy anniversary, Muhammad.

You are still the People's Champion.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning  sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and  world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.