60 years since the Ali-Liston fight that changed everything. GETTY IMAGES

Today, 25 February, marks six decades since a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay defeated the favourite Sonny Liston, whom he had humiliated and beaten for the title of heavyweight champion. On that day, "The Greatest" became a social icon, paving the way for a career that would make him one of the greatest boxers of all time.

This was no ordinary fight. It wasn't just a boxing match. Young Cassius Clay upset the favourite Sonny Liston on 25 February 1964. Within hours, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He declared war on one of the most powerful countries in the world, as AFP recalls.

He humiliated his opponent, took the heavyweight title and changed history from that day on. Today marks 60 years since that event. Sports Illustrated named it one of the four most influential sporting events of the 20th century.

The American boxer, always arrogant and outspoken, was no longer just an image. He became a symbol of the fight against racism, especially in a powerful country whose society had always been racist towards blacks. His strategy was always to attract attention and be the centre of attention; he achieved this with his eccentric personality, combined with immense talent, making him one of the greatest boxers in history. 

Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in action on 25 February 1964. GETTY IMAGES
Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in action on 25 February 1964. GETTY IMAGES

Ali rose to stardom after other black boxers had succeeded: Floyd Patterson, always respected, and Sonny Liston himself, a boxer with a fearsome appearance and controlled by the dark side. They were world champions, like Ali himself. But they were not representative of what was to come.

Today marks 60 years since Ali defeated the 'Ugly Bear', as he nicknamed Liston. He won thanks to unparalleled talent and an eccentric, chaotic but intelligent strategy. His victory is still hard to comprehend, because he didn't stand a chance. Nobody bet on him. 

Then came his association with the Black Muslims, his relationship with Malcolm X and his connection with Africa. What he said, gestured and did. All to prove in the ring that he was the best. He had 61 fights. He won 56 of them, 39 by knockout, and lost only five. But his figure transcended all that. His influence extended beyond boxing.

However, the fight with Liston can be seen as the beginning of it all. The contract for the fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay was signed on 5 November 1963. The fight was to take place at the Convention Center in Miami Beach. The year before, Liston had beaten Patterson. He had become world champion. 

Liston was someone who didn't like to laugh. He didn't make many public appearances or joke around. On the other side was a 22-year-old arrogant young man. He danced in the ring and never stopped talking. Always joking and always saying eccentric things. 

On the day of the fight, Clay was nervous about weighing in. His heart was racing and some doctors even said he was unbalanced. The odds were a clear 7-1 in favour of Liston. Clay had converted to Islam before the fight, but didn't announce it until afterwards. The boxing world looked at the fight with its eyes wide open, but with a very clear point of view: Liston was the favourite.

Cassius Clay with the gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. GETTY IMAGES
Cassius Clay with the gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. GETTY IMAGES

The Convention Centre was packed. Miami Beach was the epicentre of world boxing. From the start, it was Ali (then Clay) who danced. He kept Liston at bay with his famous fast and continuous jabs. As the rounds went on, Ali continued to rack up points. In the third and fourth rounds everything changed. 

It was Clay who was winning the rounds, and he was even giving Liston trouble. The sixth round was decisive. Once again, the Lousville native began to dominate and began to control the fight. At the end of the round, "The Big Bear" told his trainer that he couldn't continue. He didn't come out for the seventh. 

A shoulder injury had stopped the champion and Clay took the belt and title. The rematch took place a year later. This time Liston only lasted one round against Ali, who was already a legend and had his whole career ahead of him.

Ali won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. As a professional, he won the undisputed heavyweight championship in 1964 at the age of 22. He became the only boxer to have won the linear championship three times (1964, 1974 and 1978) and the undisputed heavyweight championship (1964, 1967 and 1974).

He was also the first to win the World Boxing Association heavyweight title four times (1964, 1967, 1974 and 1978). Muhammad Ali is regarded as a social figure who transcended the world of sport. 

Since the 1960s, his decision not to be drafted into his country's armed forces for the Vietnam War has been a symbol. He declared himself a conscientious objector. He was also a member of the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad Ali was a social symbol and his figure transcended boxing and sport. GETTY IMAGES
Muhammad Ali was a social symbol and his figure transcended boxing and sport. GETTY IMAGES

That fight changed everything. Even the figure of the heavyweight champion, who until then had always been a serious person, introverted, more inclined to action in the ring than to speeches. He was better known for what he did outside the ring. Other champions before him included Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano. 

They will all be remembered for their no-holds-barred fights. But Ali added to his talent an inimitable ability to be different, to be loved and hated. For a heavyweight contender, it was this unusual and very special way of behaving that made him so popular. 

His speeches on racism and black/white equality attracted the curiosity of the likes of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Elijah Muhammad, and from there his persona took off. 

He retired in 1981. Although he had not yet been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, his physical decline was already evident.