In 1964, Sonny Liston, a former prisoner, reigned in the Heavyweight division. He had dethroned Floyd Patterson two years before in only two minutes and six seconds. Liston, who at that time had only lost once as a professional, seemed invincible.
Clay tried hard to attract attention of as many people as possible, and when the fight contract for Liston vs. Clay was finally signed, he behaved as if he could not wait to fight Liston.
On February 25, 1964, the night of the fight, Liston entered the ring a seven-to-one favorite. But all "experts" who predicted an easy title defense for the champion were taught better. Clay didnít give his opponent the oportunity to land one of his feared blows. He danced around the flat-footed champion the whole time, landing lightning fast jabs and combinations again and again. At the beginning of the seventh round, Liston refused to resume the fight.
The victor ran around the ring, yelling at the incredulous journalists: "Who is the greatest? Eat your words! I shook up the world!"
But the happiness didnít last long. There had been rumors before the bout that Cassius Clay had joined the Nation Of Islam, a popular black organization whose leader Elijah Muhammad preached that integration be the wrong way for blacks. The blacks should claim their own territory in the US instead. Clay had been seen a lot in public with Malcolm X and other leading personalities of the Black Muslims as the members of the Nation were commonly called.
After the Liston bout, speculation became fact. It was revealed that Clay had joined Muslim meetings through the back door for three years. Clay's joining the Nation Of Islam and changing his name to Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali didnít please Americaís white establisment. 'Clay' had been the name given to the family by their slave owner generations before.
The putting down of their slave names was a common feature among Black Muslims at that time. However, most of the journalists kept calling the champ by his old name.
All these things made a "good lad Cassius Clay" in the eyes of many Americans change into a "bad sect member Muhammad Ali". There were also changes concerning Ali's private. In August of 1964 he married Sonji Roi who he had been knowing for merely a month.
On May 25, 1965 the rematch between Ali and Liston took place. Ali won by a so-called "phantom punch", knocking Liston out in the first round and defending his title for the first time.
Twenty-nine days after this bout and less than a year after he married Sonji, Ali filed for divorce that was executed on January 10, 1966. Ali complained - amongst other things - about her refusing to follow rules that were proper for Muslim women, like wearing long skirts or not using make-up.
Aliís next opponent was Floyd Patterson who opined that "the Black Muslims' scourge [had to be] removed from boxing" (Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His life and times, p. 139) and was without a chance in a twelve round slaughter.
In 1966, Ali successfully faced five opponents: George Chuvalo in Canada, Henry Cooper and Brian London in England, Germanyís champion Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt, Germany, and Cleveland Williams in Houston.
Meanwhile, a far more important fight for Ali had started - outside the ring. It would strip Ali of everything he had worked so hard for all of his life. The first act had been staged in 1964 when Ali failed the mental aptitude test at a military induction center in Florida and was classified 1-Y (not qualified). In early 1966, the required level was lowered because the US needed more soldiers for the Vietnam War. All of a sudden, Ali was 1-A. When he was asked by journalists about his opinion of the Viet Cong, he just replied: "I ainít got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
This statement is probably the most famous that ever passed Aliís lips. The media called him a "draft dodger" and demanded him to serve for his country as Joe Louis had done during World War II. Ali, however, insisted on his appeal for conscientious objector status because his religion didnít allow him to fight in any war.
Then, in autumn 1966, another incident enraged many whites; Herbert Muhammad, Elijah Muhammadís son, became Aliís new manager because the contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group had expired.
Despite his trouble with the army, Ali fought "the octopus" Ernie Terrell on February 6, 1967. Terrell had been undefeated for five years and held the WBA's version of the title that had been taken from Ali. Before the fight, Terrell had refused to call the champ by his new name. As a result, Ali kept yelling "Whatís my name, Uncle Tom!" during the whole fight while delivering a huge amount of blows to Terrell. Many spectators later blamed Ali for "carrying" Terrell to punish him worse. "Carrying" means to intentionally not knock out a weaker opponent.
One and a half month later, Ali defeated Zora Folley in New York. It was to be his last fight for long. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused the obligatory step into the US armed forces and thus was sentenced with five years' imprisonment and a 10,000 fine. Plus, he was stripped of his title, his boxing license and his passport. Ali couldn't leave the USA and didn't know whether he would ever be allowed to fight again.