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The birth of trash talking

This is an excerpt from Souled Out? by Shaun Powell.

Show Time

Ali Started It, NFL Exhibitionists Ruined It

Even now, it seems such an unlikely birthplace for trash talking. And in a sense, it was chosen by chance. A major heavyweight championship fight was scheduled to take place in Boston in November of 1964, but an injury to the champ delayed the event, and then the absence of a promoter’s license for Massachusetts forced a drastic change of venue. Thus, the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight was moved north to the unassuming town of Lewiston, Maine, which, true to its reputation, was mostly sleepy on the night of May 25, 1965, until Ali pierced the air and the ears by running his mouth.

At St. Dominic’s Arena, before an attendance of 2,434, which remains the smallest crowd to witness a heavyweight championship fight, a controversial straight right to the head dropped Liston to the canvas in the first round. What happened next was a moment that refuses to be erased by time. The champ did not retreat to a neutral corner and obey the rules of boxing, something that fighters have followed since the bare-knuckle brawl days. On this night, the so-called phantom punch that floored Liston wasn’t enough to bring satisfaction to Ali. It could not clinch victory or bring closure. No, on this night, Ali wanted to inflict more damage on Liston. He wanted to humiliate Liston. He stood over Liston’s body, glowering, gesturing, gloating. He motioned with his twirling right arm and clenched right glove and, further proof that nobody or nothing could keep Ali from talking back then, managed to be heard clearly despite wearing a mouthpiece.

"Git up and fight, sucka."

It was not the first or the last time Ali mocked an opponent, just the most famous. The scene was captured perfectly by the lens of Neil Leifer, a ringside photographer who worked for Sports Illustrated, and the still image is perhaps the most famous photo in sports history. The picture is one of the few taken that doesn’t need a caption to explain what you’re seeing. Amazingly, even those who weren’t born in 1965 are well aware of the man standing and the message he was trying to get across that night, even if his exact words have withstood several version changes over the years.

Even more interesting is how the immortalized moment has not only endured time but has been adored over time by millions around the world. From Pakistan to Punxsutawney and Kenya to Kalamazoo, the image of Ali verbally stomping on a beaten Liston brings a flush feeling of admiration and adulation from those who take just a quick, casual glance; no need to stare too long. People are drawn by the strength and the emotion and the sheer overall impact of the photo, and Ali has drawn raves for projecting "courage" and "power" and "conquest."

Nobody, at least to my knowledge, accused Ali of being "unsportsmanlike."

After taunting Liston, Ali still refused to return to his corner. He never did, actually. Next, he began dancing around the ring, arms held high. His legs moved swiftly, with a slight touch of rhythm and a total cockiness about them. Later in his career, Ali would refine the technique and make it an instrumental part of his in-fight strategy and overall ring showmanship. It became the "Ali Shuffle." Before Liston rose from the canvas, the fight was over and a phenomenon was born. Or, more accurately, it was popularized. Before long, trash talking and showboating were an accepted part of sports, much like uniforms and sweat.

This is an excerpt from Souled Out?

More Excerpts From Souled Out?