Last updated: February 18. 2013 8:15PM - 100 Views

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MIAMI BEACH was the focus of everyone's attention. Once the ball dropped in Times Square, ringing in the new year and signaling the merciful end to one we'd sooner forget, our conversations at school, and in The Times Leader sports pages at home, were packed with anticipation of the upcoming bout at Convention Hall in sunny Florida.

Here in the Wyoming Valley it was bitter cold. As we walked to school that Tuesday morning, temperatures hovered in the low single digits. A typical February in Northeastern Pennsylvania it was not, nor anywhere in America.

"Our rock band" had arrived in New York on Feb. 7 at the former Idlewild Airport, renamed "JFK" on Christmas Eve. The band performed live, before our very eyes, on "The Ed Sullivan Show" two days later. The Beatles would headline for Sullivan the next two Sundays as well.

A set of three songs, two by John Lennon, pre-recorded during their first Sullivan appearance on Feb. 9, was aired on Feb. 23, two days before the much-heralded heavyweight title fight in Miami Beach.

Charles "Sonny" Liston would defend his title against "our" brash, young, 1960 Olympic gold-medal winner Cassius Clay, from Louisville, Ky.

A week earlier, the Beatles' second Sullivan appearance was live, but from Miami Beach. There they visited and frolicked famously with the young heavyweight challenger training for his imminent confrontation with the most feared fighter in the world.

It was scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1964, 95 days after the assassination of "our" president.

If you're 60 now, you were 12 then. Sonny Liston, 31, was the "unbeatable foe." A few sports writers would not cover the fight they believed too lopsided. Some feared Clay, 22, and an 8-to-1 underdog, would be seriously injured by the punishing champion whom many boxers refused to fight.

Boxing was big. I remember gathering around a living-room radio trying to bring in a signal from the ABC broadcast. Much of the nation did the same.

"Cassius is sticking his nose right into Liston's face and standing on his tiptoes to make that inch and a half look like three. It's psychological warfare. They've had the referee's instructions; now let's turn it over to Les Keiter."

"Thank you, Howard Cosell, and good evening sports fans across the land. Now the questions will be answered. Liston in the white trunks with a black stripe, Clay an inch and a half taller, in white trunks with a red stripe. Clay to our left, Liston to our right, the heavyweight championship of the world. If this goes past the first round there will be surprises already."

No one gave the young upstart a chance, and many hoped he'd "get his." He was not Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano or Floyd Patterson. But the young Olympian was "ours," and he and a generation would come of age together.

Liston did not answer the bell for round 7, and the rest is the remarkable life of Muhammad Ali, who became "a worldwide symbol of hope and possibility."

Consistent with the message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birth and national holiday we celebrate on Monday, Ali devoted himself to humanitarian service, inspiring millions of people around the globe.

He and Dr. King marched together for improved housing in Ali's hometown of Louisville only months before we learned of Dr. King's assassination — April 4, 1968. He was 39.

That evening U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, 42, made the announcement of King's death to a large crowd gathered in Indianapolis.

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 …

Muhammad Ali will be 70 on Tuesday.

Happy birthday. You're still the greatest.

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