But what if that storied fight was not what it seemed?
It happened Feb. 25, 1964, at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The film clip and sound bite have now become part of the American story — Liston quitting his stool before the eighth round, a young Cassius Clay, as Ali was known then, bouncing around the ring, waving his hands, yelling to the reporters at ringside who thought he would be killed by the more veteran boxer. “I’m king of the world! I’m king of the world!” Ali proclaimed.
Sports Illustrated named it the fourth-greatest sports moment of the 20th century. The fight also is the foundation of the Muhammad Ali story: the three-year heavyweight championship reign of dominance, followed by his three-year exile as he fought the Vietnam War draft. The Ali-Joe Frazier fights, the upset over George Foreman in Zaire, the reconstruction of Ali from a pariah to a national treasure. All of it begins with a brash Clay “shocking the world.”
Maybe it wasn’t such a shock, as 4-decade-old documents released to The Washington Times under the Freedom of Information Act show the FBI suspected the fight may have been fixed by a Las Vegas figure tied to organized crime and to Liston. The documents show no evidence that Ali was in on the scheme or even knew about it. And nothing suggests the bureau ever fully corroborated the suspicions it investigated.
The FBI documents released to The Times are the most detailed information to date about suspicions of a fix in the first Clay-Liston fight, though they are likely to only continue the debate and not resolve it.
Ali did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Times.
The memos, so sensitive that they were addressed directly to Director J. Edgar Hoover, show the FBI suspected Ash Resnick, a Las Vegas gambler with organized crime connections, of fixing multiple boxing matches, including the first Clay-Liston fight.
The most tantalizing evidence is contained in an FBI memo dated May 24, 1966, that details an interview with a Houston gambler named Barnett Magids, who described to agents his discussions with Resnick before the first Clay-Liston fight.
“On one occasion, Resnick introduced Magids to Sonny Liston at the Thunderbird, [one of the Las Vegas hotels organized crime controlled],” the memo states. “About a week before the Liston and Clay fight in Miami, Resnick called and invited Magids and his wife for two weeks in Florida on Resnick. Magids‘ wife was not interested in going, but Magids decided to go along, and Resnick was going to send him a ticket.
“Two or three days before the fight, Magids called Resnick at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami to say he could not come,” the memo states. “On this call, he asked Resnick who he liked in the fight, and Resnick said that Liston would knock Clay out in the second round. Resnick suggested he wait until just before the fight to place any bets because the odds may come down.
“At about noon on the day of the fight, [Magids] reached Resnick again by phone, and at this time, Resnick said for him to not make any bets, but just go watch the fight on pay TV and he would know why and that he could not talk further at that time.
“Magids did go see the fight on TV and immediately realized that Resnick knew that Liston was going to lose,” the document states. “A week later, there was an article in Sports Illustrated writing up Resnick as a big loser because of his backing of Liston. Later people ‘in the know’ in Las Vegas told Magids that Resnick and Liston both reportedly made over $1 million betting against Liston on the fight and that the magazine article was a cover for this.”
“[Ash Resnick] is the fix point of two heavyweight title fights — both Liston. [H]e had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped,” one such report states.