Fifty years ago today, Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” and beat one of the most fearsome fighters ever to put on a pair of boxing gloves, heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
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.
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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.
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“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.”
It’s not definitive proof that Liston took a dive, but it was enough for the FBI to continue to assert the suspicions internally that Resnick had fixed the fight.
“[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.
A 1968 report from the FBI Philadelphia office said Resnick “was investigated in the alleged fixing of the first Clay-Liston fight in Miami. He allegedly is a friend of Meyer Lansky and Vincent Alo [“Jimmy Blue Eyes”] and Charles Tourine.”
Lansky was one of the most powerful mobsters of the 20th century, credited, along with his friend and partner Charles “Lucky” Luciano, with building a nationwide crime syndicate. Alo was a member of the Genovese crime family and an associate of Lansky’s. Tourine, also known as “Charlie the Blade,” was a member of the Boiardo New Jersey gang affiliated with the Genovese family.
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A May 19, 1972, FBI report from the Los Angeles field office to Hoover stated that Resnick had “major mob ties” with New Jersey and Brooklyn figures and indicated his reach went beyond the ring. Resnick, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who had been a basketball player at New York University, was involved in the fixing scandal there in the early 1950s.
The 1972 report says Resnick also was involved in Caesars Palace and, according to FBI documents, was close to NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. “Was deeply involved with Wilt Chamberlain during the 68-69 big year — when Chamberlain performed poorly — Wilt was Ash guest at [Caesars Palace] almost every open weekend when the Lakers were at home or Phoenix.”
Resnick died in 1989, at the age of 72, from heart failure in a Las Vegas hospital after a long bout with cancer, according to an obituary by The Associated Press. “His forte was bringing gamblers to Las Vegas casinos for high-stakes gambling, and he organized the first junkets that later became a fixture of the casinos,” the obituary stated.
In 1974, Resnick was convicted of income tax evasion while working for Caesars Palace, as the government alleged he skimmed more than $300,000 from Caesars and failed to pay taxes on it. The conviction was later overturned, the obituary stated.
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Magids died in 2007.
Liston fought at times after that, and at one point in 1968 mounted a comeback with seven straight wins, all by knockouts. But he was knocked out by Leotis Martin in the ninth round in December 1969. Liston’s last fight was a 10-round beating he delivered to Chuck Wepner in June 1970.
Liston was found dead by his wife in their Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971. Police determined he died from a heroin overdose, but the cause of death remains controversial. Liston’s friends maintained it was a homicide covered up by police.
Ironically, the whispers of a Clay-Liston fix have long ruminated in the sports world, but they focused on the rematch 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine. That was the fight in which Liston went down halfway through the first round from an Ali punch that sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said “couldn’t have crushed a grape.” It’s been called the “phantom punch,” and whether it actually knocked out Liston has been dissected and debated for decades.
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Questions about the rematch, though, have never seemed to diminish Ali’s legacy because, after all, he “shocked the world” by beating Liston in the first fight.
The fighters were controversial figures — Liston the frightening ex-con with mob ties, and Ali, still using the name Cassius Clay, the Olympic gold medal winner who reportedly joined the Black Muslims weeks before their first scheduled fight. It wouldn’t be until after the fight that Clay would announce he was a member of the Black Muslims, but those questions were part of the story leading up to the bout.
Clay entered the ring at the Miami Beach Convention Center a 7-1 underdog. Though there was no “phantom punch” in Miami Beach — it was a seven-round fight in which Ali was in trouble early, losing his vision at one point, and then came back to seemingly batter Liston — there has been speculation about the outcome.
Liston said he quit because of a shoulder injury. He said he hurt his shoulder in the first round. The Miami Beach Boxing Commission doctor reportedly diagnosed a torn tendon in Liston’s left shoulder. Florida State Attorney Richard Gerstein conducted a post-fight investigation, which concluded that Liston went into the fight with a bad shoulder. He determined there was no evidence that the fight was not “completely regular,” according to The Palm Beach Post.
David Remnick, who penned “King of the World — Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero,” wrote that he spoke years after the fight with one of Liston’s corner men, who told him Liston could have continued:
“[The shoulder] was all BS. We had a return bout clause with Clay, but if you say your guy just quit, who is gonna get a return bout? We cooked up that shoulder thing on the spot.”
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Miami Beach Boxing Commission Chairman Morris Klein said commissioners were satisfied that there was “no wrongdoing” and allowed Liston to collect his $370,000 purse. A U.S. Senate subcommittee conducted hearings three months later but found no evidence of a fixed fight.
After the second fight against Liston, Ali went on to dominate the heavyweight division from 1965 to 1967, with wins over former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who had lost the title to Liston, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley.
After his refusal to be drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title. His boxing license was suspended, and he was exiled from the sport for three years after his conviction for draft evasion.
Ali returned to the ring in 1970, stopping Jerry Quarry in three rounds. He would go on to fight three legendary bouts against Frazier, losing the first one — the “Fight of the Century” — on March 8, 1971, and winning the next two, including the epic “Thrilla in Manila” in October 1975. He won the heavyweight title in another moment that shocked the world, stopping the seemingly unbeatable Foreman in eight rounds in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in October 1974.
He would continue fighting until retiring after winning a rematch against Leon Spinks in September 1978. He tried a comeback in 1980 but retired after losing to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and losing a forgettable fight against Trevor Berbick.