Fifty years ago this week Cassius Clay “shocked the world” by defeating Sonny Liston to win the Heavyweight Championship. Clay was a 7-1 underdog. Sports Illustrated rated his victory the fourth-greatest sports moment of the 20th century.
However, Thom Loverro of the Washington Times reports that the FBI suspected the fight may have been fixed by a Las Vegas figure tied to organized crime and to Liston.
The FBI was not entirely without reason to suspect a fix. For one thing, Liston indisputably had mob connections, so any of his fights might have been fixed. More concrete evidence is contained in an FBI memo describing an interview in which a Houston gambler, Barnett Magids, described to agents his pre-fight discussions with Ash Resnick, a Las Vegas gambler with organized crime connections who knew Liston.
Resnick initially told Magids he liked Liston to win the fight, but that Magids should wait until just before the fight to bet. Shortly before the fight, Resnick allegedly told Magids not make any bets, but just to watch the fight on pay TV and he would know why. Magids says he was later told by people in the know in Las Vegas that Resnick and Liston both made more than $1 million betting against Liston on the fight
Magids’ statements were sufficient to convince the FBI that the fight might have been fixed. However, the FBI never concluded that it was fixed.
I doubt that Liston threw the fight. For one thing (as discussed below) we now know that Clay was the better fighter. He gained ascendancy over Liston in much the same way he did over other high quality, hard-punching opponents. Liston went after him early, but just couldn’t catch him.
In addition, the FBI never concluded that the fight was fixed. Moreover, according to some, Liston (or his corner) put a foreign substance on his gloves before one of the middle rounds. This caused Clay temporarily to lose his vision and nearly lose the fight. Indeed, between rounds Clay reportedly told trainer Angelo Dundee to “cut the gloves off.”
If Liston did use a foreign substance, this pretty much rules out a fix. He would not have cheated in order to gain a major advantage over Clay if he had intended to throw the fight.
Loverro points out that Liston’s excuse for eventually throwing in the towel — an alleged shoulder injury — may have been bogus; the evidence on this seems inconclusive. But in any event, Liston was clearly losing the fight by that point. If he quit uninjured, it was probably because he didn’t want to undergo further humiliation at the hands of his brash, obnoxious, challenger. Call it Liston’s “no mas” moment.
The FBI’s suspicions might have been driven in part by the improbability of Clay’s victory. Liston had an aura of invincibility that made many view his defeat as almost inconceivable.
Looking back, though, we can see that Clay’s victory was hardly improbable. Clay would go on to defeat George Foreman and Joe Frazier twice. Assuming these fights were clean, and I’ve never heard it seriously suggested otherwise, a younger Clay just entering his prime would be expected to defeat Liston.
The FBI may also have amped up its suspicions as Clay, by now known as Muhammad Ali, became a black militant and an anti-war hero who refused to be drafted. It’s quite possible that J. Edgar Hoover would have liked to bring Ali down, or at least lower his public standing, by showing that his greatest victory to date was unearned.
But the bottom line is that the FBI didn’t attempt to do this and that, in all likelihood, Clay’s triumph was the real thing.