Half a century ago this week, Muhammad Ali – then Cassius Clay – produced one of boxing’s most significant and shocking victories when he dethroned world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
The fight remains, understandably, one of the sport’s cornerstone moments as ‘The Greatest’ collected his very first world title. We looked back at it in a feature which you can read here.
However, 50 years on, the bout’s legend has taken a peculiar twist.
The February 25, 1964 contest in Miami, which Sports Illustrated named the fourth-best sports moment of the 20th century, was actually under investigation by the FBI, who suspected the result was fixed.
Four-decade-old documents released to the Washington Times under the Freedom of Information Act show that the FBI had reason to believe a Las Vegas figure linked to both Liston and to organised crime may have had a hand in the defeated champ’s retirement before round eight.
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 intriguing evidence comes from a memo dated May 24 1966, which 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.
“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 continues.
“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,” one report says.
“He had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped.”
Clay could change his name to Ali shortly after his maiden title victory and after winning the rematch in 1965, went on to become one of sport’s biggest-ever names.
Liston, who never held the world title again after losing to Ali, died in 1970.
Both Magids and Resnick are also dead.