Asporting legend was born on February 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston at the end of the sixth round and jumped on the ropes bellowing: “I shook up the world!”
Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali soon after becoming heavyweight champion of the world, went on to be arguably the most famous sportsman on the planet. However, the fight that launched him to greatness at 22 — and in which he began as a 7-1 underdog — may have been fixed by the mafia, newly released FBI documents indicate.
There is no suggestion that Clay, already an Olympic champion, had been in on a conspiracy, but the result was such a shock that suspicions about Liston’s conduct in the fight were voiced almost immediately. Clay was in trouble in the fifth round but recovered and went on to win when Liston did not get off his stool for the start of the seventh round. He quit the fight with a shoulder injury.
Now, 50 years on, FBI documents reveal that a Las Vegas figure tied to organised crime might have fixed the fight. A memo made public under Freedom of Information laws, and written to the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, named Ash Resnick, a Vegas gambler, as the organiser of many fixes, including the Liston-Clay fight.
The 1966 memo reveals that a Houston gambler called Barnett Magids believed that Resnick and Liston each made $ 1 million by betting on Clay to win.
Magids rang Resnick on the day of the fight and was told not to make any money bets but just to watch the fight on television.
“Magids did go see the fight on TV and immediately realised that Resnick knew that Liston was going to lose,” the document said. “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 more than $1 million betting against Liston and that the magazine article was a cover for this.”
Ali himself was hounded by the FBI after revealing his allegiance to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. After Ali refused the draft to fight in Vietnam the FBI used wiretaps and followed him on his politically charged campus tour when he spoke against the war.