There has long been chatter that Clay/Liston II, in which Sonny Liston went down to a phantom punch, wasn't on the up-and-up. But documents obtained by the Washington Times show the FBI suspected that their first fight, in 1964, may have been fixed by the mob.
That first fight, held 50 years ago yesterday in Miami Beach, made Cassius Clay (who has not yet publicly announced joining the Black Muslims or his name change to Muhammad Ali) a star. Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay gave a now-famous postfight speech.
The FBI investigation focused on Ash Resnick, a longtime Las Vegas fixture who had ties to some of the biggest names in organized crime, including Meyer Lansky and members of the Genovese family. Though Resnick was only ever convicted of income tax evasion, he was long dogged by allegations, and was once shot while leaving a casino. On another occasion, eight sticks of dynamite were discovered under his car.
FBI agents interviewed gambler Barnett Magids two years after the fight, and he told them Resnick had inside information that Liston was going to lose.
"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."
Liston quit the fight citing a bad shoulder, and a Florida state attorney investigation found that he had entered the fight with the injury. But David Remnick spoke to one of Liston's cornermen for his book, King of the World, and was told the shoulder "was all BS...cooked up on the spot" so as not to jeopardize Liston's rematch with Clay.
That return bout was even more controversial, ending on a maybe-glancing blow in the first round that confused even Clay (by then, Ali) and led to one of the greatest sports photographs of all time.
The FBI continued its surveillance of Ash Resnick, with one report later stating that Resnick "is the fix point of two heavyweight title fights — both Liston. He had always been and will continue to be a corruption source for professional sports until he is stopped."
Resnick was also involved in basketball, playing a part in the point-shaving scandals that rocked New York college hoops in the 1950s. A 1972 FBI noted his NBA ties:
"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."
There is no evidence that Ali was ever aware of any rigged fights (or that any were thrown in the first place) and any potential taint of the Clay/Liston duology faded after Ali's dominant run and Liston's death under mysterious circumstances in 1971.
FBI suspected iconic 1964 Ali-Liston fight was rigged by mob [Washington Times]