The FBI spent more than a year unsuccessfully searching for evidence of fixing in the 1965 championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, according to newly released documents.
Throughout the late 1960s, the FBI monitored Ali and his ties to the Nation of Islam. A set of records released last month showed the bureau chronicling Ali’s life in detail during this period, making note of everything from gossip magazine items about him to the contents of his divorce proceedings. (Those papers were heavily redacted and revealed little, if anything, that was not already known about Ali.) But a second set of documents, released this week, have something new—more than 50 pages describing the FBI’s repeated, fruitless attempts to determine whether Ali’s 1965 defeat of Liston was fixed.
Rumors of fixing spread soon after the fight, with skeptics labelling Ali’s quick knockout blow a “phantom punch” rather than a real hit. There was never any hard evidence, other than the perception of the one punch, though to this day plenty of knowledgable observers take it as a given that Liston took dives in both his bouts with Ali. Either way, FBI felt it necessary to dedicate resources to the question anyway, sending this internal memo two days after Ali’s victory:
As you know, the Liston-Clay fight has received wide publicity by all forms of news media. Included in the publicity have been what appear to be unsubstantiated allegations by sports writers and persons long associated with the fight game that this fight was “fixed.”
Since we have received no information or allegations indicating improprieties in connection with this fight, no open investigation is being conducted. It is felt, however, that appropriate confidential informants and sources located in logical offices should be discreetly contacted for information on this matter.
(Though he had been going by the name Muhammad Ali for more than a year at this point, the FBI refers to him only as “Cassius Clay” in these records.)
From there, the documents show the FBI exerting effort on the fixing investigation for more than a year, despite finding little information to indicate that such an investigation was necessary. Even after regional bureaus across the country told J. Edgar Hoover’s office that they had found nothing and would be closing their cases, the director’s office insisted they keep going.
A week after that first memo, a New York special agent in charge sent a message to J. Edgar Hoover’s office, detailing a conversation with a source who reportedly had access to people “in the boxing game.” This message documents what appears to be nothing more than idle speculation and gossip about the fight. (Emphasis mine.)
On [the day after the fight], informant advised that the rumor among people in the fight game was that Liston “took a dive.” Informant had no specific positive information to support this statement.... On [the day of the fight], REDACTED, whose identity should be kept confidential, REDACTED Madison Square Garden, advised Liston could knock out Clay if everything was legitimate in the fight. REDACTED stated that he was concerned about the Black Muslims getting to Liston and having him throw the fight for fear of death. REDACTED was thoroughly questioned concerning this statement and explained that he had no specific information to substantiate this opinion, but he felt that the Black Muslims were a bad group and would go to any extreme to protect their champion.
A month later, a Chicago special agent in charge sent the director’s office a summary of his interviews with “experts in the field of boxing.” The conclusion was that Ali had really won, and that this could be explained by the fact that Liston just didn’t want it enough: “All described Liston as a ‘dog’ in the boxing field. This term is applied to a fighter who though he possesses the appearance of a fierce competitor lacks the necessary qualities of courage and the will to win.”
Though several FBI offices wrote to the director’s office in the following weeks to say that they had found nothing and would close their cases, the director’s office later demanded more investigation after an agent heard a fresh fixing rumor from “a close friend of Sonny Liston who has part interest in a casino.” Those rumors surfaced in December of 1965, seven months after the fight, and the director’s office noted that “the information received ... is vague and non-specific.” But the FBI felt it was enough to insist that the case stay open.
Much of the investigation gets looser and even somewhat far-fetched from there. The El Paso office was sent to contact wealthy “oilmen” about their strategy for betting on fights, reporting instead that those sources “have come to consider boxing in merely the same light as wrestling.” The Philadelphia office offered a report on Liston’s “over-training” and whether that played a role in his performance. The Denver office talked to people who knew Liston and concluded that “he is not smart enough to be involved in any fix.”
The fixing investigation appears to end 13 months after the fight, with a report of a conversation between an agent and a man who owned a card shop near Liston’s home in Denver. The shop owner claimed that “there was no doubt in his mind that Liston was at one time controlled by Philadelphia hoodlums,” though he seemingly had no evidence to back this up. There is no further mention of the investigation in the documents that have been released.
The following hundred-plus pages of records show the FBI simply monitoring Ali for his religion, rather than actively investigating the legitimacy of his work.